7: Just say no to plagiarism

It seems as though, even with assistance for reading, researching, and essay writing, many students prefer to try and skip the work and go straight for the reward of the finish line by plagiarising and think no one will notice if they bought another students essay or simply copied and pasted and then claimed it as their own. This has become a real problem in universities all over the world and one in which is now being more aggressively addressed. This means students who are even contemplating the idea of plagiarising any part of their work - down to just one sentence - need to reconsider this strategy.

This chapter explains all the situations that can be considered as plagiarism, what is now being done about it, and how to avoid plagiarism at all costs to protect your academic career and reputation.

Chapter 7 contents:

7.1: Defining plagiarism

You most likely have heard the term, plagiarism, and most likely know what it is because your university classes now include a policy on plagiarism and outline what they view it as plagiarism.

In a nutshell, plagiarism is any instance where you take the words or ideas of someone else - this could be lifting them word for word or it could involve moving a few words around or even taking a very unique conclusion or idea - and claiming it as your own because you do not attribute it to that person by using an in-text reference, endnote, or footnote.

It may seem like only those students that think they can get away with it end up committing plagiarism, but it actually happens for other reasons too. As we discussed in the note taking chapter, you can inadvertently plagiarise if you copy chunks of content from the reading material and also do not put quotes around it or list a specific author to attribute the content to. You also fall victim to the fallacy that the author is always the expert and right about what they say so you could never improve on it or call it into question. Lastly, there are also even cultural perspectives where people believe copying someone else's work is a way to show that author respect and honour them.

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7.1.1: What makes plagiarism such a problem?

Plagiarising is a problem because it falls into the category of cheating. You are not relying on your own knowledge or efforts to complete university work. Perhaps this type of behaviour is on the increase due to an ongoing misunderstanding of the idea of intellectual property where there is somehow less value placed on ideas and words, thereby justifying taking these and claiming them as their own. In actual fact, despite seeming to be intangible, words and ideas are just like stealing someone's car or any other item that belongs to someone else.

Beyond that, the real problem lies in the fact that more university students seem to be tempted by using the copy and paste function to fill in what they feel are gaps in their understanding or just cover up for the fact that they did not take the time to do their work. And, it appears that all kinds of people from all walks of life have been now called out for plagiarising their essays and even their PhD dissertations, including prominent politicians and business people.

This illustrates the good, bad, and ugly about the Internet. While sites like Google help provide access to more information than ever before, it has also made it more tempting to plagiarise as well. Even sites that are not free still seem to tempt students to lift other people's words and ideas and then claim them as their own.

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7.1.2: What universities are doing about plagiarism

Universities are fighting back against plagiarism by turning to technology and the use of software to detect when students may be plagiarising. However, this does not always detect when students are doing this or it may just mean that students have not properly put a reference for every section in their essay.

It does not just have to be technology that helps universities catch a cheating student. Tutors have learned to detect plagiarism in many different ways:

  • Tutors become used to your voice in what you have written so they can detect when suddenly that voice does not sound like you but now seems to perhaps sound a bit more academic or experienced in their delivery. They will recognise when you are suddenly using different vocabulary or even a more sophisticated sentence structure.
  • Tutors are often avid readers and may even be researchers themselves, so they could even recognise something that you have plagiarised as being from something they have previously read. After all, they most likely specialise in a particular subject that they are now tutoring in so they would be familiar with much of what has been written.
  • Your tutor does not know how to use the Internet and may take phrases from your essay and put them in a search engine to see if they can spot any plagiarism.

Besides just being reactive to the threat of plagiarism, universities are also stopping to consider why students opt for this risk in the first place. While some students will always seem to choose what appears to be the easiest route to doing their work, most of these university students are doing it because they do not understand how to research and write an essay - hence, another reason we put this book together in hopes that it will help students and discourage plagiarism.

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7.1.3: The implications of getting caught cheating

There is no situation where you should feel that desperate as to copy someone else's words and then just use them as your own. What this means is that you have not spent enough time planning or effort on your essay so you should take responsibility for that rather than to do what can only be viewed as cheating.

While a university may give you a warning should you be a new student at the university and may be allowed to resubmit your essay without a penalty, the implications for getting caught are just not worth the risks involved in plagiarising:

  • You could receive a fail on that essay.
  • Repeated or extensive plagiarism will most likely lead to dismissal from the university, which would lead to the likelihood that other universities would not want you in their programme either.
  • You could end up losing any opportunity to get your degree.

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7.2: Using your words

The implications of being caught cheating are why it is so important to get the right guidance that will show you how to use your words rather than someone else's words. The rest of the chapter is dedicated to helping you to use your words and attribute some type of referencing or acknowledgment when you do include someone else's words or you paraphrase their ideas in your essay.

This next section offers tips on how to avoid copying, how to use your notes, and how to summarise and paraphrase to avoid plagiarism.

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7.2.1: How to avoid copying

To avoid copying that is by accident or even by design, stick to this strategy:

  • Put anything you directly take word for word in quote marks as you do it and list all reference information that goes with those words. Consider using a different colour of highlighter to acknowledge that it is a direct quote that you have marked for use in your essay. Doing this will remind you not to copy it even after time has since lapsed between note taking and now writing the essay.
  • Be confident that you understand the topic and information and do not be afraid to show that by trying to just hide behind someone else's words and ideas only to risk getting caught. Your tutor is expecting you to take the next step beyond the reading and analyse what you are learning about and then put your interpretation out there rather than simply regurgitating what you have read.
  • Make more time for writing your essay and manage what time you do have more effectively by creating a timetable, staying disciplined, and not becoming distracted by the task at hand.
  • Ask for assistance from your tutor on tips to make the essay into your own rather than borrowing from others. This could involve getting direct help on how to avoid this or even mean just simply asking for more time to get the essay done right.
  • If you still feel tempted, then it is time to resort to the use of visualisation to scare yourself straight. Think about what it would feel like to be caught and how others would view you, including your tutors, your friends, and your family who also might be paying for you to go to university.

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7.2.2: Using your notes as a guide

In the last chapter, we discussed the use of notes and how they form the basis of your essay writing plan and also include the main points you will use within that essay. The important word here is 'guide' versus using a word like 'script' where you would be using the notes, word for word, in your essay.

Think of your notes as a roadmap that will keep you organised and on course with your essay so that you can fill in the details with your own words and interpretation of the ideas found in those notes. This is where the previous advice on weeding out a lot of the content in your notes and keeping as much white space was helpful because it will keep you focused on the concepts and ideas and potentially help you to avoid copying words.

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7.2.3: The fine art of summarising and paraphrasing

This is where you will need to practice developing skills in summarising and paraphrasing. Let's start with summarising as this is closer to the idea of using your own words than paraphrasing, which has many gray areas.

You may have already done some summarising as you prepared your essay writing plan or diagrammed your notes into a mind map. That is because a summary is most often recognised as something that is short but to the point. There is very specific information included and absolutely no fluff or unnecessary words. Think about a summary as though you were explaining a concept to someone else - what would be the most important things for someone else to know that you could tell them quickly? A good example of a real world summary would be an abstract in an academic journal article or in a report. To help you determine just what is important when summarising, look at some of these as a framework for what you can do to make all the words your own in your essay.

Here is a way to create a summary for each of the keywords or ideas within your notes:

  • Pick out all the key phrases and ideas
  • Put these in your own words by looking at it and then turning away to write or type it separate from what was found in your notes.
  • Create sentences from these rewritten phrases.
  • Figure out how to add words that would then bring all the sentences together.
  • Add your own real world examples not found in the original text or notes.
  • Check for any repetition and then remove this from what you have written to ensure it is short and succinct.
  • Despite summarising, you still might want to consider adding an in-text reference or a footnote, especially if the idea or argument you are including is unique or known to be attributed to a particular person.

Then, there is paraphrasing, which can be tricky territory. You are still using your own words rather than directly quoting but it is still someone else's ideas. This is often done to ensure you do not have an essay full of quotes as most universities designate that a certain small percentage of any essay can be quoted material. However, here are some things to keep in mind when trying to paraphrase so as to not plagiarise:

  • There is certain information you will have to keep the same and these are pretty obvious like a person's name, their job title, the title of a study or survey and any quantitative data.
  • You have to be careful how you change words when paraphrasing because you do not want to lose the context or the real meaning to what was said. Also, changing some words albeit a synonym can change the perspective of readers who view these words differently. It could also lead to some inaccuracies that could discredit the argument in your essay.
  • Use a synonym finder to correctly change certain words. You can turn to a thesaurus or use those available in your word processing software or online.
  • You can also alter the structure of sentences or break them into multiple sentences.
  • Another way to paraphrase is to use different parts of speech to alter the function or action that is going on in the sentence. That may mean paraphrasing in a way where you substitute a noun for a verb or vice versa.
  • All paraphrasing will still need an in-text reference with name of author and date) or a footnote, depending on the type of reference style you are asked to use for the essay. This is because, no matter how much you alter the words, the idea of it still belongs to the author so that should be noted within your essay. There is more on sources and references later on in the book.

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Chapter 7: In summary

In summarising the chapter, think about the following questions and reflect on whether or not you know the answer:

  • What is the difference between summarising and paraphrasing?
  • What is the best approach for paraphrasing?
  • What are the tactics to use for successful summarising?
  • How should you use your notes to ensure that you are not plagiarising anything?
  • What constitutes plagiarism and how can you avoid it?

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