Working in the library at Somerville College
Working in the library at Somerville College
Copyright © Rob Judges Photography / Oxford University Images - http://www.oxforduniversityimages.com/results.asp?image=PAD002487-01 - All rights reserved.

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is the copying or paraphrasing of other people’s work or ideas without full acknowledgement. Intentional plagiarism may incur severe penalties, including failure of your degree.

Below you can find out more about what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it:

Why does plagiarism matter?

All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under the term plagiarism. Collusion is another form of plagiarism involving the unauthorised collaboration of students (or others) in a piece of work. Plagiarism is a breach of academic integrity. It is a principle of intellectual honesty that all members of the academic community should acknowledge their debt to the originators of the ideas, words, and data which form the basis for their own work. Passing off another’s work as your own is not only poor scholarship, but also means that you have failed to complete the learning process. Deliberate plagiarism is unethical and can have serious consequences for your future career.

Why should you avoid plagiarism?

You have come to university to learn to know and speak your own mind, not merely to parrot the opinions of others. At first it may seem very difficult to develop your own views, and you will probably find yourself paraphrasing the writings of others as you attempt to understand and assimilate their arguments, however, it is important that you learn to develop your own voice. You are not necessarily expected to become an original thinker, but you are expected to be an independent one - by learning to critically assess the work of others, weigh up differing arguments and draw your own conclusions.

You should not avoid plagiarism for fear of disciplinary consequences, but because you aspire to produce work of the highest quality. Once you have grasped the principles of source use and citation, you should find it relatively straightforward to steer clear of plagiarism.

What to avoid

The necessity to reference applies not only to text, but also to other media, such as computer code, illustrations, graphs etc. It applies equally to published text drawn from books and journals, and to unpublished text, whether from lecture handouts, theses or other students’ essays. You must also attribute text or other resources downloaded from websites. Various forms of plagiarism include:

Verbatim quotation without clear acknowledgement

Quotations must always be identified as such by the use of either quotation marks or indentation, with adequate citation. It must always be apparent to the reader which parts of your assessment are your own work and where you have drawn on someone else’s ideas and language.

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing the work of others by altering a few words and changing their order or by closely following the structure of their argument, is plagiarism because you are deriving your words and ideas from their work without giving due acknowledgement.

Even if you include a reference to the original author in your own text you are still creating a misleading impression that the paraphrased wording is entirely your own. It is better to write a brief summary of the author’s overall argument in your own words than to paraphrase particular sections of his or her writing. This will ensure you have a genuine grasp of the argument and will avoid the difficulty of paraphrasing without plagiarising. You must also properly attribute all material you derive from lectures.

Cutting and pasting from the Internet

Information derived from the Internet must be adequately referenced and included in the bibliography. It is important to evaluate carefully all material found on the Internet, as it is less likely to have been through the same process of scholarly peer review as published sources.

Collusion

This can involve unauthorised collaboration between students, failure to attribute assistance received, or failure to follow regulations on group work projects. It is your responsibility to ensure that you are entirely clear about the extent of collaboration permitted, and which parts of the work must be your own.

Inaccurate citation

It is important to cite correctly, according to the conventions of your discipline. Additionally, you should not include anything in a footnote or bibliography that you have not actually consulted. If you cannot gain access to a primary source you must make it clear in your citation that your knowledge of the work has been derived from a secondary text (for example, Bradshaw, D. Title of Book, discussed in Wilson, E., Title of Book (London, 2004), p. 189).

Failure to acknowledge

You must clearly acknowledge all assistance which has contributed to the production of your work, such as advice from fellow students, laboratory technicians, and other external sources. This need not apply to the assistance provided by your tutor or supervisor, nor to ordinary proofreading, but it is necessary to acknowledge other guidance which leads to substantive changes of content or approach.

Professional agencies

You should neither make use of professional agencies in the production of your work nor submit material which has been written for you. It is vital to your intellectual training and development that you should undertake the research process unaided.

Auto-plagiarism

You must not submit work for assessment which you have already submitted (partially or in full) to fulfil the requirements of another degree course or examination, unless this is specifically provided for in the special regulations for your course.

What happens if you are suspected of plagiarism?

The regulations regarding conduct in examinations apply equally to the ‘submission and assessment of a thesis, dissertation, essay, or other coursework not undertaken in formal examination conditions, but which counts towards or constitutes the work for a degree or other academic award’. Additionally, this includes the transfer and confirmation of status exercises undertaken by graduate students. Cases of suspected plagiarism in assessed work are investigated under the disciplinary regulations concerning conduct in examinations. Intentional or reckless plagiarism may incur severe penalties, including failure of your degree or expulsion from the university.

If plagiarism is suspected in a piece of work submitted for assessment in an examination, the matter will be referred to the Proctors. They will investigate the claim and summon the student concerned for interview. If at this point there is no evidence of a breach of the regulations, no further action will be taken. However, if it is concluded that an intentional or reckless breach of the regulations has occurred, the Proctors will refer the case to one of two disciplinary panels. Visit student conduct for information on disciplinary procedures.

Does this mean that I shouldn’t use the work of other authors?

On the contrary, it is vital that you situate your writing within the intellectual debates of your discipline. Academic essays almost always involve the use and discussion of material written by others, and, with due acknowledgement and proper referencing, this is clearly distinguishable from plagiarism.

The knowledge in your discipline has developed cumulatively as a result of years of research, innovation and debate. You need to give credit to the authors of the ideas and observations you cite. Not only does this accord recognition to their labours, it also helps you to strengthen your argument by making clear the basis on which you make it. Good citation practice gives your reader the opportunity to follow up your references, or check the validity of your interpretation.

Does every statement in my essay have to be backed up with references?

You may feel that including the citation for every point you make will interrupt the flow of your essay and make it look very unoriginal. At least initially, this may sometimes be inevitable. However, by employing good citation practice from the start, you will learn to avoid errors such as sloppy paraphrasing or unreferenced quotation.

It is important to understand the reasons behind the need for transparency of source use. All academic texts, even student essays, are multi-voiced, which means they are filled with references to other texts. Rather than attempting to synthesise these voices into one narrative account, you should make it clear whose interpretation or argument you are employing at any one time (whose ‘voice’ is speaking).

If you are substantially indebted to a particular argument in the formulation of your own, you should make this clear both in footnotes and in the body of your text, before going on to describe how your own views develop or diverge from this influence.

It is not necessary to give references for facts that are common knowledge in your discipline. If you are unsure as to whether something is considered to be common knowledge or not, it is safer to cite it anyway and seek clarification. You do need to document facts that are not generally known and ideas that are interpretations of facts.

Does this only matter in examinations?

Although plagiarism in weekly essays does not constitute a University disciplinary offence, it may well lead to college disciplinary measures. Tutorial essays traditionally do not require the full scholarly apparatus of footnotes and referencing, but it is still necessary to acknowledge your sources and demonstrate the development of your argument, usually by an in-text reference. Many tutors will ask that you do employ a formal citation style early on, and you will find that this is good preparation for later project and dissertation work.

Unintentional plagiarism

Not all cases of plagiarism arise from a deliberate intention to cheat. Sometimes students may omit to take down citation details when copying and pasting, or they may be genuinely ignorant of referencing conventions. However, these excuses offer no protection against a charge of plagiarism. Even in cases where the plagiarism is found to have been unintentional, there may still be a penalty.

It is your responsibility to find out the prevailing referencing conventions in your discipline, to take adequate notes, and to avoid close paraphrasing. The advice contained in your subject handbook will help you learn how to avoid common errors. If you are undertaking a project or dissertation you should ensure that you have information on plagiarism and collusion. If in doubt about referencing, paraphrasing or plagiarism, ask your tutor.

Examples of plagiarism

The following examples demonstrate some of the common pitfalls to avoid. These examples use the referencing system prescribed by the History Faculty but should be of use to students of all disciplines.

Source text

From a class perspective this put them [highwaymen] in an ambivalent position. In aspiring to that proud, if temporary, status of ‘Gentleman of the Road’, they did not question the inegalitarian hierarchy of their society. Yet their boldness of act and deed, in putting them outside the law as rebellious fugitives, revivified the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalism and became an essential part of the oppositional culture of working-class London, a serious obstacle to the formation of a tractable, obedient labour force. Therefore, it was not enough to hang them – the values they espoused or represented had to be challenged.

(Linebaugh, P., The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1991), p. 213. [You should give the reference in full the first time you use it in a footnote; thereafter it is acceptable to use an abbreviated version, e.g. Linebaugh, The London Hanged, p. 213.]

Plagiarised

  1. Although they did not question the inegalitarian hierarchy of their society, highwaymen became an essential part of the oppositional culture of working-class London, posing a serious threat to the formation of a biddable labour force. (This is a patchwork of phrases copied verbatim from the source, with just a few words changed here and there. There is no reference to the original author and no indication that these words are not the writer’s own.)
  2. Although they did not question the inegalitarian hierarchy of their society, highwaymen exercised a powerful attraction for the working classes. Some historians believe that this hindered the development of a submissive workforce. (This is a mixture of verbatim copying and acceptable paraphrase. Although only one phrase has been copied from the source, this would still count as plagiarism. The idea expressed in the first sentence has not been attributed at all, and the reference to ‘some historians’ in the second is insufficient. The writer should use clear referencing to acknowledge all ideas taken from other people’s work.)
  3. Although they did not question the inegalitarian hierarchy of their society, highwaymen ‘became an essential part of the oppositional culture of working-class London [and] a serious obstacle to the formation of a tractable, obedient labour force’.1 (This contains a mixture of attributed and unattributed quotation, which suggests to the reader that the first line is original to this writer. All quoted material must be enclosed in quotation marks and adequately referenced.)
  4. Highwaymen’s bold deeds ‘revivified the “animal spirits” of capitalism’ and made them an essential part of the oppositional culture of working-class London.1 Peter Linebaugh argues that they posed a major obstacle to the formation of an obedient labour force. (Although the most striking phrase has been placed within quotation marks and correctly referenced, and the original author is referred to in the text, there has been a great deal of unacknowledged borrowing. This should have been put into the writer’s own words instead.)
  5. By aspiring to the title of ‘Gentleman of the Road’, highwaymen did not challenge the unfair taxonomy of their society. Yet their daring exploits made them into outlaws and inspired the antagonistic culture of labouring London, forming a grave impediment to the development of a submissive workforce. Ultimately, hanging them was insufficient – the ideals they personified had to be discredited.1 (This may seem acceptable on a superficial level, but by imitating exactly the structure of the original passage and using synonyms for almost every word, the writer has paraphrased too closely. The reference to the original author does not make it clear how extensive the borrowing has been. Instead, the writer should try to express the argument in his or her own words, rather than relying on a ‘translation’ of the original.)

Non-plagiarised

  1. Peter Linebaugh argues that although highwaymen posed no overt challenge to social orthodoxy – they aspired to be known as ‘Gentlemen of the Road’ – they were often seen as anti-hero role models by the unruly working classes. He concludes that they were executed not only for their criminal acts, but in order to stamp out the threat of insubordinacy.1 (This paraphrase of the passage is acceptable as the wording and structure demonstrate the reader’s interpretation of the passage and do not follow the original too closely. The source of the ideas under discussion has been properly attributed in both textual and footnote references.)
  2. Peter Linebaugh argues that highwaymen represented a powerful challenge to the mores of capitalist society and inspired the rebelliousness of London’s working class.1 (This is a brief summary of the argument with appropriate attribution.)

    1 Linebaugh, P., The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1991), p. 213.