Types of plagiarism

Find out about the different types of plagiarism

The definition of plagiarism is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own” (Oxford Dictionary Online). A simple definition of plagiarism is “copying’. There are various different types of plagiarism and this article will give examples as a way of helping students to recognise plagiarism so that they can avoid it in their own work.

Copying someone else’s work and pretending that it is your own is a serious academic misdemeanour. Sometimes it is done deliberately and sometimes by accident, but it is still considered to be academic fraud by educational institutions. The student is expected to do all that they can to avoid plagiarism, so sloppy working practices are not an excuse!

Students are set assignments so that they can submit work that they have written themselves, giving them the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of the topic, to show the development of their learning over the course of a period of study, and to enhance their academic skills in terms of research and writing. To copy someone else’s work and submit it as if it were your own is not only a fraudulent attempt to gain credit for something you haven’t done, but is cheating yourself of an educational opportunity.

Types of plagiarism: printed sources

The problem of plagiarism has been known for some time and prior to the internet was limited to printed and other written sources. A common plagiaristic practice in this category is copying from a textbook where a summary of information from other sources is published so that students and other researchers can get an overview of a theory or set of experiments. Textbooks are secondary sources because they report on other people’s studies, whereas journal articles that present experiments are known as primary sources. To copy outright, word for word, from a textbook into an assignment without any attempt to summarise or synthesise the information, or find the original primary sources to read them for yourself is plainly lazy and does not demonstrate any understanding of the material. To avoid accusations of plagiarism when using textbooks, ensure that you credit the authors and use primary sources as well as secondary.

Another type of secondary source is a literature review article, or the literature review of a primary source. These are often rich in citations and therefore it is tempting for a student to lift paragraphs from these sources to insert into their own assignments, as it will appear as if the student has performed a lot of research by accessing all of these sources, when in fact they have only accessed one. As with textbook copying, unless the text is extensively rewritten, paraphrased to demonstrate understanding, credit given to the secondary source (i.e. use “cited by’ in the citation) and multiple primary sources used in the assignment, the tutor will pick up on this copying as plagiarism.

It is not advocated that the student should avoid reading textbooks and literature review articles, in fact many times a tutor will give a reading list that includes these sources. For the student to avoid the temptation to plagiarise this printed material, it is advisable to read these texts, taking notes if needed, as background reading to the assignment. Then when it comes to writing the assignment, base it on the primary sources you have read as much as possible and cite these, citing the textbooks only for general points and those that can’t be found in the primary sources.

Types of plagiarism: internet sources

Internet plagiarism is relatively new as the internet has not been around for as long as the printed word. Due to new technology, it is now even easier for students to plagiarise as they can copy electronically whereas previously they would have needed to write out words by hand. Luckily for the educational institution, new technology also makes plagiarism easier to detect, so students should not feel free to copy from websites as this will always be picked up by tutors.

Wikipedia is a potential source that may be used by students, and many tutors specifically state not to use it. Other summary and encyclopaedia style websites are also to be avoided, as are blogs and any website that does not cite academically trusted sources. The only time that these types of sites would be appropriate to be quoted or paraphrased in a student’s assignment would be if the assignment question was specifically related to these media. In some cases, for instance, it would be appropriate to cite online newspaper articles and reliable blogs in a media studies, criminology or sociology assignment. In these cases, the same referencing rules apply as for academic work, and it is still not acceptable to copy outright.

The internet has been of benefit to academics in terms of journal articles being published online, both new articles which are published simultaneously online and in print (and occasionally online only articles) and historic articles that have been scanned and uploaded into an archive. It is now possible to use a search engine such as Google Scholar to find articles dating back decades, which is very useful for academic authors and students. To use an online journal article such as this as a source is perfectly acceptable and not plagiarism as long as the text is quoted or paraphrased and authors are cited just as if it were a printed article. It is, however, considered to be plagiarism if the copy-paste function is used to lift paragraphs from an online journal article and place them into one’s own work without an attempt to integrate them into the assignment by paraphrasing and citing the author – just as it would be if the same text was copied into a handwritten essay.

Types of plagiarism: copying from other students

When students work together and share notes there is often the danger that they may be accused of collaboration. If the assignment is set to be written collaboratively this is a different matter, but if the assignment is set as an individual piece of work, students are not expected to write it with the help of another student. Sharing references and discussing the topic is acceptable, but students should avoid reading each other’s essays as there will always be the temptation to copy. If two submitted assignments from the same group are too similar, the tutor will suspect plagiarism, and unless there is substantial evidence to show which student copied from the other, both parties will be considered guilty. This is a warning to not give another student a copy of your essay!

There is also the possibility of a student copying an assignment from another student in the year above them. Tutors regularly change assignment questions but topics are quite stable and it is possible to find an essay that was submitted previously which can be used to answer a current question. Again, this is plagiarism even if it is rewritten as it is not possible to credit the other student as author. Universities keep copies of previously submitted assignments and it is possible to check a student’s work against prior as well as current students’ work, so this type of plagiarism will usually be detected.

Asking someone else to write an assignment for you and submitting this as if it were your own work is also classed as plagiarism, although this is more difficult for universities to detect if the assignment is unique, has not previously been submitted elsewhere and does not contain any plagiarised text itself.

Types of plagiarism: rewriting lecture notes

Many students rely heavily on lecture notes to write assignments but these are only intended as a starting point for the students’ research. It is acceptable to occasionally cite lecture notes if it is impossible to find a primary or secondary citation to support a point. But do not constantly quote a lecture in the mistaken belief that the tutor will be flattered and more likely to award higher marks. In reality the tutor will view the student as lazy if they are reading their own notes regurgitated back to them. It is technically not plagiarism if the tutor is cited, however if the lecture notes themselves do not contain citations, it may be considered to be plagiarism to write up a series of points when you do not know the source.

Detection of plagiarism

Plagiarism used to be quite difficult to detect, with tutors relying on intuition about a student’s abilities and an extensive knowledge of literature sources. Once it was suspected that a student had plagiarised, there would be an investigation with the assignment compared to the suspected source. 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. Detection of plagiarism is therefore quite easy for the institution and students should make themselves aware of the different types of plagiarism discussed above so that they may avoid them.

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