4 posts categorized "Principles of good writing"

May 12, 2016

Principles of Good Writing: Avoiding Plagiarism

HCooper 3-1-09

by Harris Cooper, PhD

Harris Cooper, PhD, is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. He is the author of Reporting Research in Psychology and editor of the APA Handbook of Research Methods in Psychology. He was the chair of the APA Journal Article Reporting Standards Working Group and served on the Publication Manual Revision Task Force for the sixth edition. In 2009, Dr. Cooper became the chief editorial advisor for APA's journal publishing program. In this role he served as a resource for the editors of APA journals as well as the mediator of disputes between editors and authors and between authors and authors.

Test quote 2Committing plagiarism can have devastating effects on your education or career. Perhaps most distressing is that it is so easily avoided.

Plagiarism involves the copying of text into a new work without crediting it to the original source. The main reasons why people plagiarize are simple. First, they want credit for someone else’s ideas. This motivation can come from a desire to impress others and to foster career advancement. Second, it can occur because people are just plain lazy. They have found a passage written by another that fits their paper well and is expressed clearly. They think it would be too much effort to rephrase and credit the source. 

Instances of plagiarism can range from stealing an entire work, by simply changing the name of the author, to paraphrasing someone’s work and not attributing the ideas to the original written document (Turnitin, 2012). Also, motivation can be used to distinguish among acts of plagiarism (Barnett & Campbell, 2012). Plagiarism can be intentional or conscious. It can also be unintentional or inadvertent; for example, when you read something and then later forget that it had a source other than yourself. Regardless of the motivation, plagiarism is plagiarism, and the possibility of unintentional plagiarism means the steps you take to avoid it ought not be based on your memory alone.

Students often ask “how many words in a row constitute plagiarism?” There is no black-and-white answer to this question. Different people will answer differently. Also, context might matter. For example, it is not unusual to find descriptions of research apparatus and psychological measures that share short strings of words without attribution to the original source, and without engendering charges of plagiarism.

Pull quote 2The first key to avoiding plagiarism is to avoid stealing ideas. This is called “intellectual theft” and it can occur without the material in question having ever been committed to print. When you mention another person’s idea in your paper, say who said it first. If the idea has been around for a while, you can cite the original source, the most representative source, or the most recent source. In most cases, which source is most appropriate will be evident from the context in which it is being cited.

But plagiarism is more than intellectual theft, though passing off others' ideas as your own is just as serious. Plagiarism involves copying words. Your first line of defense against an accusation of plagiarism is using quotation marks. A citation and a quote will protect you from charges of plagiarism. Long quotes, the type that require offset from the regular text by indenting them, are also legitimate but they should be used sparingly and may require the permission of the publisher of the original work. Different publishers have different standards for when their permission is needed. You will have to visit their websites to find this out. Remember however, if your paper contains too many quotes it will look like a mash-up, lazy, and not very original.

Be sure as well to check your citations for mistakes. First, read the referenced material carefully to make certain the ideas you are attributing to it are in there and you have portrayed them accurately. Second, carefully check the spellings and date in the reference. Copy editing can be tedious work, but it is important so that credit is given where it is due. Typically, an incorrect citation will not be viewed as plagiarism as long as the error is minor and it is clearly just a copy editing oversight, not intentional.

Your second line of defense is citing and rephrasing. If you have rephrased someone else’s work, be sure to cite the original source. Sometimes, rephrasing can be difficult because the original authors did such a good job of conveying their ideas. That is no excuse for copying without quotes. It is also where laziness creeps in. When you rephrase, think about your “voice” and how it might express the idea differently. Also, in many instances, you will want to shorten or summarize what the original authors said.

Finally, your last line of defense is using a plagiarism-detection services (e.g., iThenticate, at http://www.ithenticate.com; HelioBLAST, at http://helioblast.heliotext.com). Some charge fees, some don’t. These software programs will compare your paper with millions of other documents found online and in scholarly reference databases. They produce (a) a report that lists the documents that share the most material and (b) copies of those documents with the shared material highlighted. When you submit your paper to a detection service, you will be asked to decide how many shared words in a row should lead to getting flagged.

Pull quote 1bAlthough this may seem like overkill at first, it is a worthwhile step if your paper is long and complex and builds on the work of others as well as your own. Theses, dissertations, and any work being submitted to a professional journal fit this definition. If you are submitting to a scientific journal, the first thing that will happen to your paper is that the manuscript coordinator will submit it to a check. By doing it yourself, you will see what they will see. Also, remember that plagiarism sometimes can be unintentional. This is a great way to check yourself against the unconscious copying of words.

Computerization has made it easy to cut-and-paste the words of others. It has also made it easy to detect when plagiarism has occurred. You can avoid allegations of plagiarism through awareness and honest effort.


Here are two excellent sources of addition advice on avoiding plagiarism:

Roig, M. (2003). Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices. Retrieved from http://ori.hhs.gov/avoiding-plagiarism-self-plagiarism-and-other-questionable-writing-practices-guide-ethical-writing

Stern, L. (2009). What every student should know about plagiarism. New York, NY: Pearson.

You can also read about plagiarism here:

Cooper, H. (2016). Ethical choices in research: Managing data, writing reports, and publishing results in the social sciences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4312023.aspx


Barnett, J. E., & Campbell, L. F. (2012). Ethical issues in scholarship. In S. J. Knapp (Ed.), APA handbook of ethical issues in psychology: Vol. 2. Practice, teaching and research. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/13272-015

Turnitin. (2012). The plagiarism spectrum: Tagging 10 types of unoriginal work [Infographic]. Retrieved from http://turnitin.com/assets/en_us/media/plagiarism_spectrum.php

May 02, 2016

Principles of Writing: Passive and Active Voice

Chelsea blog 2
by Chelsea Lee

Few topics in scholarly writing raise as many questions as passive voice. Many writers have gotten the impression that passive voice isn’t allowed in APA Style or that if it is allowed, it is to be avoided at all costs. However, that’s an oversimplification. The reality is that sometimes the passive voice is appropriate, but many writers overuse it.

This post will show you how to identify the passive and active voices, explain the advantages and disadvantages of each, and help you choose the appropriate voice for your writing. Both passive and active voices are likely to appear in the same paper; it is just a matter of choosing the right voice given what you want to express.

Identifying Voice

Here is the classic formula for identifying the passive voice:

A “to be” verb + a past participle + the word by.

  • Active voice: The lion ate the mouse.

Lion eats mouse 1

  • Passive voice: The mouse was eaten by the lion.

Lion eats mouse 2

In the active voice sentence, the actor (the lion) is presented first, followed by the action (eating) and then the object of that action (the mouse). In the passive voice sentence, the order is reversed.

There are two caveats to this formula:

  1. Sometimes the word by is left out of a passive voice sentence but is still implicit in the meaning, for example, in a sentence like “This topic was addressed in the paper.” If you can ask “by whom?” and come up with a coherent answer (such as “by the researchers” or “by Smith”), then the sentence is still in the passive voice even though the word by does not appear. 

  2. Not all instances of to be indicate the passive voice, as in a sentence like “The participants were hungry.” Asking “hungry by whom?” makes no sense, so this sentence is not in the passive voice even though it has a to be verb.

Advantages of the Active Voice

The Publication Manual says to “prefer the active voice” (p. 77), and there are two main reasons why. First, the active voice clearly lays out the chain of events: Lion eats mouse. With a passive voice sentence, the reader must wait until the end of the sentence to discover who was responsible for the action. When used in a long sentence, the passive voice may confuse readers. Second, the active voice usually creates shorter sentences. Although your paper should include a variety of sentence lengths, shorter sentences are usually easier to understand than longer ones.

Here are two common cases in which you should prefer the active voice rather than the passive voice:

  1. Use the active voice to describe your own actions. It is completely permissible, and in fact encouraged, to use the first person to describe your own actions in APA Style. Use I to refer to yourself if you worked alone and we if you worked as part of a group (see PM 3.09 for more).
    • Active voice: I conducted an experiment about body image.
    • Passive voice: An experiment about body image was conducted.

  2. Use the active voice to acknowledge the participation of people in research studies, which is an important part of reporting research (see Guideline 3 on p. 73 of the Publication Manual for more on this). For example, researchers often administer surveys to participants or observe them for certain behaviors. Show with your sentences how participants completed actions, rather than how researchers acted upon them, as in these examples:
    • Active voice: The students completed the surveys.
    • Passive voice: The surveys were completed by the students.

Advantages of the Passive Voice

The Publication Manual also states that “the passive voice is acceptable in expository writing [writing used to give information on a topic or to explain something] and when you want to focus on the object or recipient of the action rather than on the actor” (p. 77). Here is an example of appropriate passive voice:

  • First-year students have been underserved by the university administration.

In this sentence, the focus is on first-year students. Depending on the context, this may be exactly what you are going for. The active voice version (“The university administration has underserved first-year students”) puts the focus on the university administration, which is not necessarily what you want. Remember, APA Style doesn’t prohibit the passive voice; it just requires that you use it wisely.

Strategies for Choosing the Appropriate Voice

Both the active and passive voices have uses in scholarly writing, so employ them appropriately. However, newer writers especially tend to overuse the passive voice, which can lead to clumsy, long, and confusing sentences. With that in mind, we recommend the following:

  1. Prefer the active voice over the passive voice to create clear, concise sentences; however, remember that the passive voice can also be an appropriate choice under certain circumstances.

  2. Identify cases of the passive voice by looking for instances of the to be verb + a past participle + the word by.

  3. Try rewriting a passive voice sentence in the active voice to determine which voice more clearly communicates your ideas.

For more on this topic, see section 3.18 of the Publication Manual.

Leave a comment if you've got questions that you want to be answered by us.

September 17, 2015

Principles of Writing: How to Avoid Wordiness

Chelsea blog 2
By Chelsea Lee Information filter

 A series on the principles of good scholarly writing.

Scholarly writing requires clear communication. 

To achieve this, writers must be concise—meaning they say only what needs to be said. When writers load sentences with extra verbiage or include asides that aren’t relevant to the argument, it’s called wordiness. Wordiness hurts communication because it forces readers to disentangle the useful parts of the writing from the unnecessary parts, which can slow down or even impede readers’ understanding. Your message will be lost if your writing is too wordy.

In this post I will discuss some practical strategies for reducing wordiness by highlighting several common wordy phrases and their alternatives.

  1. Phrases involving “the facts.” Examples: based on the fact that, due to the fact that, in spite of the fact that, because of the fact that, and so forth: 

    Any phrase that involves “the facts” is potentially wordy; instead, when possible, use because or although. Here are some examples: 
    • Wordy: Due to the fact that the measure was unavailable, I selected another.
    • Concise: Because the measure was unavailable, I selected another.

    • Wordy: In spite of the fact that half the participants dropped out the study, we still conducted Phase 2.
    • Concise: Although half the participants dropped out of the study, we still conducted Phase 2.
  1. Phrases involving “purpose” and “order.” Examples: for the purpose of, in order to, in order that, and so forth.

    Wordiness can creep in when you’re describing why something happened. Often phrases like for the purpose of can be eliminated, and others, like in order to, can be streamlined (in this case, to just to). Here are some examples:
    • Wordy: We administered surveys for the purpose of assessing motivation. 
    • Concise: We administered surveys to assess motivation.

    • Wordy: We designed the study in order to investigate different aspects of personality.
    • Concise: We designed the study to investigate different aspects of personality.
  1. Phrases involving “importance” and “interestingness.” Examples: it is important to note that, importantly, interestingly, it is interesting to note that, it is essential that, and so forth. 

    Leave things that aren’t important or interesting out of your paper. Write your sentences to highlight what is actually important or interesting—for example, begin by noting the result or the implication, not the fact that you are noting it. Also place an important concept at the beginning of a section or paragraph to draw more attention to it, rather than burying it. Here are some examples: 
    • Wordy: It is important to note that our study has implications for counseling practice.
    • Concise: Our study has important implications for counseling practice. 

    • Wordy: It is interesting to note that results diverged from the hypothesis.
    • Concise: Results diverged from the hypothesis. We found it interesting that…

These are just three examples of how writers can avoid wordiness in their scholarly writing. For more on this topic, see Publication Manual § 3.08 on Economy of Expression. If you have further questions about this topic, leave a comment below. 

March 27, 2014

Over the Hedge

Daisiesby Stefanie

I am as guilty of hedging as anyone here, if not more so. I am not, by nature, a decisive person. Couple that with work for almost two decades in scientific (Strike 1) writing (Strike 2), and I can tell you that the “facts” known today do not necessarily match those of yesterday.

Oh, oh, look what I did there! My first hedge! Using quotation marks to soften or make ironic something that does not need such treatment should be avoided.

And there, I just did it again! The words should be take the sting out of avoided, don’t they? But being to the point is helpful here. Avoid using quotation marks to hedge. There, that is much clearer. Also avoid using words like should, could, sometimes, may, and others to hedge on a point that does not need hedging.

Does not need hedging? Is that another hedge? No. The thing about scientific and scholarly writing is that hypotheses are always being tested. Theories are pushed to their limits with different experiments, be they physical or thought experiments, which are then reported in articles and books. Hedge I have yet to see an article or book end with the words “no more research is needed on this topic.” Sometimes experimental results are inconclusive. Sometimes their meaning is not clear under current paradigms. Sometimes the results are as clear as the nose on your face. When you are writing about your research, state confidently what you are confident about and qualify what you are not as certain of (or what you are certain is not certain; see my use of the word sometimes in the three previous sentences). Take time to think about what elements of your article fall into each category and present them accordingly.

When talking about other authors’ work, take your linguistic cues from them if you are equally convinced of the accuracy of their claims and conclusions. For example, let’s say I’m (a) in a fictional world and (b) writing about the Ark of the Covenant. As part of the research for my paper, I read an article in Archeology Today in which some guy named Henry Jones, Jr., says unequivocally that he found the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls in Jerusalem. Maybe I’ve met Dr. Jones at a conference and I feel confident that he’s a stand-up guy, or maybe I’ve read his other work and that has all seemed legitimate, or maybe his article contains so many facts and credible sources that I’m convinced he’s telling the truth. When I am mentioning Dr. Jones’s claim, which I believe, in my paper, I am not going to say, “Jones (1963) suggests that the Ark of the Covenant was found in 1936” but “In an article published decades ago, Jones (1963) announced that in 1936, he found the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls in Jerusalem.” In fact, the second example works even if I do not believe Dr. Jones’s claim: He did make that announcement in his 1963 article (he did in my fictional world, anyway). The point is, in this situation, there is no reason to hedge. “Jones (1963) found and lost the Ark of the Convenant in 1936” would be a way to uncritically report this key point from Jones’s article. If I take a more skeptical approach to Dr. Jones’s article, I can express that, too: “Jones (1963) claimed to have found and lost the Ark of the Convenant in 1936, but no other evidence supports this assertion and, in fact, the U.S. Government vehemently denied its alleged involvement.” I have clearly stated Jones’s claim, and I have countered that claim with some big grains of salt, to painfully strain a metaphor.

If the authors of your source articles are not committing to definite conclusions, though, follow their lead. If Henry Jones, Sr., writes, “I have reason to believe that Alexandretta is the starting point for the path to the Holy Grail, but I have yet to find conclusive proof,” it is misleading to report, “Jones (1937) reported Alexandretta is the city in which the Holy Grail journey starts.” It is not up to you to clean up someone else’s hedging. In fact, it’s best if you report the uncertainty. To put it in perspective, the difference between “I think the parachute is packed correctly” and “the parachute is packed correctly” is huge. Which parachute will you choose to strap on?

Hedge only if you must. Otherwise, be as decisive in your writing as your sources and circumstances allow.

Photo: Falombini/iStock/Thinkstock.

Search the APA Style Blog


My Photo

About Us

Blog Guidelines

APA Style FAQs


rss Follow us on Twitter

American Psychological Association APA Style Blog

Twitter Updates