When you are taking notes, you might jot down the general parameters of an experiment you read about, you might summarize an author’s argument, or you might copy a section of text. Three, four, or five weeks later, when you sit down to write, you probably won’t remember which card contained the quote, which contained the paraphrase, and which contained the summary in your own words.
Whether you are reporting someone else’s experimental process, idea, or comment, you must always clearly distinguish when your use of that other person’s material is a summary of a main idea (someone else’s key idea, but in your own words), a paraphrase (someone else’s supporting materials rewritten in your own words), or a quotation (someone else’s exact words).
You can help protect yourself from errors by creating a system that labels the material. One easy system is to mark quotations with a clear Q, paraphrases with a P, and summaries with an S. With guidelines such as these, or with another clear system that you devise, you won’t find yourself unintentionally using someone else’s words by confusing a quote with your own summary. Using another author’s words without proper quotation marks is considered plagiarism, even if you have a footnote or a citation!