5 Ways We Accidentally Plagiarize

While it is clear that intentionally taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own is plagiarism, there are numerous other ways you can commit this act of cheating without even realizing it. Below are some of the most common ways students accidentally plagiarize in their papers, and what you can do to avoid making these common mistakes.  

Still not sure if you have accidentally plagiarized in your paper? Try our BibMe Plus plagiarism checker! It can help identify passages that may need to be cited. Bonus: It’ll then help you create an MLA or APA citation for you right then and there!

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to know what it is and how it happens in the first place. So, let the learning begin!

  1. Using the same essay you wrote for one assignment and handing it in for another assignment.

Even though this may not seem like cheating, using a paper you wrote for one class and handing it in for an assignment in another is in fact plagiarism. The specific term for this action is “self-plagiarism,” and many students don’t understand that it can get them in trouble. Even though the work is your own, you must still cite it: for example, if you reference a previous essay you wrote in the essay you’re currently writing. Be sure to include both an in-text citation and an entry in your works cited page. Give yourself the credit you deserve!    

  1. Incorporating text from a source into your own paper, changing one or two words, and providing a citation.

Using too many exact words from the source you’re referencing is a form of plagiarism. To make sure you do not do this accidentally, try writing out the idea that is expressed in the source, not the exact sentence or sentences. Then, rewrite that idea in your own words, and include a citation for the source. Being a good paraphraser is key to avoiding plagiarism.

  1. Using data presented by the author in their work, and only citing the author’s comments on the data.

You have to cite all information that has come from an outside source. Therefore, if you include data in your paper that another author has presented in their own work, be sure to cite the work by that author and the source where they found that data. This information can often be found underneath the dataset in a caption, or where the author mentions the data within the source.

  1. Including information from a personal communication, like an email, without providing a citation.

Personal communications, such as texts and emails, must be cited just like any other source if you’re using information from them in your research paper.  Even though they may not be considered “formal” sources, such as scholarly journals or books, they still another person’s thoughts or ideas, and therefore deserve an accurate citation.

  1. Having disorganized notes and outlines that are difficult to follow.

The most effective way of avoiding accidental plagiarism is to have an organized note-taking system that includes all of the quotes and information you want to include in your paper, as well as the sources in which you found those pieces of information. That way, when you’re ready to make your bibliography and hand in your paper, you know exactly which sources you need to make citations for. Try starting these notes at the very beginning of your paper-writing process, so you can be sure you haven’t left any important sources out.


Before you start your next paper, sharpen those writing skills with our grammar guides on verbs, determiners, what is a conjunction, adjectives, and other parts of speech.