Supervising plagiarism by students
The College’s definition of plagiarism is published by Registry and is used as the basis for advice provided by the Library, and within departments:
‘Plagiarism, that is, the presentation of another person's thoughts or words as though they were your own, must be avoided, with particular care in coursework, essays and reports written in your own time.’
If you are supervising or working with students, familiarise yourself with any local guidance provided by the department and the types of plagiarism (see below) that are commonly identified. In addition you need to know what procedures are in place should plagiarism be suspected in a students’ work, see Examinations and assessment. This document is available to students.
Students do plagiarise deliberately. However, they can often plagiarise accidentally because they have poor academic skills or are not familiar with the rules of academic writing practice. This includes time management, understanding the assignment question, reading and note taking, writing skills, as well as an understanding of plagiarism and the rules of citation. Providing help with writing and academic skills can be hugely beneficial in reducing accidental plagiarism.
From their first year students should be aware of College’s definition of plagiarism, and have a common understanding of what is considered to be plagiaristic behaviour. This is not always the case, despite the guidance and information they receive. However, many undergraduate students will attend a plagiarism awareness lecture or workshop provided by library staff in their first year, and in subsequent years, and Master’s students also receive similar guidance.
Many departments now use Turnitin, a text-matching detection service, to help identify potential plagiarism in students’ work. The ICT e-Learning team and the Library run workshops for College staff on how to use Turnitin.
You should ensure you are fully aware of the common types of plagiarism, and the ‘traps’ students can unintentionally fall into. They may ask for your advice on how to avoid plagiarism; interpreting information they’ve found as part of research projects; on how to communicate information; or how to reference. These are all areas where poor advice or lack of assistance could lead to plagiarism.
Types of plagiarism
There are many different types of plagiarism. A common misconception is that only information found online can be plagiarised (because of the ease with which it is possible to do so). Information can be plagiarised from any source type; you need to be clear what plagiarism is before you speak to students about plagiarism, or provide advice on their academic skills.
Library staff generally speak to students about six types, which are also covered in Olivia, the Library’s online course. Your librarian can tell you if they have spoken to a particular group of students, or will come and deliver a plagiarism awareness workshop to students if you think this would be useful. It is no use just telling students not to plagiarise. If they don't understand what it is and you don't give them the skills they require not to plagiarise, they are bound to get into problems.
Collusion is a form of plagiarism. It is an intended act of plagiarism, and has to involve at least two people: if a student A allows student B to copy their work, and student B submits that work with student A’s knowledge, this is an attempt to deliberately deceive the lecturer.
Problems frequently arise when students are asked to work in groups. It is essential that students ensure they understand assessment guidelines before starting a piece of work, and it is their responsibility to seek clarification if they are unsure. If you are supervising group work make sure the students understand what has been asked of them if they ask for advice. Students can become concerned that by talking to other students about their work this could lead to an accusation of plagiarism; emphasise that it is the students’ written work that will be marked and judged for plagiarism, not their conversations and research process.
Copy and paste
This can be an intentional or non-intentional act of plagiarism. It happens when a student copies/cuts a piece of work (text or otherwise) from any online or print item written by another person, and pastes it into their assignment without acknowledging the source. The exact words (image, table, etc.) written by another person can be included in another piece of work, but this should be done quoting the words, and including a reference to the original work.
This is a very common type of plagiarism, and can be intentional or non-intentional. Most students are actively aware they shouldn’t directly copy and paste other people’s words into their own work without acknowledgement. Many people think that if they change a few words in someone else’s sentence that this means that sentence is now their own words.
If a sentence or paragraph is copied into someone’s own work and a few words are changed it will still be considered as plagiarism. It is essential students understand how to summarise and paraphrase other people’s ideas and work, or appreciate that if they need to include someone else’s words, these should be quoted and referenced correctly.
Misinterpreting common knowledge
This is another form of plagiarism that is often unintentional. As you probably know, in any subject field there are well-known and established facts and knowledge which do not need acknowledgement. If you’re new to a subject it can be difficult to work out what this kind of common knowledge is. Students can think that information is common knowledge, and use it in their work without acknowledgement only to find they are accused of plagiarism. We advise students to check with lecturers and researchers in their departments to establish what is and isn’t common knowledge if they are unsure, so you may have a role to play when supervising students.
Common knowledge is generally accepted as being information that is:
- well known to all in a particular field
- easily verified by consulting standard textbooks or encyclopaedias
- not disputed
- undisputed historical facts
- known formulae or equations
It’s worth pointing out that common knowledge changes over time. If you had described the structure of DNA fifty years ago you would have had to acknowledge your source. Today it is accepted as common knowledge. In fifty years time it’s likely the number of human genes will be common k nowledge.
This is often an unintentional act of plagiarism, and is usually a result of poor academic writing skills, and lack of understan ding of academic conventions. It happens when a student uses ideas from one person’s work several times in the same assignment, and does not include acknowledgement each time. This could lead to an accusation of plagiarism as the stud ent is percei ved to have ‘concealed’ the source used through a lack of acknowledgement.
Students can worry they will over-cite or under-cite, and may require advice on how to write about and cite other people’s work. They should be sensible about when to include acknowledgements, but this can require confidence in their writing skills. For example, if you are writing a paragraph about ideas or data from one person’s work, you only need include one acknowledgement in that paragraph. But, if in another paragraph you use ideas from that same piece of work, you should include another acknowledgement. Helping students understand why it is important to provide acknowledgements, particularly by demonstrating or show them examples of good practice in your field.
Self-plagiarism is when a student re-submits work that has already been submitted and assessed for another course, module or assignment. Auto-plagiarism is when a student re-uses previously written work in a new piece of work, and does not acknowledge when they’ve done so.
It could be argued that self-plagiarism is usually intentional. Auto-plagiarism is usually a misunderstanding of how to acknowledge sources of information. To avoid self-plagiarism, general guidance is as follows:
- if a student uses material from a previous assignment they must reference it appropriately
- they should never use the same assignment for different lecturers
- if re-sitting a course they should not submit the same essay
Self-plagiarism is of concern to publishers, so you need to be aware that you are careful when submitting work for publication that you have correctly cited and acknowledged any of your previous work. This also applies when submitting work to several publications; if you submit the same work and this is discovered (it frequently is), you may find that you are not published at all.