1. What is plagiarism?
  2. Is plagiarism illegal?
  3. Why is plagiarism a problem?
  4. How common is plagiarism?
  5. Is plagiarism getting worse?
  6. What is a paper mill?
  7. Why do students plagiarise?
  8. Is plagiarism ever permissible?
  9. What is accidental plagiarism?
  10. What is the difference between plagiarism and bad practice?
  11. Can plagiarism be stopped?
  12. What can I do to reduce plagiarism?
  13. How can I design assessments to reduce plagiarism?
  14. What is a plagiarism policy?
  15. Is there a standard way of referencing?
  16. What is common knowledge?
  17. How can I detect plagiarism?
  18. How do I prove plagiarism?
  19. What penalties are applied?
  20. What can awarding bodies do about plagiarism?
  21. Are there links between plagiarism in school and college, and plagiarism in university?
  22. What are the plagiarism myths?
  23. Where can I find out more?


© Bobby Elliott, Version 1.1, May 2004

This document may be freely distributed so long as the original source is acknowledged and the contents are not altered.

This document expresses the personal views of the author and is not representative of the views of any other body. The author takes no responsibility for the contents of linked websites which may change without notice; all links were appropriate and operational at the time of writing.


1.       What is plagiarism?


Plagiarism is the use of another person’s work (this could be their words, products or ideas) for personal advantage without proper acknowledgement of the original work with the intention of passing it off as your own. Plagiarism may occur deliberately (with the intention to deceive) or accidentally (due to poor referencing). Plagiarism can take many forms.


It includes copying material from a book, copying-and-pasting information from the World Wide Web, getting your parents to help with coursework – even copying answers from a fellow student during an examination is a form of plagiarism (presuming the copied work isn’t attributed!). Plagiarism and cheating are not the same things; cheating takes many forms including – but not limited to – deliberate plagiarism. Neither are plagiarism and collusion the same things; although every occurrence of collusion is a form of plagiarism.

Target Diagram

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2.       Is plagiarism illegal?


No. Plagiarism is neither a criminal nor civil offence. In fact, plagiarism is not a legal term and is not legally recognised. But breach of copyright or intellectual property rights (IPR) is illegal; if an act of plagiarism breaches copyright or IPR then it is illegal. Not every act of plagiarism is a breach of copyright. For example, you can plagiarise work that has no copyright.


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3.       Why is plagiarism a problem?


Plagiarism is a problem because it is a form of cheating. Irrespective of the student’s intention, undetected plagiarism may result in the student receiving a higher grade than s/he would have received without the inclusion of the plagiarised material. The resulting (inflated) grade may be used for entrance to further education or employment – thereby deceiving entrance officers or employers into believing that the student possesses knowledge and skills that they do not. Plagiarism also holds back progress. If students and researches simply regurgitate other people’s work without adding anything of their own then academic progress stagnates through a dearth of original work.


A less tangible problem is the corrosive effects that plagiarism has on the student body and on society in general. Once plagiarism reaches a certain level, students who would not normally plagiarise may feel that they must in order to compete with their fellow students. Undetected plagiarism may encourage cheating outside of school or college, and foster bad habits which students take into the workplace.


Not everyone agrees that plagiarism is a problem. Some people have claimed that small-scale plagiarism is a form of self-teaching.


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4.       How common is plagiarism?


There is no definitive, UK-wide research into the frequency of plagiarism. Any research which has taken place has focussed on the Higher Education (university) sector. There are no published statistics for the school or college sectors; Awarding Bodies do not maintain statistics specifically on plagiarism.


Of all the different forms of cheating (which includes plagiarism, inventing data and cheating during an exam), students admit to plagiarism more often than any other. Research findings range from 25% to 90% of students admitting to some form of plagiarism. However, this figure reduces considerably when students are asked about the frequency of “serious” plagiarism (such as copying most of an assignment or purchasing a complete paper from a website – more typically 20% and 10% respectively).


Although research findings vary, a recurring theme is that students estimate the occurrence of plagiarism (in all its forms) higher than teaching staff, who estimate its frequency higher than Academic Standards Committees. No reliable statistics exist for the school and college sectors; Awarding Bodies report very low occurrences of plagiarism.


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5.       Is plagiarism getting worse?


There is little primary research on plagiarism to determine if it is getting worse. But there is empirical evidence to suggest that plagiarism is becoming more common. Academic Standards Committees (within universities) are reporting higher incidences of plagiarism. Some leading academics have claimed it’s getting worse. There have been several high profile cases in schools and universities. And it’s a global problem. Plagiarism is not restricted to academia.


There are societal and technological reasons for increased plagiarism. Students are under more pressure to succeed than they were in the past. There is greater competition among students for high grades. The digitisation of information has made it easier to capture and adapt, and there are many more sources of information today than in the past. The Internet, in particular, provides massive amounts of information on every conceivable topic; there are dedicated web sites which provide ready-made essays. It has also been argued that student’s have a lax attitude towards intellectual property rights and cite the large scale downloading of popular music as an example of this attitude.


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6.       What is a paper mill?


A paper mill is an online essay bank. Some websites provide complete papers while others encourage students to swap essays. There is a growing market for made-to-order papers which guarantee a specific level of degree. Some sites will create entire papers and others provide an editing service for existing material. Some sites claim to provide research assistance while others openly admit to being cheating sites.


There are subject-specific paper mills which specialise in particular subjects or, even, particular topics.


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7.       Why do students plagiarise?


Some of the reasons for plagiarising are covered above but students may have more personal reasons such as:


·        being unaware that they’re plagiarising

·        lacking knowledge and understanding of the subject

·        poor time management skills

·        feeling that the subject is unimportant

·        believing that plagiarism isn’t serious

·        feeling pressurised due to over-assessment

·        poor teaching.


The most common reason given by students is ignorance about plagiarism – that they were unclear about the plagiarism policy and, therefore, unaware that they were doing anything wrong. A common misunderstanding among students relates to paraphrased material. Many students do not realise that paraphrased material should be attributed to the original author in the same manner as a direct quotation.


Some students do not consider plagiarism a serious offence since it does not (in their view) harm other students. Research has shown that students consider cheating in an examination to be much more serious than plagiarising coursework – even if both contribute to final grades. Some students will rationalise plagiarism. Poor teaching, over-crowded classrooms, too much assessment, “irrelevant” subject content, poor health, and stress are commonly given as reasons.


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8.       Is plagiarism ever permissible?


No. By definition, plagiarism is cheating. Some people confuse plagiarism with skilfully locating and combining information from diverse sources. So long as the sources are acknowledged, combining information in this way (even if the author contributes little or nothing) is not plagiarism. But failing to acknowledge sources is, at best, poor academic practice and, at worst, deceitful. However, teaching staff should make a clear distinction between casual, low-value plagiarism and deliberate plagiarism in a high-stakes assessment.


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9.       What is accidental plagiarism?


Accidental plagiarism occurs when students do not intend to deceive but, nonetheless, plagiarise material by failing to properly reference their sources. It can occur when a student is unaware of (or unclear about) a centre’s plagiarism policy. It may occur when a student is unsure how to reference material. Accidental plagiarism can also occur when a student includes an “original” idea which, in fact, is not original and was an idea that they originally discovered from another source – and subsequently forgot.


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1.       What is the difference between plagiarism and bad practice?


Bad practice occurs when a student cites another person’s work but fails to properly attribute that work. Bad practice also occurs when a student paraphrases another person’s work without due attribution. Unlike “proper” plagiarism, there is no attempt to deceive and there is usually some attempt at attributing the work (for example, including quotation marks around the borrowed text or some vague reference: “It has been claimed…”).


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2.       Can plagiarism be stopped?


No. Plagiarism will never be entirely eliminated. But teachers can try to reduce plagiarism and ensure that flagrant abuses are caught and punished.


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3.       What can I do to reduce plagiarism?


The best way to reduce plagiarism is to tackle the causes of plagiarism.


The most common reason is lack of awareness of plagiarism. So raising students’ awareness is a starting point. This can be done by including plagiarism in their induction programme and re-inforcing this throughout the term by the use of posters and regular reminders from teaching staff. Centres should have a plagiarism policy. Some centres provide each student with a copy of the policy. Some universities require students to sign the policy and also require students to sign a “no plagiarism” declaration when they submit courseworks. Awareness-raising may also be required for teaching staff and (all) academic staff should be consistent in their treatment of plagiarism.


Students should be trained in research methods and shown how to cite. Students should also be taught time management techniques. This training can be provided as part of a student’s induction programme.


Students can be tempted to cheat if there’s too much assessment in a course. So keep assessment to a minimum and try to ensure that students see each assessment as worthwhile. Even “honest” students can rationalise plagiarism if the teacher appears disinterested or the standard of teaching is low, so maintaining teaching standards is important.


Some students will cheat irrespective of policies, teaching or curriculum and in these cases the only “solution” is deterrence – which means the threat of detection and punishment.


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4.       How can I design assessments to reduce plagiarism?


A simple (but crude) way of combating plagiarism is to reduce the amount of coursework. Many teachers have concerns about the potential for cheating within courseworks. Examination boards have also experienced problems, reporting that candidates sometimes achieve much higher marks in courseworks than they do in examinations.


Courseworks can be devised to reduce their potential for plagiarism. The more specific the assignment, the less likely it is that candidates will be able to piece together “old” material. Each coursework should be unique and as different as possible from previous courseworks. The marking scheme can be devised to accredit time management, requiring students to submit partially complete work at various milestones in the development of their work. Once submitted, teachers can conduct oral interviews to ensure that the student understands what they have written (this can also be built-in to the marking scheme).


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5.       What is a plagiarism policy?


A plagiarism policy defines a centre’s rules about plagiarism. It normally includes:


·        definition of plagiarism

·        types of plagiarism

·        examples of plagiarism

·        guidance on citing and referencing

·        procedure for dealing with plagiarism

·        penalties.


Most universities and some colleges have procedures for plagiarism. Some call them guides and some call them policies. Some schools have policies too – but very few in the UK.


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6.       Is there a standard way of referencing?


Yes. In fact, there are two common systems in use in the UK: (1) British Standard system, and (2) Harvard system. The Harvard system is the most widely used.


You normally reference a piece of work in two places: (1) in the body of the text, and (2) in a bibliography at the end of the text. You use brief references in the body of the text and full references in the bibliography.


There are different ways of referencing different types of publication. There are two types of publication: (1) printed, (2) online. Printed publications include textbooks and journals, and online publications include web pages and newsgroups. Each type of publication has its own style of referencing. The Open University uses a modified version of the Harvard system which might be appropriate for schools and colleges.


There is no requirement (nor need) to reference hyperlinks within online publication (such as this FAQ) since these links forward the reader directly to the source material.


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7.       What is common knowledge?


Common knowledge is something that is widely know and accepted by most people. For example, historical dates, mathematical formulae, and (some) scientific principles and theories fall into the category of common knowledge. There is no need to attribute or reference common knowledge.


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8.       How can I detect plagiarism?


Prevention is better than cure so taking steps to reduce plagiarism is better than elaborate detection systems. But detection is better than permitting plagiarism. There are two ways to detect plagiarism: (1) traditional methods, and (2) electronic methods.


Traditional methods include the established methods of spotting cheating. These include: (1) visual inspection of the material to identify unusual language, inconsistent presentation, irrelevant text, “left-overs” from the copied text etc.; (2) comparison with student’s previous work to identify inconsistent standards – a sudden leap in quality may indicate malpractice.


There are three types of electronic detection: (1) search engines, (2) anti-plagiarism software, and (3) online services. You can use a standard search engine to check students’ work. This is done by submitting parts of the work (such as suspect sentences or phrases) to the search engine and looking for matches. You can also purchase specialised software to detect plagiarism. This software will analyse a piece of writing and compare it with a database of source material. Lastly, you can subscribe to an online service which will require you to upload students’ work and the service will compare the material with an online database of similar writing. Some of these services will compare the material with printed sources (such as academic journals) and will integrate with VLEs (such as WebCT and Blackboard). The best known online service in the UK is the JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service (JISCPAS) which provides a wide range of advice, support and services to JISC centres – including a free subscription to a detection service.


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9.       How do I prove plagiarism?


It is difficult to prove plagiarism. Neither traditional nor electronic means of detecting plagiarism are foolproof. Plagiarism is a serious offence – and accusing someone of plagiarising is a serious accusation. It is not sufficient to suspect plagiarism. Students should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Accused students could take legal action.


If you suspect plagiarism, the first thing you should do is to interview the student. Unless you have irrefutable proof, this is not the time make accusations. The outcome of this interview will be one of two things: (1) your concerns are addressed, or (2) your concerns are confirmed. Irrespective of the outcome of this initial interview, the fact that it has taken place should be recorded (together with the outcome).


If you wish to take the matter further, the procedure will vary from centre to centre. In a school environment you may want to discuss it with the Principal Teacher who may decide to refer it to an Assistant Head Teacher who has responsibility for quality. In a college environment you may want to refer it to your Head of Department who may decide to pass it to the Academic Standards Committee. The centre’s plagiarism policy would define the precise procedure for each centre.


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10.   What penalties are applied to plagiarism?


There are no standard penalties for plagiarism. However, the penalties within a specific centre should be clearly defined in the centre’s plagiarism policy. The following factors are normally considered when establishing a penalty:


·        whether the offence was accidental or deliberate

·        scale of the offence

·        value of the assessment

·        level of the qualification being sought

·        honesty of the student

·        remorse of the student

·        previous history of the student.


The penalties include:


·        reduction in marks

·        resubmission of work

·        zero marks

·        suspension

·        expulsion

·        legal action.


So, at one extreme you have first time, accidental plagiarism on a small-scale in a low value assessment within a low level qualification. At the other extreme, you have repeated, deliberate, large-scale plagiarism in a high-value assessment within an advanced qualification – and the student denies all responsibility and shows no remorse. The penalties would reflect these different scenarios.


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11.   What can awarding bodies do about plagiarism?


Within the school and college sectors, the curriculum is defined by an Awarding Body (such as SQA). There are a number of steps that Awarding Bodies can take to combat plagiarism.


Some Awarding Bodies have reduced the amount of coursework within their awards; it is easier to plagiarise a coursework than an examination. Providing a bank of courseworks (rather than one or two) reduces plagiarism by permitting centres to regularly change assessments. Creating highly specific assessments (rather than very general ones) combats plagiarism by reducing the amount of material available for the student to copy. Awarding Bodies normally carry out a quality assurance function within their centres (normally though visiting verifiers) and can therefore exert some influence over centres (such as encouraging them to create – and apply – plagiarism policies). And, of course, Awarding Bodies can provide advice and support to centres on matters relating to plagiarism.


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12.   Are there links between plagiarism in school and college, and plagiarism in university?


University teachers claim that some pupils learn bad habits in school which they carry into university.  Few school pupils are trained in research methods and referencing. There is no standard approach towards plagiarism within UK schools and (unlike the US) few schools have a formal “honour code”.


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13.   What are the plagiarism myths?


·        Plagiarism is harmless. Some teachers argue that a certain amount of plagiarism is harmless. Students, too, often express the view that plagiarism “doesn’t harm anyone”. But it’s neither harmless nor victimless. Undetected plagiarism is a form of cheating – no different (in terms of its effect on grades) than cheating in an examination. The victims of plagiarism include fellow students and employers (who accept the student’s grades as an accurate indication of their ability).

·        Having a plagiarism policy means we have a plagiarism problem. It doesn’t. It means that your centre recognises the issue and takes it seriously. The existence of a plagiarism policy is an indication of high academic standards.


·        Plagiarism is easy to spot. Some teachers argue that there is no need for plagiarism policies (or other anti-plagiarism measures) because it’s easy to spot a cheat. Yet one of the reasons given by students who have admitted plagiarising is that they consider it very unlikely that they will get caught. Most of the research into plagiarism indicates that it is more widespread than reported -- which indicates that much of it goes undetected.


·        Only poor students plagiarise. It’s sometimes argued that plagiarism is only attempted by less-able students. But plagiarism is equally likely across all ability ranges. In fact, some people have argued that it more likely to occur at higher levels due to the increased competition and pressure to succeed at this level.


·        Plagiarism is explained by cultural differences. The argument goes that some cultures do not consider plagiarism to be a bad thing – and actively encourage their students to locate and use information from external sources (without attribution). These students, therefore, should be excused when they plagiarise. But that it is not the culture in the UK. And UK qualifications are presumed to be gained without the “benefit” of plagiarism (which is one of the reasons they are highly-regarded internationally). The higher incidence of reported plagiarism relating to international students may be partly explained by their relatively poor (English) writing skills which makes plagiarised material more apparent.


·        Tackling plagiarism will harm recruitment.  It’s been claimed that having a reputation for “being tough on cheating” will deter students from coming to a college. In fact, it should have the opposite effect. High academic standards should improve a centre’s reputation and aid recruitment.

·        My centre has a plagiarism policy so we’re OK. It’s not sufficient to have a plagiarism policy if pupils/students are not aware of the policy. In fact, it’s not sufficient to have a known policy if the policy is not followed by teachers – as a recent case demonstrated.


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14.   Where can I find out more?


There are various plagiarism-related resources. There are plagiarism websites, plagiarism mailing lists and even a plagiarism blog.


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