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Do you understand the word 'Plagiarism'?

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'Don't cheat': It seems straightforward, but plagiarism is one of the top three issues students complain about, according to The Guardian.

Being accused of this is pretty serious and too many students are finding themselves in very hot water by not knowing exactly what the word means.

All too often colleges and universities (even individual modules and departments) have different ideas of what plagiarism means. If someone is coming from college, where plagiarism means one thing, to university where it means another, that student runs the risk of committing the crime inadvertently.

Plagiarism isn’t just the copying and pasting technique we all hear of, or attempting to paraphrase and rather just changing every sixth word to various synonyms of the word already there. It can also be self-plagiarising- re-submitting essays or parts of essays you have submitted before, not properly referencing thus not attributing a quote and even having too much help from tutors and external organisations during things such as a thesis or dissertation, finding yourself in a position in which you relay their words.

Universities publish reams of paper that detail how to reference properly and how to avoid plagiarism but not all universities provide hands-on workshops that actively give examples of plagiarism. Additionally very few universities allow the students to experiment with software such as Turnitin to get to grips with what the software flags up and why. This sort of experience could be invaluable to a student submitting work to a professional standard.

Furthermore a huge problem within universities is that departments often vary so greatly in their requirements of format with submitted work that students find themselves being familiar with the Harvard referencing system and then having to learn footnotes or another alien system just for one module that belongs to a different department. When you aren’t familiar with a different mode of referencing it is very easy to have the best of intentions and still plagiarise.

Another issue is that tutors moving from one university to another have to get to grips with new systems, software and methods. In my experience, someone on my course was made to resubmit an essay because she had lots of 1% plagiarism detections on Turnitin but collectively they added up to the amount that should ring alarm bells. In reality the essay consisted of sentence starters such as ‘The media are’ and ‘Cultural theory is’ which, obviously, are on most media websites, despite the fact she had never visited the sites it flagged up. The software isn’t foolproof and tutors have to spend extra time going through essays and submitted work with a fine-tooth comb.

I understand the need for universities to take plagiarism seriously and there are some students out there who plagiarise purposely, hoping to pass someone else’s work off as their own. Though, I do believe this is a minority. I would like to see a national system that runs across all UK universities, one format (font, font size, margins, etc), one referencing system and one piece of software used to check every piece of work with seminars teaching the students about such software. This way, any issues with plagiarism couldn’t be denied any longer as the students are fully equipped with the knowledge of how to avoid cheating.




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