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Note Taking

Accidental plagiarism is often a result of how you take notes. When we research a topic, most of us are delighted to find any information on a topic. The focus of our notes is recording any and all information that might be useful for our final paper. However, we often donít know whether we will actually use that piece of information until weíre writing the paper ó hours, days, even weeks later.

By the time we use our notes, weíve usually forgotten exactly where they came from and whether we had copied the authorís exact  words, paraphrased her or written our own interpretation of the information. If the source of the information is not clearly indicated on your notes, it is easy to overlook direct quotes, paraphrase, and common knowledge when you use these notes in writing your paper. Any of these oversights might result in unintentional plagiarism.

The following strategies can help you avoid these problems when you are taking notes.

  • Always include information about your source with the notes from that source. For example, put the source information on the reverse side of a note card if you use cards or copy the title page if you are photocopying parts of a book.
  • Put quotation marks around direct quotes, the information that you have copied word-for-word from the source. You can also use a highlight color or some other code that identifies exact copy material.
  • It is better to copy your sources exact words than closely paraphrase or slightly alter the authorís words. It is difficult to safely use closely paraphrased material at a later time, when you are actually writing your paper. You run the risk of plagiarizing if you donít remember which words were the authorís and which were yours.
  • Many sources recommend the best way to take notes is to close the Ďbook,í not look at your source, to ensure you are writing your own interpretation of the ideas in your own words. Once youíve written your version, you can check the original source for accuracy and to make sure you didnít accidentally use the authorís original wording. The result is a true paraphrase or summary.
  • In some manner highlight true paraphrases you have written in your notes (underline, highlighter pen, highlight color in a wordprocesser, or some other method) so you remember to properly acknowledge the original authorís ideas if you include the information in your final paper.
  • If your professor accepts as common knowledge information that appears in a number of sources, it is worth noting the sources where potential common knowledge items appear so you can objectively determine if they meet the criteria.
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Last updated 02/26/2004 by Sue Thompson
Cal State San Marcos Library