Plagiarism and Paraphrasing: What’s the Difference?

All good research is built on the work of those who studied in the field previously, and so it is natural to refer to and even paraphrase their work when writing a research paper. But researchers and students must always be cautious to make sure that their writing clearly distinguishes plagiarism and paraphrasing. The line between plagiarism and paraphrasing is not always clear, and can become blurry if writers are not careful. Due to the serious real-life consequences and ethical breach that plagiarism can cause, it is critical for academics, students, and researchers to know how to distinguish plagiarism and paraphrasing. Let’s look at what constitutes plagiarism and paraphrasing, and learn some tips on how to tell the difference.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is copying someone else’s original work and pretending it is your own. There are different types of plagiarism. Most of us are familiar with direct plagiarism, which means copying another person’s writing word-for-word. Incorrect paraphrasing, where instead of using their own words, a writer simply changes one or two words from the original text, is one of the most common types of plagiarism. Mosaic plagiarism, where writers transfer whole phrases and sentences directly from other sources and mix them together, is similar. Of course, both types of plagiarism can be the result of writers trying to steal the work of others. However, many writers commit paraphrasing or mosaic plagiarism unintentionally. This is because they have difficulty understanding the difference between plagiarism and paraphrasing.

What is Paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing means to rephrase something in your own words. “In your own words” means explaining an idea or concept using your own phrasing and vocabulary, not the phrasing and vocabulary of the original author. A good paraphrase should be both original and accurate, reflecting the ideas of the source without copying them directly. There are multiple strategies that writers can use to paraphrase, including:

• Change the sentence structure
• Use synonyms
• Change parts of speech
• Rewrite phrases and clauses and vice versa

If you are having trouble learning how to paraphrase, it can be helpful to think of paraphrasing as similar to summarizing someone else’s thoughts or ideas. You can imagine that you have been asked to explain an idea or thought, but you don’t have the source text with you. Rather than having the original idea or concept memorized and repeating it word for word, you would use your own words for the explanation. This is paraphrasing. In fact, you can practice by doing this exercise with a friend or colleague. While paraphrasing is more detailed than a short summary, paraphrasing is not taking someone else’s writing and substituting one or two synonyms. There are many examples of plagiarism vs paraphrasing available if you are still unsure whether your writing constitutes plagiarism and paraphrasing.

How Can I Tell the Difference between Plagiarism and Paraphrasing?

There are several ways to tell the difference between plagiarism and paraphrasing. When you are trying to paraphrase, you must always:

Refer to the source. This means that you should introduce your paraphrase by mentioning the author and/or the title, and then cite that source in your footnotes or bibliography. For example, you could begin your paraphrase with “According to Tyler Ryan, plagiarism is…”
Make sure you are really rephrasing and not just changing one or two words. Many people think that if they just substitute some synonyms and change one or two connecting words, they have successfully paraphrased someone’s writing. Advanced plagiarism detection tools can spot this easily. A good paraphrasing will also change the sentence structure, change parts of speech, and rewrite phrases as clauses. 
Use quotation marks when appropriate. If you are paraphrasing the writing of an author who is explaining their original idea with unique terminology, it’s fine to add in the exact terminology with quotation marks. 
Cite, cite, cite your sources. Using a reference manager can make it easier for you to always remember when and where to cite your source text.

Remember, if it is easy for someone to look at the original text and your paraphrase and see that they are nearly the same, then you have likely committed plagiarism vs paraphrasing. You can always ask a peer or colleague to read both your writing and the source text to see if you have sufficiently paraphrased. An online plagiarism checker will also indicate whether your writing is too similar to the original text or not.

Tips to Avoid Committing Plagiarism

The first and best way to make sure that you are paraphrasing properly instead of plagiarizing is to begin by citing your source. A proper paraphrase always introduces the original author and/or title of the text that it is being drawn from. However, just citing your source isn’t enough if you haven’t paraphrased sufficiently. Looking at examples of paraphrasing can help you learn more about the difference between paraphrasing and plagiarism. 

One great way to check that your paraphrasing hasn’t veered into plagiarism territory is to use a plagiarism checker on your writing. Online plagiarism checkers, like this one from Enago, can compare your paper against millions of others to see how similar they are. If you have attempted to paraphrase but your paraphrase is very close to the original, a plagiarism checker will detect and highlight the problem so that you can fix it. These days, publishing houses, academic journals, and college professors all use plagiarism checkers to make sure that students and authors are submitting original work. This is another reason it is crucial for you to use one too, so that you can preemptively solve any issues you might have with plagiarism and paraphrasing. Remember, the more you practice paraphrasing, the easier it will be to distinguish between plagiarism and paraphrasing. So practice your writing and make sure you run your papers through a plagiarism checker before submitting them for review!