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How to Paraphrase in order to avoid Plagiarising

Plagiarising, simply put, is intellectual theft: you present somebody else’s words (or images) as your own, with no indication of the original source. Since the edifice of science is built on collaboration and extending the work of others – Newton himself once acknowledged this when he wrote, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’ – it is all the more important that you clearly acknowledge your debt to others.

Avoiding plagiarism

The simplest way to avoid being accused of plagiarising is not to copy blocks of text from other sources. If you do so (perhaps because you are reproducing an entire definition to comment on it), enclose such text in quotation marks and cite the source of that quotation. There are many ways to avoid plagiarism (learn more here: Simple ways to avoid plagiarism in academic writing). This article focuses on avoiding plagiarism through paraphrasing.


Paraphrasing is expressing what you have read or referenced in your own words. In some ways, paraphrasing is the opposite of plagiarism because it involves conveying in your own words what somebody else has expressed differently, that is, using a different set of words. Consider (again) Newton’s famous quotation:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

This can be paraphrased thus:

Newton acknowledged his debt to other stalwarts who preceded him by admitting that he had been able to see far because he had built his work on their work.

Note that the idea remains the same in both the versions.

Paraphrasing to avoid plagiarism

Here are some suggestions for building your paraphrasing capabilities to avoid plagiarism.

1. Read about the same topic in different sources

Individual researchers have their own style of writing, and the differences in those styles become apparent when you read about a given topic in different books or articles or papers. This background reading will serve to fix the idea in your own mind: you will end up recalling the idea but not the exact words in which it was expressed, because you have been exposed to different versions of the idea. Once you start writing about it, you will automatically express it in your own style — this means you will have paraphrased it.

2. Keep the original text away and explain it to somebody else

The text you want to paraphrase should never be open in front of you as you paraphrase. Before writing it in your own words, talk about the idea. Explain the gist of the original to somebody else. This ‘priming’ will help you when you get down to writing because you are more likely to remember your own words.

3. Do not replace isolated words…

It is not enough to replace one or two words with their synonyms: for example, it is not enough to change ‘extinguish the flame’ to ‘douse the flame’. A recent study unearthed such robotic or mechanical substitution in what the researchers called ‘tortured phrases’, such as ‘colossal information’ for ‘big data’, ‘irregular esteem’ for ‘random value’ and ‘counterfeit consciousness’ for ‘artificial intelligence’.

On similar lines, be wary of using services that offer to paraphrase content, when it is obvious that the service is one that works by mechanically or algorithmically substituting words, commonly called a ‘text spinner’.

In short, do not just look for substitutes in a thesaurus. To pick the right word, you need to be aware not only of what it means but what it connotes, or its ‘collocation’ (to use the technical term). 

4. Instead, rewrite complete sentences

Instead of replacing individual words, it would be safer and more effective to rewrite complete sentences or paragraphs, and to find your unique way to explaining a concept, as illustrated previously.

5. Expand your vocabulary

Paraphrasing demands that the expression be your own. But how do you summon different words and phrases? Extensive reading will help you by enriching your vocabulary, especially when you read beyond your own field of specialisation. The words you pick up from different domains will come in handy when you work on paraphrasing somebody else’s writing. To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader first. (For more tips on growing your vocabulary, read: Practical ways to expand your vocabulary for academic writing)


Mastering the technique of paraphrasing will ensure that your research paper is not summarily rejected because of excessive similarity: you will be free of the charge of plagiarism.


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