Writing with Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism

Helping students learn how to write effectively with sources, and to avoid plagiarism, is an important concern for many faculty.  At the University Writing Center, we focus on teaching students how to integrate written sources with their own analysis and conclusions in order to create an authoritative, credible academic voice to use in their scholarly arguments.  We find that teaching effective use of sources and proper citation practices is one of the most practical ways to reduce plagiarism.  With this in mind, below are some strategies and some useful links for helping students incorporate sources into their work, as well as understand and avoid plagiarism.

Help Students Understand How Sources Serve Their Writing

Teaching an effective use of sources often starts with helping students understand how outside sources and citations serve their writing.  It helps to remind students how sources help create, support, and extend an argument.  In the links below, you will find a video workshop created by the our Writing Center to help students with this process.  Such an approach helps students regard sources as something more than an obligation forced into a paper.  Students unfamiliar with quoting material may find it helpful to think of a three-part structure:  introductory phrase or attributive tag; quoted material; and in-text citation.  Bibliographies, as well, can be taught as a way to facilitate the research process—we often use annotated bibliography assignments for this purpose—rather than as a last-minute obligation.

Discuss Different Ways of Incorporating Sources into Writing

Discussing the decision whether to quote, summarize, or paraphrase, and what the effects of each choice may be on the writing being done, helps students feel more comfortable synthesizing their own ideas from the work of others.  A problem area we sometimes see is the student who chooses to use only one of these methods.  Challenging students to try out methods they’re less comfortable with can be a good way to push them into a deeper connection with the material.

Talk to Students About the Rhetorical Functions of Sources

Students both understand and use citations more effectively when they understand their rhetorical functions.  As scholars, we understand that citations are used in our writing not simply to avoid plagiarism or to report information, but also to make intellectual connections, build credibility, and contextualize research.  Discussing how these features affect an authorial ethos can benefit student writing by making citations meaningful elements of writing, and not simply incomprehensible requirements that they associate with punishment and error.

Plagiarism Can Be a Writing Problem that Provides Teachable Moments

It is helpful to remember that documentation/citation errors are not signs of intended deception.  As plagiarism researcher Rebecca Moore Howard argues, plagiarism is a writing problem, not unlike an imperfect understanding of grammatical rules.  Plagiarism is very often not a fatal error that must be fought—but rather the sign that the writer is still crafting his or her skill. It’s helpful to remember that citation errors are teachable moments first, and that patience and helpful criticism can more effectively help the writer develop that skill than will punishment.

Effective Assignment Design and Sequencing Helps Prevent Plagiarism

Yes, sometimes students intentionally plagiarize, though the research about plagiarism indicates that intentional cheating is often motivated by panic and fear of failure. Even so, there are ways to design and sequence assignments that make it less likely for students to engage in cheating. For example, assignments that evolve from class discussions are less likely to lead to using other students' work from other semesters. In addition, designing assignments so students work on them in increments - such as early drafts or annotated bibliographies, helps students manage time and ensures they turn in their own work. It is also a way to see if they are missing early deadlines and then provide them with help. Every draft or bibliography does not have to be read in depth.

The Problems with Plagiarism Detection Software

At the University Writing Center, we do not use, or support the use of, plagiarism detection software such as SafeAssign or Turnitin.com.  Such software is not only flawed in its identification of potential plagiarism in student texts, but, more to the point, it creates an atmosphere of suspicion and surveillance that undermines productive teaching relationships.  For more details on this position, see the policy of the UofL Composition Program, which we support in the University Writing Center.

Encourage students to visit the University Writing Center.

We are experienced at working with students on writing with sources. We can help them plan and organize their drafts as they are conducting research, or we can help them improve their drafts and offer strategies for revision. What's more, we work with students on identifying and employing appropriate citations in their work. Encourage students to make an appointment and let us help them become better writers.

For more ideas how to teach students to write with sources and avoid plagiarism, see links below:


The University Writing Center advocates an understanding of plagiarism based more in terms of professionalism and authorial integrity, rather than as illicit behavior that demands academic punishment.  Helping your students focus on potential, rather than potential risk, is likely to result in higher caliber research papers in which students feel an authorial investment.

Useful resources on the University Writing Center Website include:

Other useful resources include:

Using Academic Sources Effectively and Ethically: Miami University Farmer School of Business

Conceptualizing Plagiarism: Purdue University OWL

Rebecca Moore Howard’s weblog on Plagiarism as a Writing Problem

UofL Composition Program Policy on Plagiarism Detection Software