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Plagiarism FAQs

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What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism means copying the idea or work of someone else and claiming it is your own original work.

What's the big deal? Why is plagiarism wrong?
Almost everybody agrees that stealing is wrong. Plagiarism is the same; it's theft. It may seem harmless, but people who create something original have put a lot of effort and work into their products. For non-fiction work such as research reports, this involves a lot of time spent researching, evaluating, creating new ideas, analysing and interpreting data, often based on years of work. Their work merits respect and credit.
However, this is not the only or even the main reason why you should respect other people's efforts and not plagiarise. The main reason is that if you plagiarise, you are showing that you have not learnt anything; that you were not able to create something of your own. This is a major failing in academic studies.
We all build on other people's ideas and inventions and thoughts. But when we use these in our own work we need to give proper credit to those who helped us to create something new.

How can I avoid plagiarism?
You can avoid plagiarism by making sure that you you give proper credit for any source of information you use and by making sure you submit your own work. That means:
  • Any text which you copy into your own work must be enclosed within quotation marks, must be properly cited, and must be properly referenced in your bibliography. For example: "Maternal immunisation has been proven to be safe and beneficial, and is now widely recommended." (Zimmermann et al. 2019)
    You can see the bibliographic reference for this example on the credits page. To see how to cite go to the quoting and citing page.
  • Any text which you paraphrase must be properly referenced in your bibliography. Paraphrasing means rewriting ideas and information in your own words. To see how to properly paraphrase go to the paraphrase page.
  • If you have submitted work which has been researched and written as a group, you must credit the other members of your team.
  • Anything you use which is taken from work you have previously submitted must be properly cited, and must be properly referenced in your bibliography.
  • You must never submit the same work twice (for example to another teacher or in a different department).
  • You must not get anyone to write your work for you either for free or for payment.

What if I write something that everybody knows?
You don't have to give credit for anything that is considered "common knowledge". Common knowledge is information which a reasonably well educated or well-read person would be expected to know.
However, you must also consider your audience (the people you are writing for). If you are writing a paper in a specialist field (e.g. aerodynamics, medicine, chemistry) then you would not have to cite sources for information which these specialists would be expected to know in the normal course of their work. Similarly, shared cultural information need not be cited if your paper is addressed to a particular cultural group.

I'm writing a research paper. Can't I use the ideas I find in my research?
Yes, of course you can use ideas and information from your research. You just have to make sure that anything you use is properly credited.

What if someone else helps me write my paper?
In order to learn you need to do things yourself. If you are struggling with English, perhaps you want help with your language skills. But before you ask for help, there are a many things you can do to help yourself. There's no excuse for faulty spelling; your word processor can help you check that. You can also install a grammar checker such as Grammarly to help you with your grammar. Before you ask anyone to help with proofreading your work, you need to check the policy of your institution on this. What proofreaders should not be doing is helping you with content. The paper you write should only contain your own ideas.

What does "attribution" mean?
Attribution means giving credit for the source of your information by correctly citing your source and including a reference in your bibliography.

I want to use something I wrote in a previous paper. Can't I use that?
All work which you use in your writing must be properly credited, including your own. You can use it but it must be properly cited and referenced. You should also make sure that you don't break any of your institution's rules, which may state that you must not re-use any material you have already submitted.

I want to use something generated by AI (e.g. ChatGPT). Can't I use that?
You cannot use anything which is not the result of your own work without proper attribution. If you use AI in your work you need to declare that. You must consult your own institution's policy on academic integrity regarding the use of AI in you work, and abide by your institution's rules. See also Academic integrity in the age of AI.

How does anybody know if I plagiarise?
First of all, most teachers can spot plagiarism easily. Many examiners have experience of marking thousands of scripts, and are quick to identify suspect papers. Your own teachers are probably familiar with your previous work and can detect if the style is different from your previous submitted work, so they know if the work is not your own. Most colleges and universities require students to submit papers online through a plagiarism detection program such as Turnitin or SafeAssign. You can normally use these tools yourself, if you are an enrolled student, to check that you haven't missed quoting, paraphrasing or citing something correctly. If you don't have access to these tools there are many tools online such as EasyBib or SmallSEOTools, but be aware that some of these only check against material which is available online and not against a database of offline or subscription resources such as academic journals.

What are the consequences of plagiarism?
The consequences of plagiarism vary depending on degree of plagiarism, the importance of the writing task, and the policy of the institution where you study or work.
If the writing task is a routine short essay and there is a minor mistake (e.g. a clumsily paraphrased text, or a citation error), then the mistake may merely be highlighted to bring it to your attention. A more serious error such passing off a piece of text as your own where it should have been quoted and cited may mean a written warning. Very serious or repeat breaches of academic honesty may have much more serious consequences such a the failure of a course or suspension from the program. You should consult the policy of your institution to make sure you are aware of the consequences of breaches of academic honesty. You can usually find this on the institution's website or in the student handbook. You may also find useful resources to help you learn how to cite and paraphrase, which are important skills. Here is an example from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

How can I check my paper to see if anything is copied?
First of all, you should already know that you haven't copied anything. But let's say that you just want to check that you haven't missed a citation or you haven't paraphrased very well.
You can use plagiarism detection program such as Turnitin or SafeAssign. You can normally use these tools on your institution's website if you are an enrolled student. If you don't have access to these tools there are many tools online such as EasyBib or SmallSEOTools, but be aware that some of these only check against material which is available online and not against a database of offline or subscription resources such as academic journals.
You should be aware that even if your paper is cleared by one of these programs, this does not absolve you from responsibility if you have copied something and the program missed it.

What is "academic integrity?
Academic integrity means having high standards of academic professionalism. It means being honest and respecting others. It means collaborating fairly with your peers. It means not cheating or stealing other people's ideas. It means upholding the values of the institution of which you are a part.
Studying in a tertiary level institution is occasionally stressful because of the burden of work and time constraints and you may be tempted to take short cuts. But you can work through the stressful times and maintain your self esteem without resorting to underhand methods which you might later regret. It's well worth the effort.

What can teachers do to prevent plagiarism?
Teachers have a responsibility to make sure their students know how to avoid plagiarism and maintain high standards of academic integrity. They can only do this with support from their institution. Many institutions require students to complete a brief course on plagiarism so that they understand how to avoid it and what the consequences of breaches of academic rules could be. But teachers also need support when breaches do occur and too often this support is lacking to the extent that they are unwilling to report cases of known or suspected plagiarism. This is a serious issue and one that needs urgently to be addressed.

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