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Plagiarism and ESL Writers: An Overview

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Do you find yourself struggling to meet your instructor’s expectations for your writing when you are learning not only the subject matter, but also the English language? Does your instructor talk about the importance of “writing in your own words?”

According to scholars like Pat Currie and Alastair Pennycook, writers new to the English language might copy language from published works in order to cope with their challenging learning situations and busy academic schedules. Occasionally, ESL students are unaware that in United States universities this is a punishable offense called plagiarism—the academically dishonest practice of using another’s words or ideas as your own. Punishable here meaning that one may face failure of that assignment, failure for the entire course, and/or suspension/expulsion from that university.

For a detailed discussion of plagiarism, see: Avoiding Plagiarism on the Purdue OWL.

In North American universities, plagiarism is generally considered a serious offense, with negative consequences ranging from a verbal warning to expulsion--being removed from the University. As Pennycook puts it, “the borrowing of words is often discussed in terms of 'stealing,' of committing a crime against the author of a text” and “originates in the peculiarly Western conjunction between the growth of the notion of human rights and the stress on individual property” (14). However, this view of plagiarism is not shared by everyone. For example, some mainstream interpretations of academic cultures outside of the North American context claim that copying another author’s words is widely accepted and even considered a compliment to the author.

Many students know they are committing a serious academic offense when they plagiarize. However, some students do not. For example, “patchworking,” a term introduced by Rebecca Moore Howard, is sometimes unintentional and is even considered by some scholars as a necessary stage of development for lower-proficiency writers. That is, it is a part of learning to write. When “patchworking,” a student will directly copy passages from several sources, change a few words and the order, and blend them together into his or her paper, without citing the borrowed sources. Other times, plagiarism can result from laziness or lack of care. For example, when a writer forgets to use quotation marks when she or he copies another writer word for word. No matter what a student’s intentions are, all these examples are plagiarism. By understanding the following terms and following some of the strategies discussed below, students can avoid this serious academic offense.

Frequently Used Terms

When an instructor talks about plagiarism, she or he may use some of the following terms:

Cite/Citation: How you give an author credit.

When citing, provide the author’s name when you first introduce your quote, summary, or paraphrase of his or her text (e.g., “Harris writes,” “According to Rodriguez”). After the last sentence of your quote, summary, or paraphrase, provide the page numbers of the information you are citing. In the works cited or references page, provide the full bibliographic information according to the style requirements of your instructor or discipline. Keep in mind that your citation style might change if your instructor asks that you stick to certain style guidelines such as MLA or APA. Regardless of which style you use, anytime you quote, paraphrase, or summarize a source you must cite it. Ask your instructor if you are unsure how you should cite your sources. For more information on citation styles, see the Research and Citation section of the Purdue OWL.

Quote/Quoting: Using the exact words of an author.

Quote when the author’s exact words are important. Use quotation marks to designate that all the words in the quotation marks are exactly as the author wrote them. To learn more about using question marks see: How to Use Quotation Marks on the Purdue OWL.

Paraphrase/Paraphrasing: Putting an author’s writing in your own words but keeping the original meaning.

Paraphrase when the author’s exact words are not important, but the meaning is what you want your readers to remember. Make your paraphrase the same length as, or only slightly shorter than, the original text. Do not put quotation marks around a paraphrase.

Note: Just changing words in a quotation is not enough; you also need to change the organization and sentence structure (just be sure to keep the original meaning).

To learn more about proper paraphrasing, visit: Paraphrase: Write it in Your Own Words on the Purdue OWL.

Summary/Summarizing: Brief explanation of a longer text, using your own words.

Summaries are significantly shorter than the text being summarized. Summaries are neutral, so do not include your opinions on the text. Also, as with the paraphrase, do not put quotation marks around a summary. To learn more about writing summaries, visit: Summarizing on the Engagement section of the Purdue OWL

How to Avoid Plagiarism

While there are many steps that one can take to make sure that their work is done in "their own words." One thing that many ESL writers have found helpful is to take hand-written notes of sources materials, being careful to use their own words. It may be helpful to read the sources more than once, so you can remember its main points, and then put the source aside as you take your notes. When sitting down to write the paper, use these notes and not the original sources. Keep a separate notebook for each class and keep all your notes together; that way they will all be in one convenient place when you start writing.

When paraphrasing and summarizing sources, think about how it could be explained in “your own words” to a friend or classmate.

Budget enough time to paraphrase and cite your sources carefully. Don’t wait until the last minute to do this. Some students turn to plagiarism when they run out of time for writing.

Spend time researching in your campus’s library, using its books and journals. While many sources are now found online, the library has many print materials. Using these might lessen your chances of copying and pasting Internet sources.

Sources you find on the Internet—blogs, e-mails, and social media sites—are no different than books and other print sources. Get in the habit of printing any online sources you might cite in your paper. Do not cut and paste online sources into your draft.

Seek help from your instructor if you don’t understand how to cite your sources or are struggling with your research process.


Currie, Pat. “Staying out of trouble: Apparent plagiarism and academic survival” Journal of Second Language Writing 7 (1998): 1-18. Print.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. "Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty." College English 57.7 (Nov. 1995): 708-36. Print.

Pennycook, Alastair.“Borrowing others’ words: Text, ownership, memory and plagiarism.” TESOL Quarterly 30 (1996): 201-230. Print.