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How to Avoid Plagiarism

A guide on avoiding plagiarism specifically designed with international students in mind but applicable to all students.

Writing Experience

Not every country has the same educational traditions and practices. Sometimes, plagiarism occurs because students from places where writing was less emphasized are unfamiliar with how to write an academic paper. While it is quite common for students in the United States to frequently be required to write essays, other countries place less emphasis on writing.

The best way to get better at writing, and avoiding plagiarism, is to practice. The more you practice, the more you will be able to tell what is original thought in others works. One of the most difficult aspects of avoiding plagiarism is having the confidence to put your ideas in your own words. Practice will help with that.

Stock Phrases versus Plagiarism

Every academic discipline has phrases that are commonly used, both in writing and in speaking. The use of these phrases often does not constitute plagiarism. However, it is important that when you use these phrases it is because they are moving your own writing along and not because you saw them somewhere else and wanted to copy the work.

As you get more comfortable with academic and legal writing in the United States these phrases will become more and more familiar to you - and they will begin to come more naturally. It is important to remember that language acquisition doesn't come from inventing an entirely new means of expressing yourself. Language acquisition comes from learning the conventions of language used in a given community.

In the legal community, in addition to commonly used academic phrases, there are commonly used phrases with specific meanings. These phrases are called 'terms of art' and can be considered common knowledge within the community.

What is Common Knowledge?

Common knowledge is information that is generally understood to be known by everyone. It is important to understand that the idea of common knowledge has cultural, community, and professional constraints. For instance, what is common knowledge in India might not be common knowledge for a person in the United States.

When you are in a foreign country it can be difficult to know what is, and what isn't, common knowledge. It is always better to err on the side of caution and provide citations when you are not sure whether the information you are providing is 'common knowledge' or not. You are far less likely to get in trouble for citing too frequently than you are for not providing enough.

As a general rule of guidance for what is common knowledge, if you can find the information (not cited) in at least five reputable sources it is probably safe to assume that it is common knowledge and does not need to be cited.

How to Cite

Another common reason for plagiarism is being unfamiliar with the mechanics of providing a citation. In US legal writing you are most often, if not always, required to use the Bluebook. As with any style of citation, Bluebook takes a bit of practice.

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