Plagiarism is defined as taking in a part of or entirely someone's words, writing, research, ideas, artwork, music, or other creative effort, and passing it off as one's own, without giving due credit to the originator. This is just one definition for plagiarism, but the harsh fact is, it is copying, cheating, or more effectively, intellectual theft.
To understand what plagiarism is in terms of the written word and how it comes about, it is essential to look at what we mean by education and writing.
Education is not just about grasping or cramming in a variety of information, it is about knowing how to develop and use your own critical and analytical abilities to process this information. The learning has to come into your own.
Writing is not just about setting down words in a certain way to give information. This is just a part of the description of what writing is all about. Essentially, it is about learning to think with clarity and comprehension. If you can think clearly, this will reflect in your writing. Confused thinking leads to confused, garbled writing.
A failure to understand this as well as the inclination to take the easy way out is what gives rise to plagiarism.
On the other hand, if you take the time to ponder over a given issue on your own and take the trouble to write what you think about it in your own words, there is little chance of your being guilty of plagiarism.
The reason 'little' is used here is because the important matter of citing sources has not come into play yet. Whatever we know or understand is more often than not the result of what we've read, seen, heard, come across, or being told.
We are indebted to other people for the knowledge we gain, and if that knowledge is not in the public domain or is not commonly known, it is crucial to cite the source.
Tips to Avoid Plagiarism
Never use someone else's words, do not even substitute synonyms. Don't use their sentence structure either. Write everything on your own words as you understand it. The best way to do this is to go through the reading material, and then put it down when you start writing. Refer to it only after you are done to check if you have got all the facts right.
If you need to use what someone else has written or said in your writing, write their exact words and put them in quotation marks. If you are omitting certain sections, use '......' in between words to indicate the same. If you are incorporating words so that the sentence makes sense, put those words in square brackets '[like this]'.
You can either write 'According to Professor XYZ....' or 'Professor XYZ states that....' or you can provide links to websites you have referred to. You can list the sources after your article as well.
Manage Your Time
If you have to meet a deadline, start work early so that you have plenty of time to research and write. Lack of time is one reason many people (especially stressed-out students) intentionally or unintentionally plagiarize.
Remember that you shouldn't avoid plagiarism just because the rules tell you to or because there is a risk of getting found out and the inevitable disgrace and penalties. You must avoid it because that is the right thing to do, and you owe it to yourself to give your intellect a chance.
Maybe your writing will not be first-rate; it takes time and repeated effort. But understand that it will never become first rate if you keep swiping other people's works.