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What is Plagiarism?

Worried that your work might count as plaigerism?

You're not alone. Because plagiarism is so serious, it's a common fear amongst college or university students. Sometimes that fear is unfounded and sometimes it isn't.

So what is plagiarism?

Let's get started with definitions so you're on the same page as your markers. Plagiarism is possible in many situations, but we will focus on academic plagiarism. This is part of a broader category called academic dishonesty.

The two main forms of plagiarism we see in student writing are:

  • Using ideas or words from another author without giving proper credit

  • Pretending that ideas or words composed by another person were actually written by you


The first kind is the most common and also the most likely to be a genuine accident. But even if it is accidental, it's still serious and could get you into real trouble.

Plagiarism is broken down into four major types:

  • Direct or dishonest plagiarism is probably the kind you are most aware of. This is where someone copies work from another person and passes it off as their own. They might even pay someone to write work on their behalf. This is not an accident and tends to happen if a person is very unsure of the material they are meant to have learned or if they have left themselves no time to properly complete an assessment.

  • Mosaic writing is a kind of plagiarism that happens when a student puts together bits and pieces from different sources without due credit. Sometimes they will swap the order of words or substitute a few of their own choices. This can sometimes be a result of bad paraphrasing, but can also be a slightly more sophisticated form of direct/dishonest plagiarism.

  • Self-plagiarism happens when you re-submit work that you have already written, gained credit for, and received feedback about - pretending that it is new. You are only able to gain credit for a piece of work once. In some rarer situations you may be allowed to submit work twice (such as expanding and improving on text for a cumulative assessment task). But unless you are told otherwise, don't copy and paste from your own submitted work.

  • Accidental plagiarism happens when a person makes a mistake with their sources. This can include pasting in text to your essay and forgetting to use quotation marks, or getting your sources mixed up.


In this guide, we assume that you're trying to do the right thing and be as clear and accurate with your use of sources as possible.

How can you avoid it?

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to know exactly how and when to reference other sources. If you're uncertain, we have a great guide to run you through the fundamentals.

Remember that every source needs to be referenced. Most students understand that books or journal articles need a citation, but you also have to be clear about any information you took from websites, podcasts, live speeches etc. You also need to be careful with specialist material from your discipline. Make sure you reference any musical scores, program codes, or scientific methods that might be a part of your assessment submission. It's not only essays where plagiarism happens.

The best rule is to play it safe and use referencing whenever you take an idea, fact, or phrase from another author. Quotation marks are a good idea if you are using more than three words in a row from your source material. Don't assume something is 'common knowledge' and requires no reference. It's better to cite things that seem obvious than to accidentally suggest they're your own idea. Plus, citing the fundamental concepts of your discipline shows strong background knowledge!

What's not plagiarism?

Sometimes students panic if they get more than a 0% similarity rating on software like Turnitin. Realistically, this isn't very likely. English is full of common phrases that will appear in source material and other students' essays. For example, we wouldn't expect you to reference when using a common academic phrase like "In conclusion, we can see that...". If more than one student in a cohort uses this phrase, we wouldn't be surprised. Using a common turn of phrase isn't plagiarism.

You may also find that you agree with another scholar and have come to similar conclusions to them after conducting a scientific experiment or analysing similar case studies. This doesn't mean you are copying them - but your marker will be happy if you can note people who have made a discovery prior to you. This would show a good understanding of your field.

Many honest students are scared by the idea of plagiarism because they simply don't know the rules and aren't confident with what's right or wrong. Universities have increasingly included academic honesty training as part of their curricula, so see if yours offers something like this. Then you will be able to more confidently tell the difference between what's honest and what's not.

Moving towards academic integrity

The opposite of academic dishonesty is academic integrity. This is where you are honest and ethical with the work you produce.

Many students make dishonest choices out of panic. If you feel tempted to lie and use someone else's work as your own, this might be because you are seriously struggling with the content you are meant to have learned. This is a sign that you may need to transfer to a more basic course and become comfortable with the fundamentals. You could also benefit from additional tutoring to get you back up to speed. There's no shame in admitting that you've fallen behind.

Dishonest choices also happen to students who are fairly confident with the material they are studying, but who are bad with timing or planning. If you are writing an essay in a panic, just before it's due, there's a big chance you will either steal work on purpose to make the process faster or accidentally plagiarise due to a lack of focus. This is a sign that something has gone very wrong in your approach to learning. Remember, it's never to late to commit to better organisation. It's always better to ask for an extension, or even to be late and lose marks, than it is to submit something dishonest.

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