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What is Plagiarism?

Posted on: May 27, 2022

No doubt, you've been hearing about plagiarism from day one of your course. And you know that it's bad. Doing it will get you in a lot of trouble if you get found out. And with all the tools available to your lecturers, you will get found out. But what is it? Is it just pretending that someone else's work is your own, or copying chunks of your friend's essay?

It's a lot more than that. For example, did you know that you can plagiarise your own work? And that is can get you into trouble just as much as plagiarising a well-known piece of research can?

Ultimately plagiarism is taking someone else's work, or even just their ideas and treating them as if they're your own. It can be done deliberately, but more often it can be done with complete innocence, especially by a student who is new to citing sources or who is under a lot of time pressure and simply forgets to correctly attribute the research of others that they discuss in their work. Plagiarism is always a no-no, but it isn't always done with bad intentions.

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Why does it matter?

Do, if you didn't intend to plagiarise someone else's work, why does it matter? Can't you just say sorry and move on? The truth is, everyone's work needs to be held to the same standard; and it is impossible to prove that you forgot to correctly cite your source, or that you are just really bad at paraphrasing. Too many students still deliberately plagiarise; and so, every student needs to be treated in the same way. How can intent be proven?

Allowing students to get away with plagiarism is something that encourages such behavious to continue into working life. We should all, every one of us, stand on our own merit and prove our own worth; we shouldn't be lazy and try and get away with using other people's ideas to enhance ourselves.

Plagiarism is just another word for theft, intentional or not. And for that reason, it should always matter.

What happens if you plagiarise your work?

The consequences of plagiarism can vary, depending on the severity of the plagiarism. There is a difference in how you will be treated for a missed citation to trying to pass off an entire piece of work already published by someone else as your own.

At the simplest you could be given a lower grade or fail that part of your course, with the requirement that you rewrite the coursework. But at the other end, you could be expelled from your university and, if that happens, it will be harder to join a course elsewhere. Being caught out for plagiarism can have long term consequences. There is even the possibility of legal consequences.

There is a reason that your lecturers talk so much about being careful about citing your sources, about why you should never plagiarise. At the end of the day, they are trying to protect you from what could be a catastrophic mistake.

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Can we do it accidentally?

Yes, it can be done accidentally, but at the end of the day there will always be a degree of laziness involved if that is the case.

When preparing to write your essay or to write up your research paper, there are plenty of things you can do to make sure that you don't accidentally plagiarise someone else's work. And we'll cover some of these things a bit later in the blog. But proper preparation will make sure that you can avoid accidentally getting yourself into a lot of trouble. You can ensure that you know exactly where a useful quote came from, where you read the thought that sparked that great idea, or where you found the phrase that keeps rolling around your head; that perfect line that is the springboard for how you want to develop your argument. Because you need to reference all these sources. Every single one.

9 ways to avoid plagiarism

1) Learn your university's preferred referencing style

The first place to start is to understand what your university is looking for in your references. There are a few different ways of referencing, and each university will have a chosen style that they want their students to use. This style will always be stated in your course handbook and should have detailed examples that you can follow to make sure that you are doing it right.

The different referencing and citation styles can seem very similar, and while using a different one to the style your university asks you to use won't mean that you're plagiarising, it is wise to stick to their chosen style as this allows your lecturers to check your work more easily if they are able to look for the correct information in the same layout for each of their students.

Also, if you decide to switch between different referencing styles, it can be easy for you to get confused yourself and miss out important details.

2) Get organised before you begin

Starting a piece of work with all your notes muddled and your ideas jumbled won't just lead to problems writing the work, it will make it harder for you to keep track of the quotes or references you want to use and where you want to use them.

So, before you start typing, make sure you know exactly where you're going. Create a plan for your essay, which ideas you will be discussing where, make sure the flow of ideas feels natural so that you don't start changing the ordering later, and mark where you want to insert quotes or discuss someone's ideas on the topic you're writing about.

Being organised from the start will make your life a lot easier later on.

3) Use a range of sources

By making sure that the sources you use to back up or expand your ideas come from a range of places (books, journal articles, online resources, etc.), you are more likely to truly explore your own thoughts on the topic you are discussing. And by ensuring you are developing your own ideas the less likely you are to accidentally plagiarise.

Think of it this way: if all your references are to one book, how many of the ideas discussed in your essay are truly your own? Or are they all ideas from that book regurgitated in new words? While that wouldn't necessarily lead to plagiarism (you could be arguing against each of these quotes), it does make it harder to stay away from the risk of accidental plagiarism.

4) Ensure you write your citations as you go

We've already touched on this in point one but keeping track of your citations as you write is so important, if not one of the most important things you can do to avoid plagiarism. Every quote you include, every idea or piece of work by someone else needs to be accurately cited.

The easiest way to do this is to note down all the relevant details as soon as you decide you want to include a quote or refer to a piece of someone else's research in your work. Keep a notebook for just these records. Refer to the referencing style guide that your university wants you to use and write those notes immediately. Then, when you come to use it in your work, you have the reference source right at your fingertips. There won't be any panicked searching through the library for the source of that one perfect quote, who's author you forgot to note down.

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5) Quote sparingly and with good reason

At the end of the day, your essay is about your response to the question raised, it should explore your ideas on the topic, challenge the thoughts already put forward.

While you should be referring to the work of others to back up your ideas, it is wise to use quotes sparingly and only if they add something to your work. Don't include something if it doesn't really need to be there.

Choose the quotes you use carefully and use quotation marks to ensure that it is clear to the reader that this is not your own thought. It is better to set them apart from the main body of your text, like this:

"When using a quote, inset it a little from the edge of the page, and follow it with the soruces. Though don't forget to include it in your references as your university handbook sets out." - Student Survival Skills Hub

6) Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing can be a trick area. You want to demonstrate your understanding of someone else's ideas, to discuss them in your own words, but you cannot just regurgitate them in your essay, swapping a few words to make it look a bit different. For example, if your source said:

'Many people in the United Kingdom own pets. Cats and dogs are the most popular, but some prefer less common pets such as snakes or even snails.'

Paraphrasing is not simple doing this:

'Lots of people in Britain have pets. Cats and dogs are the most preferred, although others prefer more unusual animals like lizards or snails.'

All that has been done here is to change a few words around. Instead, paraphrasing takes your sources idea and uses different words to express the meaning, sometimes in greater clarity, and to demonstrate your own understanding of the topic.

In your research you will likely come across some great ideas that you want to refer to, but don't necessarily want to quote from. Instead, you want to explore these ideas, build on them, and lay out the thoughts that these ideas have sparked for you.

Paraphrasing shows your lecturer that you have fully understood the meaning of what is being discussed. Read around the section you want to paraphrase to make sure that you are fully understanding what is being said. It can be very easy to see a section that says what you want to say about a topic, without realising the context in which it is being said. Keep that in mind when paraphrasing. Let's try paraphrasing the above example again.

'As Student Survival Skills discusses in their article 'Why we love our pets', the United Kingdom is a nation of animal lovers, from the more common pets such as cats and dogs to the more unusual, you will find pets, often multiple pets, in many homes. When asked why they own pets, despite the often expensive costs of caring for them, may people say that their pet provides company, and that they feel like part of the family.'

In the above section, while very simple, we have paraphrased what has been said, referred to the original source and built on the initial quote. How you build on it depends on the direction you plan on taking your writing, but it must be remembered that you cannot take the piece out of context and make it say what it does not.

If you are finding it hard to paraphrase a section you want to include, it may be because you don't fully understand what is being said, or because you haven't thought through this idea fully.Take a little more time to read what the writer is saying before you begin to paraphrase.

7) Referring to your own work

There is nothing wrong with citing your own work in an essay. You may have explored a topic related to what you're writing about now before and feel that you have something you want to build on for this essay or report.

There are two things to remember here. Firstly, don't do this too often. Part of what you are doing by writing this piece of work, is exploring what others have said about it, building on and challenging their ideas. You need to show that you are doing that by carefully choosing the work that you reference. If you simply quote yourself, you won't be demonstraing that grown in understanding and you will likely achieve a much lower mark. Only include references to your own work if there is a very good reason.

Secondly, even though it is your own work you must still include the correct citation. Your lecturer needs to know where this reference came from. Even if they have marked the piece of work you are quoting from, it is very unlikely that they will recognise the quote as one of yours - don't forget how many pieces of work they mark in a year. Treat the inclusion of any reference to your own work in exactly the same way as you would treat a reference to the work of any other writer and cite correctly.

8) Final checks

Once you have finished writing, you're sure you've said everything you want to say, you've answered the question to the best of your ability, then it is time to carefully go through your work and check it for accidental plagiarism.

Check that all your citations and references are there, properly done in the style required by your university. Check for mission quotation marks, check and check again that all your sources are included in your bibliography or references list.

9) Use a plagiarism checker

These days there are many plagiarism checkers online, some good, some not so good, but a quick internet search will help you find one that can help you make sure that your work is clear of any plagiarism risk. It just takes a few minutes of your time to do, but when you've finished your work, you're tired and just want to think about something else, let a good plagiarism checker give your work a final look over so it can raise any issues with you before you hand it in.