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Can paraphrasing be considered plagiarism?

Every writing task usually implies reading. Whether it's an academic paper, blog post or newspaper article, it rarely gets written from scratch. Even subject matter experts consult sources and other experts before writing.

In this situation, how do you draw the line between original and borrowed ideas? And if an external text has been rewritten in other words rather than simply copied, is it still plagiarized? Finally, do well-knownfacts require citation? In this article, we’ll give the answers to these and other important questions.
What is a paraphrase?
According to Merriam-Webster, a paraphrase is “a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form.” In other words, authors who want to paraphrase someone's ideas should interpret them in a new way, yet keep the original meaning.
In academic papers, paraphrasing is preferred over quoting. By avoiding copying the exact wording, students get (and demonstrate) a deeper understanding of the subject. It makes sense to use quotation instead of paraphrasing only when an original text is so impactful that it would lose its value when rewritten.
Paraphrased text is plagiarized when
1. It doesn't contain proper acknowledgement. By re-expressing someone's idea in our own words, we don't make it ours. A reader should be able to distinguish our insights from those that belong to someone else. The right way to do that is to provide proper attribution to the relevant source. If authors don't give credit, they end up taking it and thus plagiarizing, whether it's been done intentionally or by accident.

2. It's too close to the original version. Paraphrasing is a fresh expression of an idea, not a trivial rewording. It's not enough to change some words here and there and leave the main text unaltered. Instead, authors should completely restate the original passage using their own vocabulary.

Superficial changes often consist of a simple synonym replacement or altered sentence order while keeping the original sentence structure. In academic writing, this situation may show that students don't have a significant understanding of the subject.

If an author fails to articulate an idea in a new way, then he is plagiarizing even if he's provided a reference. As a rule, good rewriting implies that there are no identical sequences consisting of 7 or more words. When checking for plagiarism with PaperRater's plagiarism checker, you can find a list of such matching phrases.
Paraphrased text is NOT plagiarized when
1. It's formatted properly. On the contrary, paraphrasing cannot be considered plagiarism when applied correctly. This means that an author should both cite an external source and use as few words as possible from it.

Quite often, rephrasing leads to a reinvention of the original idea. Therefore, when checking provided sources, it's a good idea to see if an author has actually succeeded in conveying the original meaning.

2. It describes widely-known facts

It's pretty clear that ideas and interpretations need to be cited, but what about well-known facts that can't be attributed to anyone? Let's say a paper contains this sentence: "Gravity was discovered by Sir Isaac Newton, an English mathematician and physicist who lived from 1642-1727." Yes, there are many similar and even identical phrases on the Internet, yet it cannot be considered plagiarized, as it's common knowledge.

While there's no clear boundary on what common knowledge is, the two general criteria are ubiquity and anonymity. Before considering a fact common knowledge, try to find it on five independent and reputable sources. If none of them gives a credit to a certain author, then it's common knowledge.
The bottom line
Paraphrasing can be both plagiarism and a way to avoid it. When correctly cited and expressed in original words, paraphrasing is absolutely legit and even welcome. If any of these conditions hasn't been met, then plagiarism has taken place. For example, if an author provides a reference but his language is too close to the original, it's plagiarism. Alternatively, even if an author distills a borrowed idea into his own words, he still needs to give credit rather than take it.

At the same time, paraphrased well-known facts can be used without citation and shouldn't be considered plagiarism, as they convey common knowledge. Practically everything we know and write about is somehow based on these facts. That's why when getting a plagiarism report, it's wise to check if matching phrases express stolen ideas or well-known facts.

This blog article was written by Linda Emerson from iSpringSolutions, an e-Learning software development company.

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