We know that when we use a particularly original term when paraphrasing or summarising a scholarly work, we should put it in quotation marks. However, my fear has been that I inadvertently, without reading a particular scholar's work, use a term or phrase that might be considered by some as being too original or belonging to a particular scholar.

The Turabian talks about this as follows:

7.9.1 Signal Every Quotation, Even When You Cite Its Source

Even if you cite your source, readers must know which words are yours and which you quote. You risk a charge of plagiarism if you fail to use quotation marks or a block quotation to signal that you have copied as little as a single line of words. It gets complicated, however, when you copy just a few words. Read this:

"Because technology begets more technology, the importance of an invention's diffusion potentially exceeds the importance of the original invention. Technology's history exemplifies what is termed an autocatalytic process: that is, one that speeds up at a rate that increases with time, because the process catalyzes itself" (Diamond 1998, 301).

If you were writing about Jared Diamond's ideas, you would probably have to use some of his words, such as the importance of an invention. But you wouldn't put that phrase in quotation marks, because it shows no originality of thought or expression. Two of his phrases, however, are so striking that they do require quotation marks: technology begets more technology and autocatalytic process. For example, The power of technology goes beyond individual inventions because technology “begets more technology.” It is, as Diamond puts it, an “autocatalytic process” (301). Once you cite those words, you can use them again without quotation marks or citation:

"As one invention begets another one and that one still another, the process becomes a self-sustaining catalysis that spreads exponentially across all national boundaries."

This is a gray area: words that seem striking to some readers are commonplace to others. If you use quotation marks for too many common phrases, readers might think you're naïve or insecure, but if you fail to use them when readers think you should, they may suspect you're trying to take credit for language and ideas not your own. Since it's better to seem naïve than dishonest, especially early in your research career, use quotation marks freely. (You must, however, follow the standard practices of your field. For example, lawyers often use the exact language of a statute or judicial opinion with no quotation marks.)

To give you an example, I am currently putting together a new course syllabus and while the proposed title is not really out of the ordinary, if I google parts of it it comes up a few times only, and only once in the title of a paper. Because I do not know whether I need to use quotation marks and credit the term, I have now decided to use a different title for the course.

Of course, I could always use this method of checking with Google, but even then I am not sure if the simple fact that a phrase or term only comes up a few times/once in a title of an article is enough to justify putting it in quotation marks. Also, that would imply that I would need to constantly be checking Google when I write.

So I am wondering whether there is an easier way to decide when I have to put something in quotation marks and credit it with a citation and when not. I assume people will say that one just has to go with one's experience, but surely there is a big grey area and I am afraid of being accused of borrowing a term without acknowledgment. I get anxious about these things rather easily, but I am still wondering.

/Edit: I should clarify that my main fear is not really what is described in the Turanian but rather that I come up with a term or phrase by myself without realizing that someone somewhere has used this before and it is not considered a common phrase but an original term that should be put in quotation marks. Maybe I am a bit paranoid but this is my concern.

Anyways, any comment or suggestion would be appreciated.

  • Can you be more specific of what you refer to? In many fields, you put quotation marks to do literally what they are for, i.e. quote someone (no paraphrasing, quoting, literally), and thus you cite it as e.g. "Anyways, any comment or suggestion would be appreciated."[1] Klement Wilfredo, Academia SE. Instead, when you paraphrase, you don't quote, but you cite. Commented May 23, 2023 at 9:39
  • I have added a bit in the Turabian that talks about it. I am specifically not talking about entire sentences that are quoted. Rather, what I am talking about are two or three word expressions. How can I avoid inadvertently writing up a short term/phrase that is considered by some at least as so original that it belongs to a specific author and should be put in quotation marks. Commented May 23, 2023 at 10:32
  • I don't work in a field where this is an issue, but if I would, I would probably just do what Turabian says and quote everything that is supposed to be a quote. Better to be strictly explicit than potentially misleading a less proficient reader, IMHO. Commented May 23, 2023 at 10:54
  • Have put in an edit that hopefully clarifies my concern. Sorry for not being more clear in the first place. Commented May 23, 2023 at 11:23

1 Answer 1


In short, just stop worrying.

my main fear is [...] that I come up with a term or phrase by myself without realizing that someone somewhere has used this before

By the very definition, if you came up with it yourself, it is not plagiarism. Nor is it misconduct of any kind. So, your conscience should be clear.

This leaves a question: can you be (unjustly) accused of plagiarism, or that someone will notice and you will suffer reputation damage as a result? This is very unlikely. First, it will only be noticed, let alone acted upon, if the phrase is so unusual that you would be unlikely to coin it independently - but you just did, in the actual event, coin it independently. Second, actionable cases of plagiarism involve much more that just passingly re-using a term or a phrase in a text otherwise independently written. Third, this may be field-dependent, but in general, few academics would consider "coining a term" an intellectual contribution that is worth making a fuss about.

If you are trying to make up a particularly aphoristic headline, it makes sense to do due diligence and see if it was used before. But of course, no definition of "due diligence" would require anyone to google every phrase they ever write. If you write something on your own, it will be clear to anyone that you have written it on your own.

  • Thanks. This is super useful. Just one clarification: when you say "aphoristic", let's say for the example for the course title I mentioned, that would need to be something quite out of the ordinary to even possibly considered problematic, correct? I am thinking of just putting two common terms (e.g. "NGOs and Global Society") together, so that would be fine regardless of what I can or cannot find it I google it? Commented May 23, 2023 at 23:23
  • And that putting of two common terms together would be fine even if there is already a book or article with that name? Commented May 23, 2023 at 23:54
  • @KlementWilfredo I don't see an issue with the name itself - it's the most natural title for a text that considers these two things together. If the very idea to consider them together is non-trivial, and the name signals that this idea is the main innovation of the text, then existence of a book or an article with the same name means that what you are writing may not be so novel. But it's a different problem than just re-using the name.
    – Kostya_I
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 11:10
  • Okay I see, yes that would indeed be a different problem and wouldn't have anything to do with plagiarism I would think. But basically if I just want to call a course "NGOs and Global Society", I can just do that without having to scour the internet whether anyone has used this before as noone would doubt that I came up with it myself given that it seems to be a very obvious title for a course that covers these two aspects together, correct? Commented May 24, 2023 at 11:36
  • A straightforward title is perfectly fine. The world is full of courses named "Differential Equations 1". A course title isn't of itself an academic publication. Course (and even paper) titles often slyly incorporate some well-known phrase of the discipline, just to raise the reader's interest. As a hypothetical example, "COMP203 Goto considered harmless, state machines and autonoma" as a play on the famous title "Goto statement considered harmful" of Dijkstra's letter in Communications of the ACM. No citation is required, a reader is expected to know the source by the end of the course.
    – vk5tu
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 13:04

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