As we’ve already noted on this site, the exact rules and practices that define plagiarism and the proper use of outside sources vary significantly between academic disciplines, and they can even vary between individual courses and assignments within the same discipline. Once again: it is your responsibility as a student and a writer to know the rules regarding plagiarism in any given context and to act accordingly.

Of course, like a lot of academic advice, that’s a lot easier to say than it is to do. If the rules change from one situation to the next, it’s difficult to develop a consistent set of practices that will allow you to avoid plagiarism. To some extent, this will always be the case — each new writing situation requires the writer to relearn some rules and techniques to meet the expectations of a new audience. There are, however, a few best practices you can follow that will allow you to avoid the most common causes of plagiarism in college courses:

1) Use a Citation System

When instructors tell you to “cite your sources,” they mean for you to use an established citation system–a formal set of rules that allow you to document what your sources are, where you found them, and where they appear in your work. All formal scholarship uses a citation system of some kind, both to avoid plagiarism and to help readers understand how each new piece of scholarship builds on the work that came before it.

There are several different citation systems that are common in academic writing, and most academic disciplines have one or two systems that are considered “standard” for scholars in that discipline. Beyond that, individual academic journals might have their own standards for citation and documentation. Literary scholars, for example, generally employ the Modern Language Association (MLA) style, whereas scholars in Psychology generally use the American Psychological Association (APA) style. You can find tools for citing your sources and links to the most common citation systems.

Ideally, in any given course, the instructor will both tell you which citation system they want you to use and give you the basic resources you’ll need to use that system correctly. As a general rule, though, know that any time you use a source other than your own brain, you should cite that source using one of the formal systems. If you’re not sure how to do that, you can ask your instructor, seek help from the writing center, meet with a librarian, or consult these citation guides.

2) Introduce Your Sources Clearly

As noted above, citation systems allow you to tell readers what your sources are, where you found them, and where they appear in your work. Even if you use a citation system correctly, though, it may be unclear to readers exactly where your ideas end and the ideas from your sources begin. It’s therefore crucial for you as a writer to send clear signals that will allow readers to make this distinction.

There are many ways to do this, but the best general approach is to always include a transitional phrase of some kind that tells the reader exactly where the contribution from your source begins (e.g. “Marquez argues…,” “Studies have found that…”). Then, even if you have a clear citation, you should provide an equally clear transition to indicate where the contribution of your source ends and your intellectual work resumes (e.g. “Based on this idea…,” “This finding suggests that…”). These transitional phrases allow readers to see the way you’re engaging your source material, which adds clarity and strength to your writing as well as distinguishing your intellectual work from the work of others.

3) Ask Your Instructor Early and Often

For the writing you complete as a student, it’s ultimately up to your instructor to decide how you should use and document your sources in any given assignment. This is actually a good thing, because it means you have a single, specific person who can definitively tell you how you should and shouldn’t use sources in your writing for a given assignment.

Ideally, all of your instructors will have clear policies regarding plagiarism and use of sources, and so the first thing you should do is carefully read your course syllabus and assignment prompts and look for these policies. If the policies in a given course aren’t completely clear, though, or if you feel some uncertainty or ambiguity, you should always ask your instructor to clarify it. This isn’t a sign of disrespect or ignorance on your part! Your instructors want you to understand how to succeed in their courses, and thus they’re generally happy to answer your questions.

Here are a few common questions that you’ll want to ask your instructor if you’re at all uncertain about the answer:

“Is there a particular citation system you’d like us to use? How will mistakes in our citations affect our grade?”

“This assignment doesn’t require us to do any research. If we want to research the topic on our own, is that acceptable?”

“How do you want us to cite the assigned readings from the course or material from the course packet?”

“I want to mention an idea that one of my classmates expressed in class discussion. How should I cite that?”

“How should we cite materials created specifically for this course–lectures, handouts, forum posts, etc.?

“Is it okay for classmates to do their research together, brainstorm ideas together, or read each other’s drafts and provide feedback?”

“I wrote an essay on a similar topic in another class. Is it okay for me to use all or part of that essay for this assignment?”

The most important thing, however, is that you get clear answers to these questions before it’s too late to undo your mistakes. If you’re not sure if your instructor wants you to do outside research at all, then ask them before you do any research. If you’re not sure if it’s okay to work with a classmate, ask your instructor before you and your classmate work together. If you’re not sure whether or not you’ve cited a given source correctly, ask your instructor before you turn the assignment in. As a student, you’re absolutely entitled to ask questions and receive clear answers about the work your instructors assign. Once you’ve submitted your work, though, the responsibility for following the rules correctly rests entirely on you.

4) Accept the Complexity

As scholars, the information and ideas we engage in our work can come in many, many forms and from a dizzying variety of places. When you’re writing in a discipline or genre that’s unfamiliar to you, or you’re working with material that’s unfamiliar to you, it’s not always clear how to cite that work fairly and correctly. This should not, in and of itself, be a cause for alarm. Figuring out how to properly use outside sources is an intellectual challenge that every scholar has to deal with, to some extent, in every new piece that they write. No one knows all the rules and understands how to apply them in every situation, so it’s okay if you don’t know, either. What matters is that you’re willing to figure it out, as best you can, for each new piece, before you submit or publish it.