What is plagiarism?

Find out what plagiarism is and how to avoid it

Student and teacher working on an essayThe definition of plagiarism according to the Oxford Dictionary Online is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”. As such, it is a form of fraud and must be avoided as it is harshly treated by educational establishments. This is the basic definition of plagiarism but there are a wide variety of behaviours within creative work, literature and academic work which count as plagiarism. It is common for students to plagiarise without realising it, but ignorance is not an excuse, therefore it is important for all students as well as those who work within the academic and research spheres to familiarise themselves with the practices that constitute plagiarism so that they may avoid it.

Students are expected to conduct research into the topic they are writing about, which includes reading extensively then writing assignments which are set by their tutors to demonstrate the students’ understanding of the topic at hand. This will involve citing authors they have read, paraphrasing those authors’ words and occasionally quoting authors to make points in the student’s assignment. It is therefore important for students to learn how to correctly reference other authors as they may be accused of plagiarism simply because they have not correctly credited authors for the work they quote. For example, some students copy another author’s work without realising that they are supposed to paraphrase and quote and give the authors credit, and believe that what they have done is within normal academic practice. A common mistake is to rewrite lecture notes into essays without realising that the lectures may have been given based on research conducted by other academics. Most lecturers do make reference to authors to support the information they are imparting, however if the student copies part of the information without citing the author, this is classed as plagiarism.

Plagiarism can therefore result from poor working practices by students or researchers who don’t check their referencing style correctly and quote other authors without giving credit to their words. It can also occur when a student has copied work from another source, such as another student, a textbook or an internet source, and put it into their own work as if it was written by themselves. This is more likely to be a deliberate fraud rather than a mistake. Sometimes students will reword paragraphs from these sources before attempting to submit them as their own work (sometimes called ‘Mosaic plagiarism‘), but this is still classed as plagiarism if the rewording is not adequate and if the original author is not cited as a source.

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It is considered to be a form of cheating to plagiarise, as the student is trying to gain credit for something that is not their own work. Therefore it is taken very seriously by schools, universities and other educational institutions. Many institutions use computer programs which check through assignments that are submitted electronically and compare them to previous assignments from other students, textbooks and internet sources. The reports from these anti-plagiarism programs return a percentage match with sentences and paragraphs underlined so that tutors can see where the student may have copied work. It is expected that some assignments will find matches with others if they are written on the same topic, but a tutor will become suspicious if there are large portions of text that are almost identical to other sources and with no quotation marks or citations given to credit the original author. Often the tutor marking an essay is not the same person as the tutor who gave a lecture on which the essay may be based. Therefore it may be the case that students feel they can rely heavily on lecture notes without being caught out, however when most of the submitted essays are almost identical, this becomes quite obvious to the marker.

The copy machineAnother common mistake is to rely too heavily on properly referenced sources but not give any indication that the student who has written the assignment has understood what they are regurgitating. If a submitted assignment is full of long quotations with little attempt to paraphrase and demonstrate understanding, even if the authors of the quotations have been credited, this is poor practice and may also be considered plagiarism by some institutions. Too many quotes mean that the student has not properly demonstrated their understanding of the topic, but simply used others’ words in their own work. It is therefore advisable for students to use direct quotations sparingly in assignments and to paraphrase as much as possible instead of quoting. Paraphrasing work is to rewrite in your own words in a shorter form, to summarise key points which are relevant to your assignment, and therefore show your own understanding of how that author’s work fits into your assignment. The author of the original work is made reference to in the sentence, or if it doesn’t fit into the sentence they are given a citation at the end of the sentence.

Students can learn the style of writing academic essays, including how to use citations, by reading published journal papers, many of which are available online. The introductions, literature reviews and discussions of these papers are written in a strong academic style which students can aspire to. Academic journal papers are extensively peer reviewed and therefore can be trusted to be free from plagiarism themselves, so students can learn from these how to express themselves in a non-plagiaristic fashion.

Academic journal papers are also useful for finding sources for an assignment. It is not plagiarism to follow up a reference from a journal paper’s reference list, find this paper and read it yourself then cite it in your own assignment. However, it would be considered plagiarism to copy the citation that has been given in an academic paper and put it into your own assignment without making an attempt to find the original paper and read it. If it is not possible to find the paper, it can be cited as a secondary source to avoid plagiarism.

Examples of correctly cited authors are as follows:

Attachment theory was developed from studies of children’s early relationships which were believed to influence future relationships “from the cradle to the grave” (Bowlby, 1979, p.129).

Bowlby (1979) believed that children’s early relationships influenced their behaviours in future relationships throughout their whole lives.

Bowlby (cited by Rutter, 2005) developed the theory of attachment, which proposes that the first relationship a child encounters will have a profound influence on the rest of his or her life.

All of the above are adequately sourced sentences which would be acceptable in an academic essay and not result in accusations of plagiarism. However, if a student attempted to submit an essay which discussed the concepts described in those sentences without citing any author, the tutor would question where the student had read the ideas they were discussing.

When writing academic assignments, it is important to use evidence to support all points that are made. Any points of discussion should be backed up by research, either one’s own or that of a published author. This evidence may come in the form of primary research in the case of a dissertation, but in the literature review of the dissertation and in non-primary research assignments, the evidence is produced in the form of citations to other authors.

It is good practice to cite an author for each main point that is made within an assignment. Assignments for higher level studies will often cite several authors for each point. As a rule of thumb, you should not write a paragraph that contains no citation, but should always ensure that the points made in that paragraph are supported by at least one citation each, even if it is the same author as has been cited previously. If you cannot support your argument with reference to published work then either your argument is not academically supportable or you have copied the argument and are not citing the author, therefore guilty of plagiarism.

If the assignment is written with only one author cited, unless this has been specified by the tutor setting the assignment such as an in-depth analysis and critique of a research paper, then this may be classed as plagiarism as it relies too heavily on one source. It is always good practice to find a variety of sources around a particular topic, especially if they disagree as then you can demonstrate that you are aware of the debates within the topic.

One of the most difficult forms of plagiarism for universities to discover is when a student submits an assignment that has been written by someone else. This counts as plagiarism under the definition of passing someone else’s work of as one’s own. Tutors may suspect that the assignment has not been written by the student who submitted it if they have seen previous work by this student and the style is completely different, or if the assignment is very well written and the student has not shown that level of academic ability previously. This is difficult to identify though, if the assignment has not been published elsewhere.

As can be seen from this brief overview, plagiarism covers a variety of practices some of which may be mistakenly believed to be acceptable academic style whereas others are quite obvious cheating. All forms of plagiarism are academic fraud, however, and are dealt with harshly, perhaps leading to the exclusion of the student from the educational institution. Students should therefore be on their guard against plagiarism in their work.

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