Plagiarism FAQs

Cartoon teacherQ: What is plagiarism?

Simply put, plagiarism is copying someone else’s work and pretending that it is your own. Everybody’s work is automatically copyrighted to themselves, and breach of copyright is illegal. Different countries have different copyright laws which is why there is often difficulty with internet copying. In general, if you publish something that is someone else’s work and don’t give credit or payment to that person then this is illegal. But plagiarism is usually used in an academic context in terms of essays and assignments that students submit to schools and universities. If all or part of the assignment that the student submits is work copied from somewhere else, either another student, a textbook or from a website, then this is plagiarism.

Q: Does it matter how much is copied?

It is still plagiarism even if a small part of an assignment is found to have been plagiarised. The severity of the punishment may be less for an assignment that is only partially plagiarised in comparison to one that contains no original material from the student. Nevertheless it is still classed as plagiarism and will still be punished by the institution.

Q: Is it still plagiarism if the words have changed?

Yes. Plagiarism includes ideas as well as words, so if you have used a source and changed the words (called “paraphrasing‘ in academic works) then you must still cite the source that you used.

Q: What is the difference between quoting and paraphrasing?

Be careful of the difference between quoting and paraphrasing, both require citations. When you quote, you reproduce a sentence or few words exactly, put quotation marks around it and cite the source before or after the quoted segment. With paraphrasing, you are changing the words but the meaning is still intact, in a sense you are giving a summary of what the source has said or using their work to support your own points. You do not need quotation marks for this but you still cite the source. However, if when you are paraphrasing, you follow the original words too closely, so that it should be a quoted rather than a paraphrased section, then this can still be classed as plagiarism even with the citation.

Q: What if I write something the same by mistake?

It’s very unlikely that you’ll use the exact same words as someone else, but it may be that you come up with the same idea or a very similar one. If you can prove that it is your original idea, by producing evidence of your research process, then this may be excused as coincidence. But be careful of subconsciously reproducing something you’ve previously read and then forgotten about. If you believe that you have been influenced by a source then you should cite it.

Q: If I cite the source, will this avoid plagiarism?

Not necessarily, because it depends on how much you use from the source. For instance if you quote whole paragraphs and you haven’t provided any discussion or contrast with other sources, then even though you have cited the source this is still considered plagiarism. This comes under the “fair use’ policy of copyright law which says that small portions of text can be reproduced, with citations. If the work you have submitted is predominantly made up of words from other people, then you have not demonstrated any depth of understanding of the topic, which is the reason you are submitting an academic assignment. There is another time when citing the source would not avoid trouble, and this is if you have misrepresented someone else’s work. For instance if you use a citation from someone to support a point you make that is actually quite different from the argument the person you are citing has made. This is misrepresentation and is looked on harshly by institutions. So be careful to ensure that all of the points you make are supported by a valid citation, not just any citation!

Q: Do I need to cite a source for facts?

This depends on what facts you are presenting. If you are presenting anything that is the result of research, such as statistical data about crime levels or opinion polls, then the source should be cited as you need to demonstrate where you found this information. If the facts are related to historical events, geographical information or they are something that is “common knowledge’ then a citation is not necessarily needed to support your point. But be careful of using a “common knowledge’ standpoint towards information that is subjective, e.g. cultural or political attitudes or your own opinions and presenting them as facts, as this is not good academic practice. Try to question any fact you present to be sure that it is sturdy and can withstand critique.

Q: Does it matter if I didn’t know that what I did was plagiarism?

You will still be liable for whatever punishment your institution dishes out for plagiarism even if you argue that you didn’t realise what you did was wrong. As an academic it is your responsibility to find out the rules about writing assignments, and there is enough information given about plagiarism for you to be able to find out easily if your assignment is plagiarised or not. Ignorance is not an excuse, for instance if you broke the speed limit while driving and argued that you hadn’t seen the sign that stipulated what the speed limit should be, you would still be guilty of breaking the speed limit.

Q: Why is plagiarism taken so seriously?

Your institution, whether it is a school, university or college, will want to crack down on plagiarism and other forms of cheating because they need to know that the qualifications they are awarding are valid. If you have gained a qualification by cheating then you have not demonstrated that you deserve that qualification by hard work and knowledge gained. Your own qualification will be invalid, but as well as this it may put into question all the other qualifications that this institution is giving to other students. If they have let one student get away with cheating, who is to say which of the other students deserve their qualifications? For this reason, the institution regulates the coursework and examination process, including checking for plagiarism in submitted assignments.

Q: How can I avoid plagiarism?

If you follow all of the advice about correctly citing sources, paraphrasing and minimal use of quoting, and working on your own unless specifically given a group work assignment, then you should be able to avoid deliberate plagiarism. However, as it is possible to inadvertently plagiarise because you may have read something elsewhere and forgotten, then write it in your assignment as if it were your own idea, there are steps you can take to ensure that your assignment is completely plagiarism free. Software is available online which will check through your assignment and compare it to others that have been submitted and other sources such as web content and textbooks. This is similar to the software that institutions use to check through students’ assignments.

Q: How is plagiarism detected?

In the past, plagiarism was quite difficult to detect, as tutors would rely on their knowledge of a student’s previous performance, for instance if you had performed badly all year and then suddenly produced an extremely well written and insightful piece then this may raise suspicions. Or if your oral presentation in tutorial groups was poor and yet your written work was very good, there may be questions raised. Before the internet, it would be down to the marking tutor to have an extensive knowledge of literature sources so that he or she could compare your assignment to them. If it was suspected that a student had plagiarised, an investigation would ensue and the tutor would compare the assignment to the suspected source, perhaps calling on a colleague to give another opinion.

Universities and other educational institutions now subscribe to software which compares line by line the student’s electronically submitted assignment with all other submitted assignments, including those from past years, and electronic text from textbooks and online sources. It is not only whole sentences that are compared, but the percentage match, so that if a sentence has been copied with one or two words changed, this will be picked up. The tutors will then glance through the results of these scans and look more closely at those assignments with a high percentage matching content. When these sentences are very general or are quotations, this is most often ignored by the tutor, but students with highly matching content will be called in to explain how they have produced something so similar. This is why it is important to keep all of your notes and research for an assignment. If you can prove that the plagiarism was coincidental or accidental then you may be treated more leniently.

Q: What guidelines do tutors who mark essays have to go by?

All institutions have their own sets of rules about plagiarism, and these will be outlined in your student handbook. Many tutors who mark undergraduate essays are quite junior in their jobs and may be afraid of being too harsh or too lenient when marking. Tutors are given guidelines so that they can be sure they mark fairly. For an idea of the sort of information about plagiarism tutors are given, check out this website.

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