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What is plagiarism and how can you avoid it?

Student working at computer with coffee and books.
Students need to learn the conventions of academic writing at the start of their university careers.

Unsplash CC: Juliette Leufke

You've scoped out the campus, bought your books and are ready to start your university career. But do you know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it?

"Basically if you've used the words or thoughts of someone else without attribution that's plagiarism," says Associate Professor Jon Yorke, the Academic Registrar at Curtin University in Perth.

The term can be used to describe a variety of things.

"On one hand it can range from simply forgetting to put some quotation marks around something, to at the other [end] commissioning your work from somebody else which you then go ahead and submit [as] your own," he says. "That's actually described as contract cheating."

Plagiarism can also include copying and pasting a chunk of text from a website into your own work, or copying and pasting material from multiple sources, and even reusing work you created but which you've already submitted as part of a previous assignment.

Students also need to be cautious of offers of help from writing support services, says Associate Professor Yorke, particularly if they start offering to write chunks or even all of your assignment for you.

"Obviously that's problematic," he says. "A good writing support person will do things like give you advice and guidance, [they'll] give you rules on how to deal with that kind of thing in the future but won't do it for you."

In most cases Associate Professor Yorke says plagiarism is unintentional, and is born of either ignorance of academic conventions, or a lack of understanding of the technicalities of the particular referencing system you're using. Students need to understand both.

"The most common forms of plagiarism would be simply using quotes and either not quoting them properly," he says, "or not paraphrasing them enough and putting them into your own words, so that it reads too closely to what is in the original published article."

Domestic students are just as likely to plagiarise as international students, Associate Professor Yorke says, and they all need to be aware of the consequences.

These can range from a warning, through to a permanent record of academic misconduct resulting in reduced marks, failing the assessment or entire unit, or even suspension or expulsion from the university depending on how serious the plagiarism is.

"I don't think students when they start, necessarily realise that a record of academic misconduct is quite a bad thing to get on your record. You really don't want it."

Easier to detect

With the development of plagiarism detection services like Turnitin in the late 90s, early 2000s it's become a lot easier for universities to detect when someone has plagiarised, particularly as most students now submit all their assignments electronically.

Associate Professor Yorke says these services started doing a "super Google" of students' work.

"They googled all the phrases in all of the combinations then showed you where the most likely matches were."

And the power of these services to detect plagiarism has been growing exponentially over the last two decades, particularly as more texts have been digitized.

"Not only has our ability to detect stuff increased but the amount of stuff we can match it to has increased, and all of that means that we find a lot more of it," he says.

"The nice thing about all of these approaches to detection is that they can also be used in a prevention mode."

Lecturers can show their students what their work looks like after it's been run through a plagiarism detection service.

"That then makes it very transparent so everyone knows what's happening but also [you] can then use that as part of coaching and training for the students," says Associate Professor Yorke.

Tips for avoiding plagiarism

Group of students
If you need help with your studies, ask for support says Associate Professor Yorke.

While universities don't expect new students to turn up on day one of classes knowing all the conventions of academic writing, Associate Professor Yorke says they do need to be proactive in learning what the rules and requirements for their institution are.

"Pay attention to all of the material that's given out in orientation and in the early lectures, and if for any reason you join your course late make sure you seek that information out so that you're well appraised of what you need to do."

You can find a lot of this information online. For example, Curtin has an academic integrity website that includes a handy checklist students can use to avoid plagiarism.

This checklist covers things like ensuring you include a reference every time you refer to someone else's work in your assignment, whether it's a direct quote or not, and how to use direct quotes in the first place – sparingly, as your lecturer wants to know what you think on the topic too!

If English proficiency is an issue for you, find out if your university offers English bridging courses.

These will not only help you improve your English, but also teach you how to use English in an academic context, he says.

If there's one piece of advice Associate Professor Yorke would like students to take away it's "if in doubt, ask".

Universities have many support services students can access if they're struggling, like student wellbeing areas or study support tutors who can help with writing issues among other things.

"I see so many students who if they had asked at any earlier stage would have gotten some support long before they got themselves into trouble."

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