Paraphrasing or Plagiarizing? How to Know the Difference

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Recently, Millie Jones and Christy Fraenza, Lead Writing & Learning Specialists with the Writing Center, discussed paraphrasing on an episode of Write On. Listen to their advice on paraphrasing here, and get the class notes below.


Paraphrasing is a complex task and not easy to master. If you’re new to academic writing, it can take a lot of practice to correctly paraphrase so that you aren’t plagiarizing any sources. 

What Is Paraphrasing, Really?

Paraphrasing is when you have information from a source that you want to turn into your own words so that instead of just using the author's exact wording, you're now relaying it to your reader in a way that you would explain using your own style. Whether you’re using MLA or APA style, here’s how to paraphrase properly.

Try to think of it like this: if you read a paragraph, how would you tell someone about it? You would tell someone your interpretation or understanding of that paragraph. That’s exactly how paraphrasing should be.

  1. Read the passage
  2. Think about the ideas presented
  3. Put aside that source and try to explain the ideas in your own words
  4. Write that down

Misconceptions About Paraphrasing

  1. The biggest misconception about paraphrasing we see at the Writing Center is that all you have to do is change every few words and reorganize some sentences to paraphrase. It's important to note that this is not correct paraphrasing. You can't just pick out some words and change them to a synonym or change the order of some sentences.
  2. Another misconception is that when you paraphrase, you don't have to cite. Know that you do still have to cite the original source when paraphrasing. 

How Do I Paraphrase and What Does It Look Like?

Let's look at an example of paraphrasing gone wrong.

Original Source: Brown, A. (2015). The newest form of bullying has new consequences. Journal of Psychology, 207 (6), 17-27. Retrieved from
Research on cyber bullying has been conducted largely in the absence of theory. Theory neither guides the hypotheses that are derived nor are there faithful attempts made at theory building in the cyber bullying literature. Theory building can cultivate cohesiveness to a body of research by establishing an order to the variables already tested (Dublin, 1978). Moreover, the use of established theories in predicting behaviors has utility when broader processes are unclear. In cyber bullying research, there is an inherent need for both types of theoretical inquiry. 

Incorrect paraphrase attempt where the student thought she was paraphrasing correctly: Study on cyber bullying has been conducted largely in the lack of theory. Theory building can promote cohesiveness to a body of research by launching an order to the variables already tested (Dublin, 1978). Theory neither guides the assumptions that are derived nor are there true efforts made at theory making in the cyber bullying literature. Furthermore, when broader processes are unclear the use of established theories in predicting manners has utility. In cyber bullying research, there is an essential need for both types of theoretical inquiry. 

Paraphrasing is not an exercise in changing every few words.

What you see underlined above are 10 words that the students simply put in a synonym for. Instead of "research," she wrote "studied." Instead of "absence," she wrote "lack," and so on. Paraphrasing is not an exercise in changing every few words and using your thesaurus to find synonyms. This example would actually be plagiarism. 

Another thing that the student did here is reorganize some of the sentences. The third sentence in the original text has been moved to the second sentence. Doing so is not proper paraphrasing. Something else that's missing in the incorrect paraphrase is Brown, the original author, who isn't cited. So when I'm reading that incorrect paraphrase, it seems like the student has only read Dublin and the rest of these ideas are her own, which is not the case. Those ideas are coming from Brown.

Let’s now take a look at correct paraphrasing of the original text from writing experts, Millie and Christy. 

Millie’s Paraphrase

Brown (2015) stated that the research that has been done on cyber bullying has not applied established theories that may help to understand and predict occurrences of this type of bullying. Brown also noted that the current research does not show that new theories on cyber bullying are being tested. Dublin shared in 1978 that the development of new theories on an issue is useful in adding cohesiveness to what has already been established and what is now being understood (as cited in Brown, 2015). 

Christy’s Paraphrase

According to Brown (2015) researchers have yet to focus on developing theories when examining the topic of cyberbullying. This lack of focus does not allow readers to understand the different factors or variables associated with this problem (Dublin as cited in Brown, 2015). Brown further noted that theories are important, as researchers may use different methods when researching this topic; an established theory will allow readers to understand how the different studies are connected on this topic.

Paraphrasing is going to look different from one person to the next because we all interpret things a little differently and we all have our own way of explaining ideas.

When we attempted to paraphrase the original paragraph, we had to read it several times to really understand it. Then we tried to explain the ideas the way that we understood them. The ideas are still there, but we’ve written them in a way that is unique to our own style of explanation and writing. 

The first step to paraphrasing is really being able to understand what you're reading. If you don’t fully understand what you are reading, you won’t be able to explain it in your own words. Take your time to process what you are reading. And keep practicing with paraphrasing. The more you do it, the better you will become.

For additional examples and additional tips to help guide you as you paraphrase, check out the Writing Center’s page on Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing. 

For more writing chats, check out Write On! with Christy & Millie.



Written by Millie Jones, Writing Center

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