Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Avoiding Plagiarism

Steven D. Krause

Learning Objectives

  • Summarize, quote, and paraphrase accurately from readings.
  • Smoothly incorporate summary, paraphrase, and quotations in your writing.
  • Understand when summary, quotation, or paraphrase are appropriate in a research paper.
  • Avoid plagiarism.


Learning how to effectively quote and paraphrase research can be difficult and it certainly takes practice.  Hopefully, your abilities to make good use of your research will improve as you work through the exercises in part two and three ofThe Process of Research Writing, not to mention as you take on other research writing experiences beyond this class.  The goal of this chapter is to introduce some basic strategies for summarizing, quoting and paraphrasing research in your writing and to explain how to avoid plagiarizing your research.

How to Summarize:  An Overview

A summary is a brief explanation of a longer text.  Some summaries, such as the ones that accompany annotated bibliographies, are very short, just a sentence or two.  Others are much longer, though summaries are always much shorter than the text being summarized in the first place.

Summaries of different lengths are useful in research writing because you often need to provide your readers with an explanation of the text you are discussing.  This is especially true when you are going to quote or paraphrase from a source.

Of course, the first step in writing a good summary is to do a thorough reading of the text you are going to summarize in the first place.  Beyond that important start, there are a few basic guidelines you should follow when you write summary material:

  • Stay “neutral” in your summarizing.  Summaries provide “just the facts” and are not the place where you offer your opinions about the text you are summarizing.  Save your opinions and evaluation of the evidence you are summarizing for other parts of your writing.
  • Don’t quote from what you are summarizing.  Summaries will be more useful to you and your colleagues if you write them in your own words.
  • Don’t “cut and paste” from database abstracts.  Many of the periodical indexes that are available as part of your library’s computer system include abstracts of articles.  Do no “cut” this abstract material and then “paste” it into your own annotated bibliography.  For one thing, this is plagiarism.  Second, “cutting and pasting” from the abstract defeats one of the purposes of writing summaries and creating an annotated bibliography in the first place, which is to help you understand and explain your research.

How to Quote and Paraphrase:  An Overview

Writers quote and paraphrase from research in order to support their points and to persuade their readers.  A quote or a paraphrase from a piece of evidence in support of a point answers the reader’s question, “says who?”

This is especially true in academic writing since scholarly readers are most persuaded by effective research and evidence.  For example, readers of an article about a new cancer medication published in a medical journal will be most interested in the scholar’s research and statistics that demonstrate the effectiveness of the treatment.  Conversely, they will not be as persuaded by emotional stories from individual patients about how a new cancer medication improved the quality of their lives.  While this appeal to emotion can be effective and is common in popular sources, these individual anecdotes do not carry the same sort of “scholarly” or scientific value as well-reasoned research and evidence.

Of course, your instructor is not expecting you to be an expert on the topic of your research paper.  While you might conduct some primary research, it’s a good bet that you’ll be relying on secondary sources such as books, articles, and Web sites to inform and persuade your readers.  You’ll present this research to your readers in the form of quotes and paraphrases.  

 A “quote” is a direct restatement of the exact words from the original source.  The general rule of thumb is any time you use three or more words as they appeared in the original source, you should treat it as a quote.  A “paraphrase” is a restatement of the information or point of the original source in your own words.  

While quotes and paraphrases are different and should be used in different ways in your research writing (as the examples in this section suggest), they do have a number of things in common.  Both quotes and paraphrases should:

  •  be “introduced” to the reader, particularly the first time you mention a source;     
  • include an explanation of the evidence which explains to the reader why you think the evidence is important, especially if it is not apparent from the context of the quote or paraphrase; and
  • include a proper citation of the source.

The method you should follow to properly quote or paraphrase depends on the style guide you are following in your academic writing.  The two most common style guides used in academic writing are the Modern Language Association (MLA), and the American Psychological Association (APA).  Your instructor will probably assign one of these styles before you begin working on your project, however, if he/she doesn’t mention this, be sure to ask.

When to Quote, When to Paraphrase

The real “art” to research writing is using quotes and paraphrases from evidence effectively in order to support your point.  There are certain “rules,” dictated by the rules of style you are following, such as the ones presented by the MLA or the ones presented by the APA.  There are certain “guidelines” and suggestions, like the ones I offer in the previous section and the ones you will learn from your teacher and colleagues.  

But when all is said and done, the question of when to quote and when to paraphrase depends a great deal on the specific context of the writing and the effect you are trying to achieve.  Learning the best times to quote and paraphrase takes practice and experience.

In general, it is best to use a quote when:

  • The exact words of your source are important for the point you are trying to make.  This is especially true if you are quoting technical language, terms, or very specific word choices.
  • You want to highlight your agreement with the author’s words.  If you agree with the point the author of the evidence makes and you like their exact words, use them as a quote. 
  • You want to highlight your disagreement with the author’s words.  In other words, you may sometimes want to use a direct quote to indicate exactly what it is you disagree about.  This might be particularly true when you are considering the antithetical positions in your research writing projects.

In general, it is best to paraphrase when:

  • There is no good reason to use a quote to refer to your evidence.  If the author’s exact words are not especially important to the point you are trying to make, you are usually better off paraphrasing the evidence.
  • You are trying to explain a particular a piece of evidence in order to explain or interpret it in more detail.  This might be particularly true in writing projects like critiques.
  • You need to balance a direct quote in your writing.  You need to be careful about directly quoting your research too much because it can sometimes make for awkward and difficult to read prose.  So, one of the reasons to use a paraphrase instead of a quote is to create balance within your writing.

Tips for Quoting and Paraphrasing

  • Introduce your quotes and paraphrases to your reader, especially on first reference.
  • Explain the significance of the quote or paraphrase to your reader.
  • Cite your quote or paraphrase properly according to the rules of style you are following in your essay.
  • Quote when the exact words are important, when you want to highlight your agreement or your disagreement.
  • Paraphrase when the exact words aren’t important, when you want to explain the point of your evidence, or when you need to balance the direct quotes in your writing.

Four Examples of Quotes and Paraphrases

Here are four examples of what I mean about properly quoting and paraphrasing evidence in your research essays.  In each case, I begin with a BAD example, or the way NOT to quote or paraphrase.

Quoting in MLA Style

Here’s the first BAD example, where the writer is trying to follow the rules of MLA style: 

There are many positive effects for advertising prescription drugs on television.  “African-American physicians regard direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines as one way to educate minority patients about needed treatment and healthcare options” (Wechsler, Internet).

This is a potentially good piece of information to support a research writer’s claim, but the researcher hasn’t done any of the necessary work to explain where this quote comes from or to explain why it is important for supporting her point.  Rather, she has simply “dropped in” the quote, leaving the interpretation of its significance up to the reader.

Now consider this revised GOOD (or at least BETTER) example of how this quote might be better introduced into the essay:

In her Pharmaceutical Executive article available through the Wilson Select Internet database, Jill Wechsler writes about one of the positive effects of advertising prescription drugs on television.  “African-American physicians regard direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines as one way to educate minority patients about needed treatment and healthcare options.”

In this revision, it’s much more clear what point the writer is trying to make with this evidence and where this evidence comes from.  

In this particular example, the passage is from a traditional print journal called Pharmaceutical Executive.  However, the writer needs to indicate that she actually found and read this article through Wilson Select, an Internet database which reproduces the “full text” of articles from periodicals without any graphics, charts, or page numbers.  

When you use a direct quote in your research, you need to the indicate page number of that direct quote or you need to indicate that the evidence has no specific page numbers. While it can be a bit awkward to indicate within the text how the writer found this information if it’s from the Internet, it’s important to do so on the first reference of a piece of evidence in your writing.  On references to this piece of evidence after the first reference, you can use just the last name of the writer.  For example:

Wechsler also reports on the positive effects of advertising prescription drugs on television.  She writes…

Paraphrasing in MLA Style

In this example, the writer is using MLA style to write a research essay for a Literature class.  Here is a BAD example of a paraphrase:

While Gatsby is deeply in love with Daisy in The Great Gatsby, his love for her is indistinguishable from his love of his possessions (Callahan).

There are two problems with this paraphrase.  First, if this is the first or only reference to this particular piece of evidence in the research essay, the writer should include more information about the source of this paraphrase in order to properly introduce it.  Second, this paraphrase is actually not of the entire article but rather of a specific passage.  The writer has neglected to note the page number within the parenthetical citation.

A GOOD or at least BETTER revision of this paraphrase might look like this:

John F. Callahan suggests in his article “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Evolving American Dream” that while Gatsby is deeply in love with Daisy in The Great Gatsby, his love for her is indistinguishable from his love of his possessions (381).

By incorporating the name of the author of the evidence the research writer is referring to here, the source of this paraphrase is now clear to the reader.  Furthermore, because there is a page number at the end of this sentence, the reader understands that this passage is a paraphrase of a particular part of Callahan’s essay and not a summary of the entire essay. Again, if the research writer had introduced this source to his readers earlier, he could have started with a phrase like “Callahan suggests…” and then continued on with his paraphrase.

If the research writer were offering a brief summary of the entire essay following MLA style, he wouldn’t include a page number in parentheses.  For example:

John F. Callahan’s article “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Evolving American Dream” examines Fitzgerald’s fascination with the elusiveness of the American Dream in the novels The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Last Tycoon.

Quoting in APA Style

Consider this BAD example in APA style, of what NOT to do when quoting evidence:

“If the U.S. scallop fishery were a business, its management would surely be fired, because its revenues could readily be increased by at least 50 percent while its costs were being reduced by an equal percentage.” (Repetto, 2001, p. 84).

Again, this is a potentially valuable piece of evidence, but it simply isn’t clear what point the research writer is trying to make with it.  Further, it doesn’t follow the preferred method of citation with APA style.

Here is a revision that is a GOOD or at least BETTER example:

Repetto (2001) concludes that in the case of the scallop industry, those running the industry should be held responsible for not considering methods that would curtail the problems of over-fishing.   “If the U.S. scallop fishery were a business, its management would surely be fired, because its revenues could readily be increased by at least 50 percent while its costs were being reduced by an equal percentage” (p. 84).

This revision is improved because the research writer has introduced and explained the point of the evidence with the addition of a clarifying sentence.  It also follows the rules of APA style.  Generally, APA style prefers that the research writer refer to the author only by last name followed immediately by the year of publication.  Whenever possible, you should begin your citation with the author’s last name and the year of publication, and, in the case of a direct quote like this passage, the page number (including the “p.”) in parentheses at the end.

Paraphrasing in APA Style

Paraphrasing in APA style is slightly different from MLA style as well.  Consider first this BAD example of what NOT to do in paraphrasing from a source in APA style:

Computer criminals have lots of ways to get away with credit card fraud (Cameron, 2002).

The main problem with this paraphrase is there isn’t enough here to adequately explain to the reader what the point of the evidence really is.  Remember:  your readers have no way of automatically knowing why you as a research writer think that a particular piece of evidence is useful in supporting your point.  This is why it is key that you introduce and explain your evidence.

Here is a revision that is GOOD or at least BETTER:

Cameron (2002) points out that computer criminals intent on committing credit card fraud are able to take advantage of the fact that there aren’t enough officials working to enforce computer crimes.  Criminals are also able to use the technology to their advantage by communicating via email and chat rooms with other criminals.

Again, this revision is better because the additional information introduces and explains the point of the evidence.  In this particular example, the author’s name is also incorporated into the explanation of the evidence as well.  In APA, it is preferable to weave in the author’s name into your essay, usually at the beginning of a sentence.  However, it would also have been acceptable to end an improved paraphrase with just the author’s last name and the date of publication in parentheses.

How to Avoid Plagiarism in the Research Process

Plagiarism is the unauthorized or uncredited use of the writings or ideas of another in your writing.  While it might not be as tangible as auto theft or burglary, plagiarism is still a form of theft.  

In the academic world, plagiarism is a serious matter because ideas in the forms of research, creative work, and original thought are highly valued.  Chances are, your school has strict rules about what happens when someone is caught plagiarizing.  The penalty for plagiarism is severe, everything from a failing grade for the plagiarized work, a failing grade for the class, or expulsion from the institution.  

You might not be aware that plagiarism can take several different forms.  The most well known, purposeful plagiarism , is handing in an essay written by someone else and representing it as your own, copying your essay word for word from a magazine or journal, or downloading an essay from the Internet.  

A much more common and less understood phenomenon is what I call accidental plagiarism.  Accidental plagiarism is the result of improperly paraphrasing, summarizing, quoting, or citing your evidence in your academic writing.  Generally, writers accidentally plagiarize because they simply don’t know or they fail to follow the rules for giving credit to the ideas of others in their writing.

Both purposeful and accidental plagiarism are wrong, against the rules, and can result in harsh punishments.  Ignoring or not knowing the rules of how to not plagiarize and properly cite evidence might be an explanation, but it is not anexcuse.

To exemplify what I’m getting at, consider the examples below that use quotations and paraphrases from this brief passage:

Those who denounce cyberculture today strangely resemble those who criticized rock music during the fifties and sixties.  Rock started out as an Anglo-American phenomenon and has become an industry.  Nonetheless, it was able to capture the hopes of young people around the world and provided enjoyment to those of us who listened to or played rock.  Sixties pop was the conscience of one or two generations that helped bring the war in Vietnam to a close.  Obviously, neither rock nor pop has solved global poverty or hunger.  But is this a reason to be “against” them? (ix).

And just to make it clear that I’m not plagiarizing this passage, here is the citation in MLA style:

Works Cited

Lévy, Pierre.  Cyberculture.  Trans. Robert Bononno.  Minneapolis:  U of Minnesota P, 2001.

Here’s an obvious example of plagiarism:

Those who denounce cyberculture today strangely resemble those who criticized rock music during the fifties and sixties.  

In this case, the writer has literally taken one of Lévy’s sentences and represented it as her own.  That’s clearly against the rules.

Here’s another example of plagiarism, perhaps less obvious:

The same kind of people who criticize cyberculture are the same kind of people who criticized rock and roll music back in the fifties and sixties.  But both cyberculture and rock music inspire and entertain young people.

While these aren’t Lévy’s exact words, they are certainly close enough to constitute a form of plagiarism.  And again, even though you might think that this is a “lesser” form of plagiarism, it’s still plagiarism. 

Both of these passages can easily be corrected to make them acceptable quotations or paraphrases.  

In the introduction of his book Cyberculture, Pierre Lévy observes that “Those who denounce cyberculture today strangely resemble those who criticized rock music during the fifties and sixties” (ix).

Pierre Lévy suggests that the same kind of people who criticize cyberculture are the same kind of people who criticized rock and roll music back in the fifties and sixties.  But both cyberculture and rock music inspire and entertain young people (ix).

Note that changing these passages from examples of plagiarism to acceptable examples of a quotation and a paraphrase is extremely easy:  properly cite your sources.

This leads to the “golden rule” of avoiding plagiarism:

The Golden Rule of Avoiding Plagiarism

  • Always cite your sources.  If you are unsure as to whether you should or should not cite a particular claim or reference, you should probably cite your source.

Often, students are unclear as to whether or not they need to cite a piece of evidence because they believe it to be “common knowledge” or because they are not sure about the source of information.  When in doubt about whether or not to cite evidence in order to give credit to a source (“common knowledge” or not), you should cite the evidence.

Plagiarism and the Internet

Sometimes, I think the ease of finding and retrieving information on the World Wide Web makes readers think that this information does not need to be cited.  After all, it isn’t a traditional source like a book or a journal; it is available for “free.”  All a research writer needs to do with a web site is “cut and paste” whatever he needs into his essay, right?  Wrong!  

You need to cite the evidence you find from the Internet or the World Wide Web the same way you cite evidence from other sources.  To not do this is plagiarism, or, more bluntly, cheating.  Just because the information is “freely” available on the Internet does not mean you can use this information in your academic writing without properly citing it, much in the same way that the information from library journals and books “freely” available to you needs to be cited in order to give credit where credit is due.

It is also not acceptable to simply download graphics from the World Wide Web.  Images found on the Internet are protected by copyright laws.  Quite literally, taking images from the Web (particularly from commercial sources) is an offense that could lead to legal action.  There are places where you can find graphics and clip art that Web publishers have made publicly available for anyone to use, but be sure that the Web site where you find the graphics makes this explicit before you take graphics as your own.

In short, you can use evidence from the Web as long as you don’t plagiarize and as long as you properly cite it; don’t take graphics from the Web unless you know the images are in the public domain.  

This piece was originally Chapter 3 from The Process of Research Writing.

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