I feel that plagiarism is a topic and a concept that is not addressed often enough in secondary schools, and arguably should form part of the curriculum even earlier. I have seen students’ whole world collapse overnight when it rears its head. What I have found when this has happened is that so many students lack a fundamental understanding of what they have actually done and why it is considered such a big issue. They have not been taught lower down the school that certain actions are unacceptable, and thus they open themselves up to accusations of plagiarism and the threat of disqualification.
What is plagiarism?
Put simply, plagiarism is the act of passing off somebody else’s writings or ideas as your own. There are different ways in which plagiarism can take place. It can be deliberate, where a student intentionally copies out passages from another writer and attempts to pass these off as his/her own work. For instance, if two students turned into coursework essays that are very similar, this would prompt a plagiarism investigation. But it can also happen accidentally. Even using someone else’s ideas and putting them into your own words can be classed as plagiarism. If the ideas are too similar to be a coincidence, it is classed as plagiarism. It could also be as simple as using a quotation from another writer and forgetting to reference it properly. If plagiarism is discovered in a piece of writing that is submitted to an examination board, it can be extremely serious. The consequences are normally disqualification, and this can be not just from the subject in question, but from all examinations the student was due to take with that examination board. One of the worst things is that there is usually no distinction made between accidental and intentional plagiarism, the punishment is the same for both. Given how serious this can be, I am often surprised at how little time is spent educating students on this topic.
A lot of students get into bad habits from an early stage, and the internet is partly to blame. Whilst it may have been tempting in the past to copy out whole chunks from text books, now it is far easier to copy from other sources, when all you need to do is copy and paste. Students complete and submit research projects that are almost entirely the words of someone else and they are often not called up on it sufficiently. They do not realise that this is not just a bit lazy, in the academic world it is considered a crime. They keep up with these habits throughout GCSE and A Level, and when someone finally challenges them it is often too late.
Plagiarism is very easily detected by teachers. At university, they have highly sophisticated software that can pick up plagiarism in essays, but it is usually easy to spot anyway. There is a noticeable change in tone when a student starts using someone else’s words. Suddenly their vocabulary becomes more advanced and the sentence structure does not match what came before. I once was able to pick up on a plagiarism case as I recognised the ideas a student was writing about from an essay that had been submitted the year before. I got out the essay from the previous year and found that they were virtually identical. Students can therefore get caught out in various ways and it is simply not worth taking the risk.
How can students avoid plagiarism?
The obvious answer is of course not to engage in any intentional plagiarism, such as copying and pasting from other people’s work. But as I have already acknowledged, it is often more complicated than this. There is of course nothing wrong with engaging with other people’s ideas, and at A Level in particular this is required for English. But students need to be taught that there is a correct procedure for doing this. They should be given lessons on simple referencing from a much younger age, so that they understand how to use people’s ideas properly. Everytime they use another person’s ideas, they should be taught to make a note of where that idea came from, and credit the person in their work.
If students are doing research, and making notes, they should note down exactly where their source came from, preferably with page numbers. They should always use quotation marks if they are copying directly, and they must remember that even when they are paraphrasing, they still need to give their sources. Furthermore, students need to learn that they should never be handing in work that entirely consists of someone else’s ideas. The point of engaging with other people’s ideas is to help you develop your own. Students should say whether or not they agree with someone else’s ideas and explain why. They need to include their own interpretations and evaluations in their work. If they use their sources in a more complex way, rather than just parroting someone else’s words, they are less likely to fall into the trap of plagiarism.
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