In short: Don’t do it. But in truth, that is not good enough.
I have assigned and graded or had graded by TA’s tens of thousands of bits of writing by college students over the years. A lot of my friends are teachers. My wife is a teacher. I’ve seen it all. If you are a student trying to avoid getting caught plagiarizing, I can help you.
You need to know the following three things. These facts will save you from getting tossed out of college or having a mark on your high school record.
1) Teachers hate plagiarism more than they hate stepping on puppies and kittens. If there are two students in a class, and one has plagiarized an assignment and one has crushed some puppies and kittens, and the teacher only has time to turn one of them it to the administration, they’ll turn in the plagiarizer.
2) There has almost never been a case where a student was proved to have plagiarized something (by matching the original to the student’s paper) where the plagiarism wasn’t already blindingly obvious to the teacher to begin with. In other words, when you plagiarize something, it is always spotted immediately. If some other student tells you that they got away with it, they are lying to you (like House says, people always lie) or the teacher chose to not turn them in. Yet.
Given this, you should understand that plagiarism is never a good strategy for improving your grade. Just don’t do it.
Having said that, and recognizing that you didn’t come to this blog post to learn how to cheat, we can examine the marginal, rare cases that seem to happen so often; There are times, according to some students, when they didn’t really mean to plagiarize but they did anyway by mistake. For instance, the student copies a bunch of text from various web sites into a document file, then proceeds to write his own prose, deleting these “notes” as he goes. Then he saves the file and just at that moment the computer crashes. When the computer comes back up again, the file seems to be there but he has to get to basketball practice so he doesn’t look at the file. Then the next day he just turns the file in and never realized that the file had reverted to the earlier version which was nothing but snippets of text from various Wikipedia pages.
Which brings us to the third thing:
3) It does not matter if you did not mean to plagiarize or if you did it by accident or if your dog did it while you were not looking or whatever. Plagiarism is when you hand in work that consists wholly or in part of the work of another, unattributed. It does not matter how it got there. It does not matter what your intent was. It only matters that someone else’s work was passed off as yours.
You might be thinking that teachers and others are overplaying this. You might be thinking that it is not as though civilization will come to an end if plagiarism happens, so just get over it. If that is what you are thinking, then you are definitely not getting this: The truth is, that if plagiarism happens a lot, an important part of civilization will in fact end. The fact that you don’t understand this is of no interest to the keepers of civilization who will crush you like an ogre crushes a puppy if you do it. So deal.
So, what about the title of this post? How do you avoid getting caught plagiarizing? There are two steps to this process.
1) Don’t do it.
2) Don’t seem to be doing it, and for that, I have some actual helpful advice.
When you do go about copying and pasting text from the Internet as part of your research ALWAYS use a simple convention to make sure that this text is ALWAYS identified as someone else’s. Your convention needs two parts: Attribution and delimiters.
Delimiters first. When you copy something into a document file form the Internet, always use the same symbols to surround the text you copies. I suggest /slash marks/ or possibly [brackets]. Later, you can look at your document and know which parts are either notes destined to be erased or quotes destined to be put in “quote marks” or made into a block quote.
The attribution is the information you put just after the text you copied so you can reference it later. There are a lot of ways to do this. The simplest way for a small project is to make a list at the bottom of your document that has the URL’s you used as sources, numbered, and then use the numbers in your document to identify the text. It is not my job her to tell you the proper way to provide attribution and bibliographic references for your work … that varies with the school, the academic discipline, and the instructor. But however that is supposed to be done, it is in this stage of assembling the notes and information that you must link the reference to the source to the actual material.
If you use the delimiters, and your computer crashes and returns your document to the “notes” version, and you accidentally hand that in, you wont’ get in trouble for plagiarizing! Why? Because instead of handing in this…
The aardvark (Orycteropus afer, from Greek ορυκτερόπους (orykterópous) meaning “digging footed” and afer: from Africa) is a medium-sized, burrowing, nocturnal mammal native to Africa. It is the only living species of the order Tubulidentata, although other prehistoric species and genera of Tubulidentata are known.
Aardvarks have 4 toes on the forefeet and 5 toes on the hind feet, each ending in a spade-like claw that helps them to dig with great speed and force. Digging is used both to acquire food and as a means of escape. The stance is digitigrade.
… as though you wrote these words, which would actually be plagiarized from two sources, you’d be handing in this:
/The aardvark (Orycteropus afer, from Greek ορυκτερόπους (orykterópous) meaning “digging footed” and afer: from Africa) is a medium-sized, burrowing, nocturnal mammal native to Africa. It is the only living species of the order Tubulidentata, although other prehistoric species and genera of Tubulidentata are known./ 
/Aardvarks have 4 toes on the forefeet and 5 toes on the hind feet, each ending in a spade-like claw that helps them to dig with great speed and force. Digging is used both to acquire food and as a means of escape. The stance is digitigrade./ 
And then your teacher will be like, “What’s this” and you’ll be like “oh, crap, those are my notes! My computer crashed and this musta legit happened, man!”
You might get a crappy grade for this, but you won’t have that letter added to your file that will follow you around for the rest of your life.
There is something else you need to be aware of. Plagiarism isn’t just copying the exact words someone else wrote as though they were your own. It is also stating ideas that other people wrote and not attributing the ideas to them. There is something you need to know if you are writing an essay for high school or an intro college course: I promise you that your grader or teacher will be much more impressed by your frequent use of properly done citations than with some lame idea you claim (inadvertence or purposefully) to have had which is not really yours. Keep in mind that the people who are reading your essay have likely already read some or even all of the material you are using. If you present an idea as your own, and the idea is already in the literature, we know that either stolen the idea or you’ve had an unoriginal idea that you did not know was out there because you’ve not really done your homework.
If you really do have an original idea or observation, which is quite possible because you are clearly a very smart person if you’ve read this far in this very important essay, then make it clear in your work that it is your idea. How do you do that? Using language. Words. Sentences. Just say it. If you were busy writing your essay in the third person or in passive voice, then you may have a hard time phrasing a reference to yourself. Otherwise, just say that something is your idea. But just before you do that, google it. Maybe you’ll find someone else saying the same thing, and that will be a win because you’ll have yet another reference to properly cite in your essay!
Teachers: If you would like a PDF version of this essay to hand out to your students, feel free to download this file: HowToNotGetCaughtPllagiarizing.pdf