How to quote sources without plagiarising

28 Mar

I work with a lot of students, and one of the things that seems to be an issue is how exactly to use your sources when you’re writing an essay. So I thought it was time to write some notes to help you.

How will this article help you?

This article will help you to avoid plagiarism. I’m going to take a text I’ve written and re-write it in some different ways. Because, and this is important, if you just take text from somewhere else and dump it into the middle of your essay … that’s plagiarism. Plagiarism is serious. It’s passing off someone else’s work as your own. And most academic departments use plagiarism detecting software. If they run your work through the software and it shows you’ve plagiarised,  you may well have marks deducted or the whole essay may be returned unmarked.

What’s wrong with just cutting and pasting stuff I’ve found?

I know that in most cases, you don’t mean to plagiarise. You’re pushed for time, you’re often not writing in your native language, and it’s easy to take that text and put it into the essay. But these are the reasons you shouldn’t do it:

  1. It’s morally wrong to plagiarise.
  2. You won’t gain an understanding of the text if you just paste it into your essay.
  3. You will get caught.

How do I use source material in the correct way?

There are two ways to use source material you’ve found in your research:

  • use direct quotations, which you’ll need to indicate using quotation marks ” … ” or ‘ … ‘
  • talk about what the author has said, but put it in your own words

So, how do we do it. Here is a passage I’ve copied from one book and some notes I’ve made from another one. These are the sources for my essay.

Using quotations to talk about your source

This is direct quotation. A simple example:

Mary says “I am going to the park”

I write: “Mary said, ‘I am going to the park'”

An easy way to talk about your source material is to use quotations. You don’t need to re-write what the authors say, however you do need to show you understand what you’re talking about and to link the quotations in a sensible way – you also need to make sure they’re all within quote marks and referenced properly. With the notes you’ve taken (above) you might end up with something like this:

So what I’ve done here is take sections from the text, put them in quote marks, noted where they’re from, and linked them appropriately so it’s clear I understand what I’m talking about.

Note that if you start off in the present tense, “Broomfield (2011) says that there are … ” you need to continue in the present tense; if you start off in the past “Broomfield (2011) said that there were … ” you need to stick with that. You can pop into the present tense if you are talking about a universal truth rather than something rooted in the time frame, so “Broomfield (2011) said that people are always likely to plagiarise” but “Broomfield (2011) said that the results of her study were not clear and she was not able to draw conclusions from them”.

Rewriting source text to talk about what the author is saying

This one is slightly more tricky. You need to do “indirect quoting”, or reporting what the author said. Simple example again:

Mary says “I am going to the park”.

I write: “Mary said that she was going to the park.”

What we have to do here is retain the sense of the original, while writing it in our own words. Here’s what I came up with. Note that I can now use the notes I made on Dexter, too, as I don’t have anything in his words but can talk about what he said and I noted down:

Here I have used a number of different techniques. In no case, though, do I use more than a couple of the original source’s words exactly as they appear in the original. Instead I do this:

  • using synonyms: “hard discipline” instead of “rigorous discipline”
  • simplifying the words but getting the same sense across: “involves” instead of “basically boils down to”
  • reporting what the source said and using that to link the essay together: “she recommends using”
  • expanding on what the source says: “This could be through” rather than “you might”
  • summarising and synthesising (summing up and putting together) “Software such as Word or Excel could be used”, and “keeping a record of the author, title, journal information and date”.
  • Introducing the other research but linking it to the first idea: “Dexter (2012) agrees … “
  • Expanding notes into full sentences: the notes taken on the Dexter text.

Oh: please note here that you use “Broomfield (2011) says this is the case ” or “According to Broomfield (2011) this is the case” but never “According to Broomfield (2011) says this is the case” – I see that last one all the time.

Combining direct and indirect quotation

Of course, the best way is to combine them – some direct quotations, some reported speech or indirect quotations. This has the benefit of breaking up the text a bit, giving some interest, and allowing some use of the authors’ words to save having to rewrite everything.

Note that here I have shuffled around the order of what the first author says, too.

Rewrite, don’t copy and paste

I hope I’ve now managed to explain

  • What plagiarism is (see more in this post)
  • Why it’s not a good idea
  • Different ways to avoid it
  • Direct and indirect quotations
  • Some tips on how to rewrite text

Please do let me know if you’ve found this useful – or if there is more detail you’d like to know about. And do share using the buttons below if you’d like to tell your friends and colleagues about this information.

If you want more … here is a whole article on plagiarism, here is one on essay writing in general and one on writing dissertations and theses, and if you click on the students or writing or Word categories in the right hand column of the blog, you’ll get loads more hints and tips.


Posted by on March 28, 2012 in Ethics, New skills, Punctuation, Students, Word, Writing


Tags: , , , ,

10 responses to “How to quote sources without plagiarising

  1. Gill Rose

    March 28, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    At my uni, plagiarism is a disciplinary offence and subject to heavier penalties than just not being marked.

    Just a point. In theHarvard system you need to include the page number when citing a direct quote, so that we can check (sneaky!).


  2. Liz at Libro

    March 28, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Yes, indeed – it does vary across the world and there are some very heavy penalties.

    I didn’t put in the page numbers so as not to confuse, if I do that now I will have to redo all the screen shots … so I will add a note about that.


  3. Nadia Abdullah

    July 10, 2019 at 11:43 am

    Hi, Liz. To me, as a non-native English speaker, paraphrasing is the toughest aspect of academic writing, especially scientific texts. Quoting and citing sources appropriately is not the main problem — rather, it is rewriting what other authors have written based on my understanding of the original text.

    Even if the paraphrased text is close to the original it is considered as paraphrase plagiarism or borderline plagiarism, despite citing the source.

    In Malaysia, the situation is even worse. Students can even copy and paste text from the Internet into their theses without even citing the source. Some even copy and paste text from journal articles verbatim and expect editors and proofreaders to paraphrase everything for them. There are even editing services that offer ‘premium paraphrasing services’. No wonder the students don’t learn anything.


    • Liz Dexter

      July 10, 2019 at 1:47 pm

      Thank you for your comment. And yes, it’s the aspect that everyone finds hardest, and I have indeed had clients send me texts with parts marked up for rewriting (which I refuse to do, of course). It is difficult, as often they don’t realise it’s wrong, I really hate the companies that offer to do it for them: I have them trying to comment on this blog or place adverts, even, and they get short shrift when that happens!



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