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Understanding and avoiding Accidental plagiarism

Plagiarism is a type of academic misconduct in which an author copies text from a source and passes it off as their own. However, did you know that many authors end up plagiarising simply because of carelessness? Accidental plagiarism occurs when an author fails to cite their sources and/or unintentionally paraphrases from a source without attributing it

Unfortunately, it is difficult for someone assessing a manuscript to know if the plagiarism was accidental or deliberate, and irrespective of the reason, the author can be penalised. Plagiarism — whether intentional or unintentional — must be avoided at all costs.

Common reasons for accidental plagiarism

Someone who does not understand how to correctly paraphrase, quote and cite research might end up unknowingly committing plagiarism. For example, if you have paraphrased research from a book or an article, but not included an in-text citation, the reader will assume that the idea and words are yours. 

Another reason is ignorance; an author might not be aware that copying and misattributing work by lack of citation might constitute plagiarism.

Tips to avoid accidental plagiarism

1. Cite references accurately

Understand when and how to cite and reference sources and familiarise yourself with the rules of different referencing styles. Carefully check the text for missing or wrong attributions and inconsistent citations. The use of reference management software can aid in formatting references and avoiding errors.

2. Write clearly and paraphrase correctly

Spend time on your writing and, as far as possible, write in your own voice (style). To paraphrase an idea correctly, you should understand the original text well and rewrite it in your own words without changing the meaning. Remember to always cite the original source.

3. Be organised in your writing and referencing

Separate your own ideas, thoughts and findings from published ones to avoid mixing them up and confusing others’ work with your own. Keep track of where you found your information. Whenever you copy something verbatim from a source (such as a journal article, book or website) use quotation marks and clearly cite and reference the source. When you paraphrase information, quotation marks are not needed, but the bibliographic details should still be explicitly cited and referenced.

4. Check all your figures carefully

Check images to avoid accidental image plagiarism. When your files are not organised well, you might mistakenly use a figure that is not your own. Further, be well-informed about image re-use guidelines and copyright issues. If you use an image that is protected by copyright, obtain permission from the copyright owner and cite the source. For images that are free to use, e.g. those licensed under the Creative Commons (CC) license, be sure to include the proper attribution.


Accidental plagiarism is as serious as intentional plagiarism. Such violations are taken seriously, with professional, and occasionally legal, consequences. To avoid mistakenly committing such errors, stay informed about what constitutes plagiarism and learn how to cite your sources accurately, not forgetting to give credit where it is due.


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