Whilst I have always been (almost) obsessed with the avoidance of plagiarism, it never ceases to amaze me how students look at me when I alert them of how careful they need to be in order to avoid it.
Ok, maybe I exaggerate and need to chill a bit about it…. At least in this blog. After all, if you are reading this you may be at an advanced stage of your academic career and you have certainly understood what plagiarism is about, right?
The real problem is that you can either plagiarise consciously or unconsciously. Whilst I expect that plagiarism amongst undergraduate students can be a matter of both, depending on the student and depending on the circumstances, within postgraduate students and professional researchers and academics the situation can become more complicated.
Assuming that you are an honest researcher, and I think the majority of us actually are, plagiarism is something you are careful about. By now, you will be aware that you need to reference properly and that you must acknowledge any influences on your work, right?
Let me start from the beginning. Plagiarism, to put it quite simply, is the process whereby somebody steals somebody else’s idea and passes it off as their own work. Therefore, it is a theft as, in a sense, it’s the theft of what someone else has produced: the fruits of their labour. Increasingly, it seems that the discourse of plagiarism is not sufficiently clear for students and many prefer to talk about academic integrity instead, which would include plagiarism but also other forms of dishonesty in an academic setting.
Whatever we may call it; it is obvious that it’s a problem. The problem appears to have become worse as we have access to far more information than we ever did, and that information is far easier to copy than it may have been in the past. Whilst there is some attention being paid to the way in which undergraduates understand and deal with plagiarism (Ashworth et al., 1997; Gullifer and Tyson, 2010; Pittam et al., 2009), it seems that once we cross the doctoral line we are no longer worried about committing it, just being able to spot it. We are no longer the possible criminals, but the plagiarism police.
However, I think that two challenges await us. The first one may lead us to become victims, in an attempt to become known within professional and/or academic circles we may disclose our research too soon and without adequate protection. Keeping some kind of control over what parts of your work are publicly available (before they have actually been published) is crucial. In particular, making sure that everything that is posted online has your full contact details and name (ideally in every page). At least you’ll be able to avoid unconscious plagiarism!
The second challenge could turn us into perpetrators. Acquiring good referencing habits at all times is crucial in order to avoid finding yourself in such a situation. Good referencing should not be something that is done at the end of a project, but rather it should be put in place right at the beginning. Remember, the beginning is when you start reading! It’s important to ensure that both your work and your teaching materials are free from plagiarism. How many times have you seen badly referenced teaching materials? It’s crucial to ensure that they are also treated as rigorously as your academic work. As well as creating a good example for your students you’ll be respecting everyone else’s work too!
Ashworth, P., Bannister, P. and Thorne, P. (1997), ‘Guilty in whose eyes? University students’ perceptions of cheating and plagiarism in academic work and assessment’, Studies in Higher Education, 22: 2, 187-203.
Gullifer, J. and Tyson, G. (2010), ‘Exploring university students’ perceptions of plagiarism: a focus group study’, Studies in Higher Education, 35: 4, 463-481.
Pittam, G., Elander, J., Lusher, J., Fox, P. and Payne, N. (2009), ‘Student beliefs and attitudes about authorial identity in academic writing’, Studies in Higher Education, 34: 2, 153-170.