To paraphrase is to experience a tension: you must accurately reproduce your source’s ideas, but you must do so in your own language. The convention in many disciplines—mostly in the sciences and social sciences—is for writers to paraphrase a source’s ideas in their own language rather than relying on quotation. But even in disciplines where quoting is common, paraphrase is an important and widely-used approach to engaging with sources.
How much do you need to change a source’s words for the language to be your own? You may have heard that five words in a row is considered plagiarism. We would like to give you that kind of clear-cut standard for judging when you have plagiarized. But plagiarism is more a matter of context than of a specific number of words. Reproducing a long string of generic words would not be considered plagiarism, while copying a single word—if used for the first time, or in a novel way by a source—could be.
If Turnitin flags a passage in your paper as similar to a passage in one of your sources, you’ll need to consider whether you are using the source’s language fairly. Look for words and phrasings that the source author could plausibly claim as their own. If those phrasings appear in the same form in your writing, you’ll need to rephrase them to avoid the impression that you are claiming credit for another scholar’s work.
Paraphrasing fairly can be a challenge, especially when the language of your source is highly technical, when the subject is specific, or when the author has conveyed an idea with exceptional clarity. Working with the kinds of results you might find on a Turnitin originality report, the pages linked below offer a variety of strategies for paraphrasing a source’s language fairly and accurately.