Monday, September 22, 2014

A cranky academic's guide to plagiarism (and avoiding it)

It's mid-semester marking season and I've come up against my first case of plagiarism for this semester. I'm sure there'll be others but the first is always so disheartening. There's any number of good reasons why this bothers me:
  1. The student doesn't care enough about the subject to be bothered doing the assignment properly;
  2. The student is panicking and doesn't feel like there's any other option;
  3. The student didn't pay attention when I spoke about proper referencing and the penalties for plagiarism;
  4. The student didn't bother to read through the subject guide and take note of the plagiarism/referencing policy;
  5. The student doesn't understand the material but is too embarrassed to ask for help;
  6. The student doesn't understand plagiarism/referencing but is too embarrassed to ask for help;
  7. The student thinks they can get away with it (or at least deserve to);
  8. The student thinks I'm an idiot and won't notice when their written expression changes or that they've just taken great big chunks out of texts we've set them.
It's probably the last one that bothers me most. I'm used to students not caring and not paying attention but when they assume I'm stupid, it's disheartening. When I call them into my office for 'counselling' and they shrug and roll their eyes and get all 'whatevs' with me, this is when they become filthy, filthy plagiarists (in my head, at least) and I become the follow-the-letter-of-the-law lady instead of using my discretion to waive any penalties. (It does also bother me if students feel too embarrassed to ask for help or they're freaking out - I'm a big softie and generally help whatever wayward souls cross my threshold... if only they'll cross the threshold. I have a box of tissues right next to my consultation chair and everything.)

The rules to avoid plagiarism are pretty simple: if you use someone else's ideas or words, then you have to say so. The problem is maybe the rules aren't so simple. Firstly, by the time you've researched the hell out of your essay question, your head is more than likely swimming with ideas and it might not be so clear anymore if you once read something like that in a book or journal. Secondly, the standards for what constitutes acceptable practice and plagiarism actually differs from country to country and culture by culture. What's okay in China is not okay in Sweden. This makes life that bit harder when half my cohort are international students.

So maybe the rules should be:
  1. If you use someone else's words or ideas, then you have to say so;
  2. Be careful and take meticulous notes of everything you read;
  3. Ignore all of your previous education and cultural programming and just listen to what I'm telling you is the right way here and now;
  4. Paraphrasing does not mean changing one or two words in a sentence;
  5. Direct quotes need "quote" 'marks';
  6. Direct and indirect quotes need to be referenced (I like an in-text citation system that shows the reference right next to the idea/quote - keeps it simple);
  7. Only cite work you've read (i.e. don't add references for the hell of it);
  8. Don't use internet sources you haven't checked for plagiarism yourself (i.e. google every phrase you quote - if it lights up in any other pages, don't use it - find the original source);
  9. Use the referencing system you've been asked to (Harvard, APA, etc);
  10. If you have trouble keeping track of everything use a program like End Note to help keep everything straight;
  11. Assume you won't get away with it. 
If you're still determined to plagiarise, for whatever reasons, don't look so shocked when you get told you're busted.

Have you ever busted a cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater? 


  1. haha I love this post! When I started uni, one of our lecturers actually prescribed a book ALL ABOUT REFERENCING! It was a guide to referencing and how to use End Note, and when you need to reference. I still have it somewhere

    1. I would LOVE to make that kind of book mandatory for all my students. I think some degrees are making referencing workshops mandatory in first year but even that doesn't make students actually care about academic integrity and all that.

  2. I can't believe plagiarism still goes on! I guess it's both easier to do but easier yo get caught these days. Poor kids - I feel sorry for them for not believing in their own wits. x

    1. I'm not sure if it's so much about believing in themselves as they're just so overwhelmed and busy that they don't even notice they're doing it. Unintentional though it might be, forgetting to reference properly is still plagiarism. I think part of it is the system itself, which requires that most students work part/full time and study full time and things keep slipping through the cracks.

  3. I actually had a blogger copy one of my posts over a year ago. Word for word title and all. It does irk me, as it is so easy to just credit. I dont get it, I really dont xx

    1. Blerg. That sucks. Did you call them out on it?


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