Knowing how to prevent and avoid plagiarism is one of the most essential skills you need when writing an essay at university – underestimating its importance could even result in your academic expulsion. So before you end up becoming a notorious plagiariser, read what Annique has to say about plagiarism and how to prevent it.
Essentially, understanding the concept of plagiarism is easy. It’s kind of like at primary school. Remember when the teacher asked your class a question and you mumbled the answer to yourself just to see your desk neighbour shoot up a hand and claim your answer with a pretentious grin? Darn kid. Well, that’s what it feels like to someone when you plagiarise his or her work – except that it’s way worse.
By the time I sat down to write my first academic essay, I knew more or less what plagiarism was. It wasn’t too difficult to wrap my mind around the concept that it is wrong to take something someone has said, and then to pretend that I was the one who came up with it. I got the hang of things quite quickly and learnt how to use a referencing system properly, but there were always still questions and special situations where I had to double-check that I wasn’t accidently committing the plagiarist crime.
Here’s everything you need to know about the plagiarism business and how to stay clear of trouble when writing and citing.
What Is Plagiarism?
If you type plagiarism into the online Oxford Dictionaries, it will define plagiarism as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” In other words, it’s a form of theft, and a very unethical thing to do.
If you didn’t come up with something yourself, you need to make sure that you always acknowledge the source of the information you are using – be this a quotation, a sentence from a text, an idea, or an opinion.
For example, I just used Oxford Dictionaries’ definition for plagiarism – that’s why I’ve put it in inverted commas. If I hadn’t, I’d be pretending that I had personally come up with that definition. The inverted commas are part of a bigger system that is used to indicate the acknowledgment of another source, and this system goes by the name of referencing.
How do you Reference?
The basic idea of referencing is that when you use outsourced information in your essay, you need to indicate this in two instances:
- In the text, where you use it
- In your bibliography at the end of your essay
These references need to match, and you cannot have one without the other.
There are different referencing systems you can use. They all adhere to the same principles, but they can differ slightly in format and other little conventions. You will need to check with each university department which system they prefer or require.
Two commonly used systems are the Harvard Referencing System and APA. I always used The Harvard Referencing System for my essays. Whenever I wrote an essay, one of the open browser windows was always the Harvard system guide on the Anglia Ruskin University website. It’s neat, super practical, and shows you exactly how to reference in any scenario.
You will get the hang of referencing the more you do it, and you can always look up how to reference different sources (books, articles, song lyrics, etc.) on various websites – just search for the system you want to use and you will probably get a whole list of guides that break it down for you.
In which ways can you Plagiarise?
One way to consider plagiarism is to picture it as a thread or chord in a web of lies and theft. Sometimes, the web is designed and crafted with intent, and other times it accidently manifests – kind of like your earphones that end up in a tangled mess, even though you were sure you put them in your bag neatly.
In a nutshell: when you plagiarise, you either know that you are doing it, or you don’t. Either way, you should not be doing it. Ever.
Here is a list of common forms of plagiarism:
- handing in someone else’s work as your own (don’t ask a friend to write your essay for you… bad idea)
- hiring someone to write your essay for you (even worse idea)
- copying words or ideas from someone else without acknowledging the source (just copy and pasting)
- inserting a quote without putting it in quotation marks (this can happen as an honest mistake, but a mistake you need to try and avoid)
- referencing a source that you didn’t use (if you remove a source from the text, you need to also remove it from your bibliography)
- referencing with wrong or invented information (just don’t)
- changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without referencing it (rather safe than sorry – you might think you have changed the sentence so much that it doesn’t need to be referenced – it still does)
- when the majority of your work is based on someone else’s words or ideas (the reason you write an essay, after all, is to give voice to your unique opinion – and even if you feel that you happen to share someone else’s opinion 100%, you still need to write the essay in a way that makes it unique to your voice)
- translating directly from another language without acknowledging the original source (nope, the necessity to reference doesn’t get lost in translation)
- using extracts from your previous writings without referencing them (it’s odd, but you can actually plagiarise yourself!)
Remember, plagiarism isn’t limited to written words and texts. You can also plagiarise if you use a sentence that was said to you during a conversation, or if you analyse a pie chart and don’t indicate where you got the statistics from.
Fun Fact: Did you just wonder whether perhaps I might be plagiarising by compiling the above list? Well, that would be ironic, wouldn’t it! Luckily for me, this does not count as plagiarism, even though I did compile the list from already-existing information. Facts that are regarded as ‘common knowledge’ do not need to be referenced.
Consequences of Plagiarism
If you are caught plagiarising at university, whether it was intentional or not, you will have to face the consequences of your actions. The sternness of the penalty or punishment does vary according to the severity of the plagiarism, but you could face one or more of the following penalties:
- having to redo your assignment
- failing the assignment or the whole course
- academic expulsion
- having a permanent record on your name
- being refused acceptance to other universities or jobs
In the working world, plagiarism can have extremely severe consequences on your life. You can have legal action taken against you, and basically ruin your entire career. Plagiarism is a serious crime – so if it intimidates you a little, that’s a good thing.
At the end of the day, preventing plagiarism is very easy. I promise. Not doing it is just as easy as doing it. And the more you practice and familiarise yourself with a referencing system, the more skilled you will become.
Make sure you do the following:
- Keep a neat, organised list of sources you are using so that you don’t forget to reference one or more of them.
- Always double-check that your in-text references and bibliography match up.
- When in doubt – reference! If you are not sure whether or not what you are saying is your own idea, it probably isn’t.
Have a look at Plagiarism.org. It’s a very useful website to look at if you are new to the world of essay writing and referencing, and want to prevent instances of plagiarism. The website covers general terms like citing, paraphrasing, as well the low-down on plagiarism prevention.
My final piece of advice is this: if you are overwhelmed or unsure about whether you have cited and referenced properly, ask your tutor, your lecturer, or an experienced friend or family member to check for you. Do not sign a plagiarism declaration and submit your essay if you feel you might have plagiarised – it’s not worth the risk.
- University of Cape Town’s student guide on how to avoid plagiarism
- Plagiarism.org (a useful website for information on plagiarism)
- APA Style Referencing
- The Harvard Guide to Using Sources
- The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Plagiarism
Sometimes when you spend a lot of time reading up on a topic, the line between your original opinion and the opinion you form while researching can become quite blurry (if this doesn’t make sense to you yet, just wait until it happens). If you aren’t sure or can’t remember where you got your current opinion, then you need to go back and find out which text can support it. 9 times out of 10 you will find an academic source that supports your opinion, and you can then use it as a reference, even if it wasn’t the exact text from which you got your new idea or opinion.