Accidental Plagiarism: How It Happens And How To Avoid It

Accidental plagiarism happens when someone forgets to cite their sources, misquotes them, or unintentionally paraphrases them by using similar words, phrases, or sentence structures without giving credit.

By Stephan Spencer - Published on - 2024-06-24 , Last-Mod: 2024-06-28

Reviwed by Stephan Spencer

Table of Contents

Introduction to accidental plagiarism

Writing can be tough, whether it's for school, work, or just for fun. Imagine you spend a lot of time researching and writing something original, only for someone to copy it without giving you credit. That's what plagiarism is – taking someone else's work and pretending it's your own. 

But what if someone does it by mistake? Can you accidentally plagiarize? Yes, you can! Accidental plagiarism happens when you forget to give credit to the original writer, maybe because you forgot to put quotation marks around their words or didn't list them in your sources.

There is so much information available online, it seems like every combination of words has already been written by someone else. This can lead to accidental plagiarism. The difference between accidental and intentional plagiarism is in the intent – accidental plagiarism happens by mistake, while intentional plagiarism is done on purpose. 

From 2007-2020, the National Science Foundation made 200 research misconduct findings, of which 78 percent were related to plagiarism. 

What causes accidental plagiarism?

Accidental plagiarism usually happens because we forget or don't realize we need to give credit to others for their words or ideas. It's not about trying to cheat – it's more like making a mistake because we didn't pay enough attention or understand the rules properly.

1. Forgetting to cite sources

Sometimes when we write, we forget to mention where we got our information from. This can happen because we're more focused thinking about our own ideas and might forget to mention where we got the facts from.

2. Not citing paraphrased information

Some students believe that it is necessary to cite a source only if they use a direct quote. Not true! Even if you explain someone else's idea using your own words, you still need to say where you got it from. Giving credit to the original writer, even when you explain things in your own way, is important.

3. Confusion

Sometimes, we might get our ideas mixed up with what we've read or heard from others without even realizing it. This can happen when we're trying to explain something and end up using words or phrases that we've seen somewhere else before.

4. Incorrectly paraphrasing

When you paraphrase, you need to make sure it sounds different from the original. Just changing a few words or the order of sentences isn't enough – you might as well just quote the original. For Example:

A student is working on a research paper and gathers information from various sources. While paraphrasing and rewording the content, they unintentionally use a unique phrase that closely resembles the wording of one of the sources. The student did not intend to claim it as their own, but since proper citation or attribution was not provided, it qualifies as unintentional plagiarism.

Is accidental plagiarism punishable?

In a survey about plagiarism attitudes by Vassileva and Chankova (2019), 44% of researchers from big scientific institutions and Bulgarian universities thought accidental plagiarism is not a “crime.” 

Plagiarism can happen either on purpose or by mistake. It's not always the same as cheating, which involves knowingly and dishonestly breaking the rules. McCuen (2008) explains this.

When it comes to research misconduct, accidental plagiarism is as bad as intentional plagiarism. It harms authors' impact factor and can damage the reputations of publishers and institutions.

Did You Know: As per the plagiarism statistics, there exist more than 5.1 billion websites, and among them, 1.5 billion sites have uploaded some copied content.

Tips to prevent accidental plagiarism

Here are some tips to help prevent plagiarism when writing:

Understand what plagiarism is: It could be any type of plagiarism, which means using someone else's words, ideas, or work without proper attribution. This includes copying passages verbatim, paraphrasing too closely, or failing to cite sources.

Take good notes: When researching, take careful notes and clearly mark direct quotations, paraphrases, and your own thoughts. This will help you differentiate between sources and your original writing.

Paraphrase properly: When paraphrasing, use your own words and sentence structures. Change the phrasing, word order, and syntax different from the original. Avoid simply replacing or rearranging a few words.

Use quotes carefully: While direct quotes are acceptable when properly cited, overusing them can lead to accidental plagiarism. Try to paraphrase most information from sources.

Be sure to give credit to your sources: Whenever you use someone else's words, facts, ideas, or findings, cite the source properly according to the required citation style (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago).

Get help if needed: If you're unsure about proper citation or have questions, consult your instructor, a writing center, or academic integrity resources.


Accidentally copying someone else's work happens a lot in writing today. Even though it's unintentional, it can still hurt your writing. In school, it's a big deal because it's not fair to use someone else's work without giving them credit. That's why it's super important to always check for plagiarism and make sure you cite your sources properly. Using a similarity checker can help catch accidental plagiarism and make sure your writing is all yours.

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