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Articles > December, 01, 2008

Plagiarism – How one copy-paste can end your uni career

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Lovers of house music will remember Pete Waterman’s outrage at revolutionary eighties track ‘Pump Up The Volume’ (a track composed of music sampled from existing records without permission). Waterman started a legal dispute calling the act “wholesale theft”, and won his case due to the laws on plagiarism.

In the way that sampling someone else’s music and mixing it into your own track without reference is plagiarism, so is taking someone else’s idea and writing it into your essay as if it were your own.

For most of us, printing a page from a useful website has been a life saver for last minute homework (in secondary school a classmate of mine won a prize for an outstanding essay on the civil war which had been printed from a history website), but those days are over when you start university.

Plagiarism isn’t just copying a huge passage of text and writing your name at the bottom of it, it’s any instance in which someone else’s work is used (even if written in your own words, known as ‘paraphrasing’) without reference. It’s a serious academic offence and many universities have policies on removing students who fail to cite their sources.

One of the most effective anti-plagiarism tools a university can use will be your tutor. Having marked endless essays on the subject you’re studying and being familiar with most of the books you’re likely to use they’ll be able to smell a phoney from a mile off. As if that’s not spooky enough, you might be surprised by some of the Big Brother-style technology available: most universities use a plagiarism prevention program called Turnitin, which checks your work to thousands of sources including previously submitted essays (so don’t think of buying one online!). It also checks your essay against those of classmates to spot pairs who have been working too closely together.

Remember that your university’s plagiarism policy will be zero tolerance, meaning that even accidental plagiarism will be treated seriously. Think you’ve heard this all before? I felt the same. During fresher’s week my folder was weighed down with anti-plagiarism advice from every class I was taking and my tutors spent huge amounts of time stressing the importance of referencing your every source, but I learned how easy it is to slip up…

As we reached the deadline of our first essay I went with a new friend to hand in the outcome of my hard work. “How many secondary sources did you use?” I asked, thinking that the five books I’d wrestled with was a lot. “I used thirteen articles,” she told me cheerfully, making me wish I hadn’t asked. When our essays came back to us with marks I was thrilled to get a 2:1 – I never expected to score so well for a first try! I found my friend and asked what her mark had been… with all the research she’d done she’d be sure to get a first. “I failed,” she told me in disbelief, “with a zero.”

What had been her error? Of the thirteen books she’d used she’d forgotten to include one of the extracts in quotation marks and reference it at the end of her essay. Turnitin had picked up her error. While the university acknowledged it as a careless accident they explained the policy made allowances for no-one.

How can you prevent something that seems such a trivial mistake? Your university will have its own policy on plagiarism, so print it out, get familiar with it and re-read it before submitting any essay. To check you’re clear on what counts as plagiarism and how to avoid it there are online tests available and it’s worth learning how to reference work using footnotes and bibliographies correctly (some departments even require the page numbers of the book you use).

As simple as it sounds, one small instance of accidental or intentional plagiarism can knock a huge chunk out of your grade or even result in your dismissal from university, so no matter how easy it seems to avoid it is definitely worth knowing that you’re clear.

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  1. Robyn

    Nearly finished my A-levels and it’s only now that teachers are explaining about referencing and using quotations in coursework and stuff. It seems a bit daunting to be marked down for forgetting one quote, at university.

  2. Jim

    I wasn’t actually aware of the importance of referencing at all until I started university. It was drummed into us during our first week, but in many conflicting ways. I’m still yet to master it, and it’s letting me down!

  3. Nickola Hildred

    I must admit it all sounds very scary and I had never even heard of referencing until attend college this year as a mature student, but I am pleased to say it has been drummed into all of us and assignments do not get credits unless they are referenced properly, perhaps they should be introducing it an early age at schools.

  4. Sarah

    wow, that is absolutely crazy, actually makes me scared of uni, i reckon doing languages it will be even harder to avoid plagiarism, because you learn everything in a sort of parrot fashion!

  5. Emer

    This is a good article. However, I think, especially from my experience, there is not enough knowledge on how to avoid plagerism. There are plenty of ways to do footnotes and bibliographies but each univeristy and even department seem to have specific ways to do them. For me, as a joint honours student, it gets confusing about which way is the best to reference.

  6. Rikki

    I’m a bit shocked to hear people at school level just print out things from the internet to hand in. Maybe if students were taught not to plagiarise at an earlier age this would be less of a problem at university? You’re right to stress that referencing the material, and doing it as you go along (not just before you hand it in!) is the way to go. You are allowed to use other people’s ideas (otherwise everyone would be reinventing the wheel), you just have to make it clear whose idea it was 🙂