I’m not a young pup anymore. Not that I’m nearing retirement anytime soon, but I find it amazing how much things have changed in the academic world since I first started my bachelors degree in 1996. I can’t prove it (yet), but I can almost guarantee that students in grades six through twelve have no real experience or knowledge of encyclopedias. I remember being envious of friends of mine who had those books in their houses. All that knowledge right at their fingertips, and here I was going to the library, LIKE A SUCKER!

Streeter Seidell, Comedian, by Zach Klein

Streeter Seidell, Comedian, by Zach Klein

Now that I am working on my third spin as a student through the academic world (just under eight years from my last exit as a student and about five years from my exit as a professor), I see escalations on both sides of the plagiarism problem—the students (and professionals) abusing the system and organizations trying to stop it. When I was a professor, plagiarism was relatively easy to spot. A good number of my students were not native English speakers, and the ones that were had escaped their bachelors degree without a refined ability to express themselves through written prose. So you can imagine that when I would receive a paper with some awkwardly worded paragraphs and see a beautifully formatted and written grouping of sentences right in the middle, I started asking questions about where this text was lifted from. And thanks to the expansiveness of Google, it’s pretty easy to find plagiarism.

In the worst case, I had a student that plagiarized nearly half of his paper from another source without any references. We always tried to give the student the benefit of the doubt, but could not accept the work as-is (immediate zero plus a potential to turn it back to the university for disciplinary action). As someone who had taught higher-education, I felt very prepared for the lectures we would get on plagiarism in my doctoral program. For the most part, nothing was too surprising. It’s a serious offense to publish something as your own when it is not. The biggest trick to avoiding plagiarism is to only write in your own words but reference the sources you use to build those words. That is, avoid direct quotes and never use the copy and paste functions prevalent in every word processor.

My first couple of quarters were absolute killers on writing for me. I had to develop my academic voice and get used to standing on the backs of other scholars. Imagine my surprise when I used the same techniques in the past on a total whim to discover another student plagiarizing. Accidental or not, it’s still a serious issue that is unpleasant for everyone to deal with.

To close out this post, I wanted to offer some tips to avoid plagiarism so you don’t end up in a bad situation as you move through your academic and professional career. Everyone makes mistakes, but this short guideline should help ensure you don’t end up plagiarizing:

  • Realize that your papers (and students before you) are probably added to one of a few databases to check for plagiarism, so don’t give away your past work and don’t copy another learner’s work.
  • When in doubt, cite. Go find a solid reference if you need to back a claim up.
  • NEVER USE COPY/PASTE!
  • Don’t try to play the “All I need to do is change a few words and it’s not plagiarism” game after violating the above rule. Just write it in your own words.
  • Do not turn in one of your old papers as new/current work.
  • Google can be a great research tool, but it can also be a great whistle blower. If you can access something through it, so can your professor.
  • It’s better to confront problems in the learning process with a professor before risking plagiarizing to meet some deliverable date.

This post originally appeared on BrandenWilliams.com.