What To Do About Plagiarism

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I often hear that plagiarism – or the passing off of another’s work as one’s own – is a problem of the past. It is true that most universities require assessment to be checked for plagiarism using sophisticated software. It is also true that students are nowadays obliged to include with their work a statement confirming that the work is their own.

So that really should be the end of the discussion – but is it?

Plagiarism still exists, to greater and lesser degree – throughout the academic spectrum.

So what do you do when faced with a piece of work that you suspect contains, or consists of, plagiarized material?

1. Don’t panic

The first rule is not to panic, and importantly, not to make any sort of direct accusation to the student concerned. Instead, make sure you are familiar with your university’s conventions. But before you take matters any further, attempt to identify the source – it may be from the Internet, of course, but may also be from a book you have supplied in the reading list, or, not uncommonly, from your own material.

2. Take stock

Now assess the extent of the plagiarism. If a substantial portion or more appears to be plagiarized, and you are able to identify source material, then you should consult with your module convener and / or Director of Teaching (or similar), who should review the matter and decide on a course of action - which may include disciplinary measures. If the plagiarized material is more occasional, you may consider speaking on an informal basis to the student to explain why he or she has received a penalty.

3. Educate

Dealing with plagiarism starts before anyone has put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. The first step is to educate students about how to avoid it. The vast majority of students are likely to want to achieve their degree on their own merits, but some not have come across the concept of plagiarism before (particularly if they are from a background where more value is placed on demonstrating that material has been assimilated than on constructing an original argument).

So it is not enough that your university has guidelines about plagiarism. You and your colleagues need to instill in your students the best ways of using other people’s research with probity. Your foundational courses with them should include teaching them about the core values and ethics of the academic community to which they belong.

4. Make structural changes

More practically, you should also give them concrete tips on proper note taking, (e.g. different colors when taking notes from secondary material; taking down full publication details of texts). Teach students that this applies equally to the Internet. Work with your university library team to train students to use the Internet well, giving them the tools to recognize unsubstantiated material, to triangulate undocumented information, and seek out reliable, peer-reviewed material online.

Of course, collusion or large-scale plagiarism is very different from inadvertent plagiarism, and should be treated as such - but often the problem is that it cannot be proven (e.g. in the case of essays bought online). This, again, can be addressed in the forms of assessment you and your colleagues use. Make sure, for instance, that your assessment tracks your module closely, is specific to the content on your module, and allows the student to make full use of the knowledge they will have gained in the course of your teaching. In other words, avoid generalized forms of assessment.

5. Remember - plagiarism is not just about students

Lastly, remember that plagiarism is not just a matter concerning students. You may, for instance, come across it in the work of another academic – for example, in a manuscript you have been asked to review for publication. Remember that most material submitted for review has been anonymized, so any material you suspect to have been plagiarized may in fact be by the author him or herself - but self-citation also needs acknowledgement. Tread carefully, but be sure to raise your concern with the editor nonetheless.

And remember, of course, to apply the same standards as you expect from your students and colleagues to your own work.

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