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Avoiding Plagiarism in Literature Reviews

Avoiding Plagiarism in Literature Reviews

Most academics know they cannot simply duplicate other people’s writing and present it as their own. They generally know not to copy and paste from other articles without properly using a quote format and citing the article appropriately to give the original authors credit. However, there are several ways in which academic writers plagiarize inadvertently. This article discusses one such scenario.

Plagiarism in a literature review

One of the most common scenarios in which academic writers inadvertently plagiarize is when they are constructing the literature review part of their paper. The purpose of this section of the paper is to present and synthesize research that other researchers have conducted, and supply an explanation of how your study connects to other research on this topic. Because this section involves synthesizing and reporting on others' research studies and articles, it is easy to plagiarize here if you do not know all the requirements for citing and quoting.

1. Using citations to avoid plagiarism

When you discuss other research studies or articles in your paper, you need to include citations for that work. Much of the time you will be paraphrasing or synthesizing other studies, and not using exact phrases or sentences from that work. In this case, you would cite the author(s) using the style format required by the journal.

Citation styles

Two common style formats used in academic papers are MLA (from Modern Language Association) and the APA Style (from the American Psychology Association), both of which are explained by the Purdue Online Writing Center. (In fact, Purdue offers guidelines for several style formats.) These formatting styles provide clear instructions on how to use in-text citations. You should know which style format you need to be using for your paper; therefore, read the guide very carefully.

Example of citation to avoid plagiarism

This excerpt from an open access article by Neal, Neal, & Domagalski (2021) supplies an example of in-text citations (bolded below).

To overcome these challenges, Cairns and colleagues proposed social cognitive mapping (SCM), a method of peer group identification that involves identifying peer groups using multiple peer reports of groups of children that interact together in a setting such as a classroom (Cairns et al., 1988; Cairns & Cairns, 1994). (p. 1).

2. Using quotations to avoid plagiarism

There are times in your writing when using the exact words from another paper is important to your argument or explanation. In this case you need to include those exact words as a quotation, which is appropriately formatted. When you use a quotation from an article you will need to show that you are quoting, which is typically done with quotation marks or by placing a block quote indented and separated from the text.

Example of quotation to avoid plagiarism

We see an example of in-text quotations in an excerpt from an article written by Direito, Chance, & Malik in 2019. Because the length of the quote is short, they include it in the text and use quotation marks (bolded below).

Duckworth and Eskreis-Winkler (2013, 1) recognize that ‘grit clearly belongs to the Big Five Conscientiousness family, particularly overlapping with achievement motivation’. However, these same authors, along with other colleagues, also found that grit is a better predictor of educational attainment and retention in the workplace compared to conscientiousness (Eskreis-Winkler et al. 2014). (P. 4)

Journal checks for plagiarism: Similarity percentage

Although plagiarism is never acceptable, journals typically allow for some percentage of commonality between manuscripts. This is because text commonality can occur to some degree without plagiarism, especially when authors are writing about similar topics and paraphrasing or synthesizing other research, as in the case of a literature review. Typically, less than 15% text commonality is considered fine and more than 20-25% commonality is not acceptable.

Bear in mind, however, that if the 15% text commonality is a quote lifted directly from another paper without a proper citation, this would be unacceptable and considered plagiarism. Plagiarism checks will detect text commonality and so to use these checks effectively, you should look back at the specific text commonalities and check to ensure you have not taken the text directly from another source without quoting appropriately.


  • When writing the literature review section, do not copy and paste what you want to paraphrase or discuss. Identify the main points or themes that will form the subheadings for your papers, and write your summaries, syntheses and explanations under these headings in your own words. Then go back and pull in in-text citations and quotations. 
  • Understand the style guide your journal recommends and follow these guidelines for citing and quoting.


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