Accidental Plagiarism: How It Happens and How to Avoid It

Writing is not an easy job, whether it’s done for school, work, or simply personal enrichment. When an author does research and creates an original work, the most devastating thing would be theft of that work. That’s exactly what plagiarism is – but what if it’s not done on purpose? Is there such a thing as accidental plagiarism?

Accidental Plagiarism

Plagiarism, or stealing another author’s ideas or words without crediting them, is one of the most salient issues in writing. Whether in academia or the workplace, the consequences of plagiarism can have dire repercussions. There are many common types of plagiarism, and all of them are punishable, even without malintent.

Plagiarism involves stealing someone else’s intellectual property. While it might not affect the person physically or monetarily, plagiarism is academic dishonesty and theft. Therefore, it’s essential to create original content that builds off the work of others without taking credit for it or copying and pasting someone else’s ideas.

However, there are billions of sources, articles, essays, and papers out there, not to mention a plethora of common knowledge. Sometimes it seems impossible that the same sequence of words has not been strung together by someone before. So what about accidental plagiarism? What differentiates it from intentional types of plagiarism, and do the same stringent punishments apply?

What is Accidental Plagiarism?

Accidental plagiarism is basically just what it sounds like — when a writer commits some form of plagiarism without meaning to in any way. Typically, this happens through silly, avoidable mistakes such as using quotes without quotation marks, improperly citing sources (AKA source-based plagiarism), or doesn’t adequately paraphrase another’s idea.

However, just because someone presented unoriginal work by accident doesn’t mean they’re in the clear. The writer must ensure that every source and every quote is cited correctly so that credit is given where it’s due, and this applies in both the classroom and the professional world.

In academic writing, most assignments call for including other people’s intellectual work and ideas. Generally, a college essay requires several outside sources to back up an argument and provide evidence. The same concept applies to copywriters in the professional world—but in this case, their jobs completely depend on their ability to avoid plagiarism of all kinds. There is nothing wrong with using someone else’s work as long as it’s done correctly.

How to Avoid Accidental Plagiarism

There are several strategies you can use to avoid plagiarism of any kind. Of course, the easiest way to prevent plagiarism is to write original content, but it’s not too often that a piece of content is based entirely on your own ideas.

Accidental plagiarism most commonly occurs when an author doesn’t have proper attribution, and their ideas are unintentionally passed off as someone else’s. However, there are simple ways of avoiding this and fixing it to prevent intellectual theft and the consequences that follow.

Develop a Writing Strategy

The most common form of accidental plagiarism comes from an improper writing strategy. Students accidentally copy someone else’s work because they haven’t put enough thought or effort into their argument. When writing original essays or research papers, ensure that you’re putting enough distance between yourself and your sources with a writing strategy.

The most effective writing strategies to avoid plagiarism have several steps: taking notes, creating an outline, writing a draft, editing that draft, and proofreading. Each of these steps adds a layer of originality to your writing style and reduces the chances of accidental plagiarism.

Taking notes is a vital part of writing an essay. If you are writing directly after looking at the source material, you increase your odds of accidentally plagiarising their words or ideas. When you take notes, mark the source on your notes. This will make it easier to find and cite the source later.

An outline will help form your ideas and give your paper form. Once you’ve written an outline, it’s much easier to draft and edit your own words – you have the bones of your paper already. Another benefit of the outline is that you’ll be able to see the structure of the essay and make sure your work will be original. Drafting, editing, and proofreading do the same.

Cite Your Sources

The most common method of accidental plagiarism is not citing sources, whether in a paper or at the end. Therefore, every time you write an academic paper, make sure that you correctly cite your sources. The method of this depends on the citation style of your essay.

A common mistake students make is citing sources after a quote but not after paraphrasing another author’s ideas. Whenever a source backs up a claim within an essay, it’s essential to cite that source (unless it’s widely considered common knowledge). It may seem excessive, but plagiarism is not just stealing direct quotes – it’s also stealing ideas without giving proper credit.

Even if you are not writing an academic paper, in-text citations are vital. You can use footnotes or links (depending on the professional style of a paper). However, if you don’t cite the ideas and quotes in your essay or article, you will be committing plagiarism.

Use a Plagiarism Checker

If you’ve worked hard and are sure it’s your own work but don’t want to plagiarize unintentionally, try an online plagiarism checker. Many universities employ these for online submissions. However, you can check your paper before submitting it on a website like Quetext.

Several websites, including Quetext, will compare your paper to thousands of online articles and sources. You will get a full report of all similarities, intentional or accidental. If you find unintentional plagiarism, Quetext also offers citations. Thus, you’ll be able to cite that source and give it proper credit.

Is Accidental Plagiarism Academic Misconduct?

Plagiarism is a big deal, especially in higher education. Many universities have a no-tolerance policy, meaning that a student caught plagiarizing can receive disciplinary action ranging from an automatic zero to expulsion from the college. However, does accidental plagiarism have the same severe consequences?

Academic misconduct can lead to failing a paper, a class, or even dropping out of college for the plagiarist. The particular policy on plagiarism, accidental or not, depends on the professor and the school. However, plagiarism is academic misconduct, whether it is intentional or not.

What are the Consequences of Accidental Plagiarism?

Even though it is accidental, this kind of plagiarism is still considered academic misconduct. The punishment varies depending on the school, the amount of plagiarism, and the individual teacher. However, it can be challenging to convince a professor that your work wasn’t deliberate plagiarism, especially if it’s most of the paper.

If you think you might have accidentally plagiarised, talk to your teacher first. A professor that knows your previous work ethic and honesty is more likely to listen to you than a higher-up authority you’ve never met. In addition, professors have a goal to help their students succeed, and most are willing to work with you to correct plagiarism.

Examples of Accidental Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a serious offense but often occurs accidentally. It’s easy to do it unintentionally. Here are some of the most common examples of accidental plagiarism found in papers, essays, and articles:

  • Not citing a source properly

  • Misattributing an idea from a source

  • Not citing an idea or paraphrase in the paper

  • Reusing a sentence structure and only changing a few words

  • Using a quote or thought with no citation

  • Patchwriting, or taking specific phrases from another author without realizing it

  • Accidentally using the exact phrase or sentence as another paper

  • Using the same arguments and form as a source

  • Not using quotation marks around quotes

  • Paraphrasing an idea without citations

Most of these are easily avoidable–with proper note-taking and citation skills, a student can avoid accidental plagiarism. In addition, an online plagiarism checker like Quetext can help ensure that no ideas or quotes get stolen.

Final Thoughts

Plagiarism is a serious offense, so it’s vital to avoid even the most incidental forms. Students, teachers, and writers alike need to know the importance of giving credit to an author’s intellectual property and how to avoid unintentional academic dishonesty.