Much plagiarism is unintentional, and the most common form of unintentional plagiarism occurs when students try to paraphrase. Many students and GSIs are confused about what constitutes an acceptable or unacceptable paraphrase. For instance, if you explain an author’s ideas, omitting some details but retaining characteristic phrases and some of the original order of presentation, are you giving a paraphrase or a summary? If you juggle the order in which the ideas are presented, change the wording, and throw in a few of your own ideas here and there, are you using the original author’s ideas as a creative springboard or stealing them? When is an idea “common knowledge”?

Quoting, Paraphrasing, Summarizing

  • Quotations reproduce a passage word for word.
  • Paraphrases rephrase a passage in one’s own words but retain all, or almost all, of the original ideas, structure, etc.
  • Summaries also rephrase a passage in one’s own words, often in briefer form and retaining only the main ideas of the original.

Why Use Quotations, Paraphrases, and Summaries?

Quotations, paraphrases, and summaries can all provide useful support for claims that you are making, or can be used to give examples of other points of view, or can provide background information that is relevant to your own ideas. Quotations are appropriate where the exact language of the original source is of interest for the student writer’s argument. A paraphrase is more appropriate than a quotation in cases where the original author’s ideas are more important than the manner in which they are expressed, and where the authority of the author is not an issue. Paraphrases and summaries can also serve a useful pedagogical function: it is only possible to give an accurate paraphrase or summary of an author’s ideas if you have a clear understanding of those ideas and the language that the author is using to express them.

The Problem with Paraphrasing

Sometimes a student is not sure when a paraphrase must be credited to the original author and when the ideas constitute common knowledge that need not be credited. In addition, the line between our own ideas and ideas that we have absorbed from other people is often unclear to us. An essential part of the learning process is making intentional the integration of new ideas. We analyze ideas, reformulate them, and integrate them with ideas and beliefs that we already possess. In this way, we make them our own. We must become clear about when we have integrated and reordered an idea sufficiently to make it our own and when it must be credited to the original source.

Much unintentional plagiarism can be prevented by explaining the differences among quotations, paraphrases, and summaries, and giving students a set of guidelines and exercises to help them learn when they need or need not give credit to their source.

Sample Guidelines

Situations in which paraphrases must be credited to the original source include:

  • The paraphrase retains all or most of the original author’s ideas or uses an idea from the original author that is not common knowledge.
  • The paraphrase retains the sequence of the original author’s ideas or arrangement of the material or it modifies the sequence of the ideas but retains central ideas and key phrases from the original.
  • The purpose of discussing the author’s ideas is to use them as an example of a particular point of view.

An idea is common knowledge if:

  • The same idea can be found in the same form in several different sources (and all these sources aren’t getting the idea from one common, published source).
  • It is information that your readers most likely already possess (whether the information is accurate or a popular misconception).
  • It is factual information that is in the public domain; for example, widely known dates of historical events, facts that are cited in standard reference works, etc.

Of course, many students are still developing their sense of authorship or are still learning those things that others might consider common knowledge. Providing students with examples of common knowledge, correct citations, and the like will help them to get a firmer grasp on these issues.

A sample exercise follows; you might want to select items for your exercise that are salient for your academic field.

Paraphrasing Exercise

The following page provides an exercise for distinguishing what fair paraphrasing looks like.