Academic Writing

Plagiarism: Advice

Plagiarism is the representation of another person's work as your own.

There are three main reasons why you should not do this:

  1. It is not helpful.
    If you plagiarise, you are saying that something is your work when it is not. This is not good, you will not learn much from it and it will not get you good marks. In order to do well in higher education, you need to be responsible for the ideas and facts that you use. You need to provide evidence for these ideas and facts. You need to show where they have come from and what they are based on. You do this by acknowledging the sources, by citing. This will support your arguments and help you succeed in your academic writing. It will also show your lecturers that you have read and understood the required texts.
  2. You need to come to your own conclusions.
    You need to show that you have understood the material and come to your own conclusions on the basis of what you have read and heard. Therefore copying from textbooks, or pasting text from the Internet into your own writing, is not good enough. Most of what you write will come from the ideas of other people (from the text books you read, the lectures and the seminars you attend, and your discussions with other students, etc.). This is what academic study is all about. However, you need to come to your own conclusions on the basis of what you have read, listened to, and discussed. The purpose of an essay is for you to say something for yourself using the ideas that you have studied, for you to present ideas you have learned in your own way. The emphasis should be on working with other people's ideas, rather than reproducing their words.
  3. It is against the regulations.
    You must not use another person's words or ideas as if they were your own. This is against university regulations and is regarded as a very serious offence. It is also not helpful for you. If you plagiarise, your lecturer cannot understand how well you understand the course and cannot therefore give you useful advice and support. In addition, if you plagiarise, you are not learning. This will become obvious in any written examination you are required to take.

However, there is a difficult area here because, as a student, when you are doing assignments, you need to use what you have read or been taught in your lectures. In fact, this is an essential skill for every student. Spack (1988, p. 42) has pointed out that the most important skill a student can engage in is "the complex activity to write from other texts", which is "a major part of their academic experience." It is also difficult as Andrew Northedge points out in The good study guide (Northedge, 1990, p. 190)

You have to tread quite a fine line between being accused, on the one hand, of not making enough use of the writers you have been reading on the course, and, on the other, of having followed them too slavishly, to the point of plagiarising them. One of your early tasks as a student is to get a feel for how to strike the right balance.

Much of what you write will come from the ideas of other people (from the text books you read, the lectures and the seminars you attend, and your discussions with other students, etc.). This is what academic study is all about. However, the ideas and people that you refer to need to be made explicit by a system of referencing - if you use another person's ideas or words, you must say where they are from. This will prevent you being accused of plagiarism and, furthermore, it will add support to your ideas and points of view.

You need to acknowledge the source of an idea unless it is common knowledge. It may be difficult to decide exactly what is common knowledge within your subject, but if your lecturer, in lectures or handouts, or your textbooks, do not acknowledge the source you can assume that it is common knowledge within your subject. For concepts and ideas which are generally accepted as valid within your specialism, there is no need to provide a reference. If in doubt, cite.

  • Take notes in your own words. A good strategy is: read, put away your books and think, and then write your notes.
  • Acknowledge quotations, even in your own notes. This will help you avoid accidental plagiarism when you copy from your own notes, not realising the words were copied from a textbook.
  • If you use ideas of other people, be explicit about it. That is to say, cite the relevant author at the relevant point in your writing. It is then not possible for anyone to accuse you of cheating or stealing someone else's work. It will also help you by showing that you know the background.

For information on taking notes from reading, see Reading: Taking Notes

For more information on acknowledging sources see Writing: Citation

For help in writing a list of references, see Writing References

Exercises

Try these exercises: Exercise 1Exercise 2Exercise 3