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Referencing and plagiarism

Home > Study skills > Writing > Referencing and plagiarism

Most plagiarism is accidental; either the result of not understanding what actually amounts to plagiarism, or of being poorly organised, so that we use the ideas of others without realising that’s what we have done. So, the first thing we must do is to make clear exactly what amounts to plagiarism and then see what we can do about our organisation:

For more advice, see the free audio download on plagiarism.

What is plagiarism?

It is not simply a case of using ideas that are not your own. We all do this and most of the time there is no need to acknowledge it. But the key lies in asking yourself, ‘Has the author added anything distinctive to the ideas or are they common knowledge?’ Keep in your mind or attached to your computer screen the following simple principle:

Whenever the author has given something distinctive to the information or its organisation, cite the source.

Anything that is common knowledge you need not cite: in other words, anything that is not distinctive of a particular author.

The six-point code

To make it easier for you to decide exactly when you need to cite, use the following simple six-point code. This is another of those notes worth sticking to the side of your computer screen or pinning to the notice board above your desk. Wherever you keep it, make sure it’s just a glance away.

When to cite:

1. Distinctive ideas

Whenever the ideas or opinions are distinctive to one particular source.

2. Distinctive structure or organising strategy

Even though you may have put it into your own words, if the author has adopted a particular method of approaching a problem, or there is a distinctive intellectual structure to what’s written, for example to an argument or to the analysis of a concept, then you must cite the source.

3. Information or data from a particular source

If you’ve gathered information from a source in the form of facts, statistics, tables and diagrams, you will need to cite the source, so your readers will know who gathered the information and where to find it.

4. Verbatim phrase or passage

Even a single word, if it is distinctive to your author’s argument. You must use quotation marks and cite the source.

5. If it’s not common knowledge

Whenever you mention some aspect of another person’s work, unless the information or opinion is widely known, you must cite the source, so your readers can follow it up.

6. Whenever in doubt, cite it!

It will do no harm, as long as you’re not citing just to impress the examiner in the mistaken belief that getting good grades depends upon trading facts, in this case references, for marks.

How to cite a reference

You now know when to cite a reference, but you also need to know how to cite the reference correctly. Different subjects will cite references using different systems, but there are two main methods:

  • The Harvard system

For example:

- Watts (1999) offers suggestions about how to prepare for university.

- It has been found by Holmes and Watkins (2000), that criminals are …

- This module is no longer offered (Smith, 2004).

If you use the Harvard system in the main body of your work, you will be expected to cite your references in full in your bibliography.

  • Footnotes/endnotes

Footnotes are flagged in the main body of the text by a number and then the reference written in full at the bottom of the corresponding page. For example:

‘….and so it was thought that, “A new feeling came into existence, a sense that people had become separated from nature.”’ 1

If the quote is from a book, the citation should follow:

Author surname,initial(s)/ Title of book/ (Publisher/ Place of publication)/ Page number

Peck J and Coyle M, Literary Terms and Criticism, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p.70

If it were a journal article, you would cite:

Author surname, initial(s)/ ‘Title of article’ in Journal title/ Volume number (Issue number)/ (Year)/Page number

Peck J and Coyle M, “Romantic poetry” in Literary Terms and Criticism, 4 (1) (2002), p.70

Endnotes should be referenced in exactly the same way except they are found all together at the end of a chapter or at the end of the book.

For electronic sources, give the web page address and the date you downloaded the information. You should also cite the name of the reference and the original source if you have this information.


Once you are clear about this, all you are left with is how to eradicate from your work the accidental cases of plagiarism, focussing on organisation and processing.

1. Organisation

Most of these are due to poor organisation. Many of us leave ourselves inadequate time to get our work done, so we rush research and note taking and in the process blend the ideas of our authors into our own, not knowing which are which. Inevitably when we come to write we pass them all off as our own. There are, therefore, simple things you can do to avoid this.

  • Time

The first is obvious: leave enough time so you don’t rush your work. Make sure you have broken the task up into distinct stages (interpreting the essay question, research, planning, writing, and revision) and you have given enough time for each with time between them for your mind to process the ideas effectively. To make absolutely sure give yourself 25% more time that you think you need. As you complete each assignment you will be able to judge for yourself whether this is too much or too little. (See Chapters 17 and 18 in How to Write Better Essays).

  • Record the details

Put the details of the text you’re using clearly at the top of the first page of your notes: the author’s name, the title of the text, page numbers, and the date of publication. Not only will this save you a great deal of time and stress in trying to track down a reference long after you have used it, but it will be an obvious reminder that the ideas you’re noting are someone else’s and may need citing.

  • Separate your own ideas from your author’s

This can be done quite simply. For example, you could just put the material you borrow from your sources in a different colour, or on different sheets of paper, or even in different computer files.

2. Processing

But organisation is just one part of the remedy. Once you’ve organised your work you’re still left with problems that arise from the way you do your research.

  • Active processing

The simple answer here is to avoid all passive, surface-level processing in which you merely read for understanding, note accurately what the author says, and then reproduce it word for word in your work. If you can avoid studying when you’re tired and break up your study sessions into manageable blocks of no more than two hours, then you are likely to avoid lapsing into passive, uncritical processing of the material.

Instead process the material actively. In other words, structure what you read by analysing it into key points and sub-points, and criticise and evaluate it, rather than just passively accept what you read. In this way you will free yourself from being dictated by the author as to what is most important in what you read. You yourself will decide what should be noted and this will be dictated by the questions you, not the author, have already decided are most important.

As a result you will probably borrow less, because you can see it is not as important as you might otherwise have thought, and you will integrate it within your own thinking, so that you impose your own distinctive organisation and structure on it. (See Chapter 12 of How to Write Better Essays).

  • Interpret the question

However, to do this effectively you must have clear in your mind the key issues you want to explore in the text and the questions to which you want answers. This means you must in the first stage of essay writing have analysed the implications of the essay question you are tackling. This way you reveal not only the questions you want the text to answer, but also what you yourself already know about the issues. Armed with this you’re less likely to be dictated to by your authors and adopt their ideas wholesale. (See Chapters 1 to 6 in How to Write Better Essays).

  • Break the text up into manageable units

Still, it’s all too easy to say don’t be dictated to by the authors you read, but when you get down to it each author writes in a way best calculated to present the most persuasive account. He or she wants to convince you that their point of view is correct, and as you are less experienced in the topic your ideas are bound to be heavily influenced by what you read.

All of this you will know to be true from your own experience. So, do a simple thing to give you every chance of liberating yourself from enthralment to your author. Break down a chapter you’re reading into manageable units, which you can read, understand and then put aside so that you can take your notes without using the book. If the unit is of a manageable size you should be able to recall the key ideas and create the structure of the passage in your own terms. Don’t worry about details – you can always come back for them later. Be guided by your interpretation of the implications of the question and your own judgement, not the author’s, as to what is most important. You must allow your ideas to come through; you’re not just a sophisticated recycler of received opinions.

This highlights the problem from which many of our difficulties arise: how are we to let ourselves and our own ideas into the picture? Never read and take notes at the same time. You will fail to create sufficient distance between your ideas and the author’s, and you will find yourself merely reproducing them verbatim. (See Chapters 11 and 12 of How to Write Better Essays)

  • Confidence

There is, of course, one element running throughout this advice: the importance of having the confidence to trust in your own ideas and your own abilities to express and develop arguments as well as anyone. Beware of assuming that there are just right answers, which the author has presented correctly. As soon as you convince yourself of this, there is nothing more you can do but copy them accurately. (See Chapters 8, 9 and 10 of How to Write Better Essays)

How to Write Better EssaysThe content has been written by Bryan Greetham, author of How to Write Better Essays.