Avoiding plagiarism

Study guide

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This guide aims to help you to understand what plagiarism is in the context of academic work and offers guidance on how to avoid it.

Other useful guides:  References and bibliographies; Effective note making. Or view the interactive tutorial.

What is plagiarism?

In all aspects of academic study and research, thoughts and ideas inevitably build on those of other writers or researchers - this is a legitimate and indeed essential part of the academic process. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines plagiarism as the taking and using as one's own ... the thoughts, writings, or inventions of another.  In an academic context, plagiarism implies a deliberate act on the part of the writer or researcher to use the work, ideas or expressions of others as if they were his or her own.

Deliberate plagiarism, therefore, is academic cheating, and the university has a very firm view on this: anyone found to have deliberately copied or plagiarised the work of others is severely penalised. The University regulations concerning academic dishonesty can be found here; departmental handbooks should also include a statement of the University's policy in respect of academic dishonesty.

Deliberate plagiarism with a clear intention to cheat is, however, far less common than plagiarism committed through misunderstanding or even carelessness. These latter types of plagiarism may occur if:

  • you fail to acknowledge fully the sources of knowledge and ideas that you use in your work;
  • you incorporate the words of others into your writing as if they were your own;
  • you 'string together' ideas or facts taken from others without presenting your own viewpoint.

Many students, particularly those at the beginning of their courses, are unclear about how to use the work of others in a way that does not constitute plagiarism. This leaflet has been written to give guidance on how to avoid plagiarism and at the same time produce work of better quality.

Fully reference and acknowledge the work of others

Understanding how to use and appropriately acknowledge your debt to the work of others is an essential step in learning how to avoid plagiarism.

Make sure that when you are reading or researching for any written work or presentation, you include in your notes, or on any photocopies, the full reference details (see the Student Learning Development guide: Referencing & Bibliographies) of each source that you use. This will ensure that you have all the information you need to acknowledge your sources fully when you come to use this material in your own work.

When you write down the precise words of a writer, or even of a lecturer, make sure that you mark clearly in your notes that you have included an exact quotation, and add the relevant page number to the other reference details (this includes the citation of sources on the Web, and online discussion lists/mail bases/databases). This will ensure that when you go back to your notes at a later date you will be able distinguish your own words from those of your sources. An appropriate sentence or phrase quoted from an expert in the field can be used with great effect within an essay or dissertation, but it needs to be fully referenced and clearly distinguished from your own words.

The paragraph below is taken word for word, fully referenced, from an article by Peter Scott in a book on the future of higher education and is used here as a source for a hypothetical essay on the topic of Higher Education in the 1990s.

Widening access to higher education is no longer conceived... as a crusade to help the educationally and socially deprived, to reach out into the depths of Britain's democracy (and, incidentally, to save departments and institutions from threatened closure!). Instead it is seen in much less heroic terms, as the careful management of burgeoning demand mainly, but not exclusively, from standard school leavers and other conventional sources (Scott 1991 p.57).

Scott, P. 1991: Access: an overview. In T. Schuller (ed.) The Future of Higher Education. Buckingham: SRHE & Open University Press, pp. 55-60.

The paragraph below, from the essay returned by student A, has clearly been plagiarised. Although the wording has been changed slightly, the words are essentially those of Scott and not of the student writer; there is no reference to the original source.

A

The driving force behind Britain's move towards a mass higher education system is no longer conceived as a crusade to help the educationally and socially deprived. It has become a way of meeting the demand from standard level student leavers and other conventional sources.

Student A's plagiarism may not have been deliberate but the result of poor note taking which did not distinguish between the student's own words and ideas and those of other writers. Such plagiarism would nonetheless be taken very seriously. The paragraph below from student B's essay is not plagiarised.

B

The early 1990s saw considerable changes in the organisation of Higher Education in Britain, as it moved from an elite to a mass education system. At this time, the Editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement was Peter Scott, whose job placed him in a unique position to take a broad, and well informed, overview of these changes. He viewed the move to mass education as 'the careful management of burgeoning demand mainly, but not exclusively, from standard school leavers and other conventional sources' and not, as others might have seen it ' as a crusade to help the educationally and socially deprived, and to reach out into the depths of British democracy' (Scott 1991 p.57).

Student B chose to include quotations to make a particular point, but these have been fully referenced. The quotations are included within a paragraph, which clearly shows the personal stamp and contribution of the student writer. This is seen in, for example, the comment on the background to Scott's viewpoint (as editor of the Times Higher) and the suggestion that his view is not universally held ('and not as others might have characterised it'). Student B might then go on to discuss, and give his opinion of, these other views, making sure that appropriate references were included.

For more information on note taking and on referencing your sources in written work, read the Student Learning Centre guides:  Effective Note Making and Referencing & Bibliographies.

Use your own words and develop your own writing style

Many students, particularly when they first start writing, find it difficult to develop their own writing style. When you are reading and researching for a piece of written work, try to use your own words in your notes to summarise your reading, and include your own ideas and comments on each text that you read. As you practise and establish your writing style, you will become more confident about expressing your thoughts and ideas in your own way.

If your first language is not English, and you are not yet completely fluent, it can be very tempting to borrow a well expressed sentence or even a paragraph from another writer. However, this is plagiarism, and lecturers would much prefer to receive a piece of work in your own, if imperfect, style than to read chunks of text in perfect English that are clearly taken from another writer.

Organise and structure your work in your own way

Taking notes that paraphrase the views and opinions of the authors that you read is often the first stage of the research undertaken for any piece of written work. However, if your own writing consists largely of a string of paraphrases from a number of different writers, or an almost exact copy of the sequence of another writer's ideas and the logic of his/her argument, you may be seen to be plagiarising, even if you acknowledge the sources of your information. This type of plagiarism is probably the most common that is found in undergraduate work.

Examples

Two further 'extracts' from hypothetical essays illustrate this point. In this example the essay topic is about the value of different types of assessment procedures. Student C has read a number of books on his topic, and in the paragraphs below he has quoted some of them in his discussion of examinations. In these examples the sources quoted have been invented for illustrative purposes, and so reference details have not been included.

C

An experiment carried out by Smith (1997) showed that students do better in exams that contribute to their final grade than in those that are merely 'pass and proceed'; this showed that motivation is an important factor in improving students' examination performance.  Patel (1995) believes that students should be given past papers to increase their confidence, but Jones (1998) thinks that this can lead to students revising only those topics that come up regularly.  Essay-type  questions are better than short-answer questions because they test creative thinking and not just memory (McPherson, 1997)

Student C's writing is essentially a string of facts, ideas and opinions from others and there is very little evidence of his own contribution to the topic.  He seems only to be passing on the views of others without any critical analysis of the arguments or evidence presented by his sources. Although he has referenced his sources, he has effectively plagiarised their ideas. This type of plagiarism  though not at all desirable, is not deliberate academic cheating, as there is no attempt here to claim the ideas as his own. However, Student C would not get a very good grade for his essay. Now consider the extract from Student D's essay:

D

Recent published research on the effectiveness of examinations as an assessment technique has highlighted the importance of motivation as a driving force (for example, Patel, 1995; Smith, 1997; Jones 1998). Patel and Jones disagree about whether or not past papers can be useful in helping students, but I would agree with Patel that without some clear examples of at least the types of questions that are likely to be asked, students are not able to plan an effective revision strategy.  What is important, though, is not just the context in which examinations are used, but the format of the examinations themselves.  McPherson (1997) argued against short-answer questions, which he saw as only capable of testing memory and not creative thinking.  In his criticism of this type of examination, he has failed to acknowledge the importance of providing opportunities for students to develop a wider range of written communication skills than those developed by essay writing.  The ability to write briefly and effectively is a very valuable skill for future employment; discursive essays are a form of writing that is very rarely used in the world of work.

Student D has used the same sources, but has provided a much more sophisticated analysis, and, while building on the work of her sources, has taken the ideas and discussion forward. Her own contribution to the topic is very clear in this piece. Student D will undoubtedly have gained a much higher grade for her work than Student C.

Don't be afraid to express your own views

Many students are hesitant about expressing their own opinion, particularly if it contradicts the views of 'experts'. Work that is published and printed in books and learned journals is not necessarily always right nor the very last word on a topic. In the humanities and social sciences in particular, much academic writing is based on informed opinion rather than indisputable fact.  Do not be afraid to have your own views on a subject. What is important is that your views should be informed, clearly expressed and based on careful consideration and knowledge of both the relevant facts and of the views of those who are acknowledged to have expertise on the topic.

It may be much more difficult for science students to have new ideas or make original contributions to their subject in the early stages of their scientific education. What you can show in your writing is that you are aware of all the relevant information, and have a full knowledge and understanding of the scientific principles that underpin the experiments that you write up or the reports that you complete. When you carry out an experiment, the method you use is perhaps unlikely to be your own, and you may well need to acknowledge the source of the particular methodology you employ. However, the results that you obtain when you carry out the experiment are your own, and in their analysis and interpretation you can make your own contribution.

Other forms of plagiarism

Don't forget that plagiarism can occur not only in your use of text but also in accompanying illustrations, maps and tables. Make sure that in the captions to these you fully reference and acknowledge any material or ideas taken from a source that is not your own. Minor changes, rewording or redrawing may be enough to avoid infringing copyright, but not to avoid the charge of plagiarism. Remember that you also need to take steps to avoid plagiarism in an oral presentation by making appropriate acknowledgements to the authors you quote, either in your talk or in the OHPs that you use.

Further information

If you are still unclear about what is and isn't plagiarism, you can talk to your lecturer or personal tutor, or make an appointment with a Learning Adviser from Student Learning Development. Your departmental student handbook may also give you further guidance.

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