Preventing plagiarism: promoting good writing

On this page we hope to "shift... the focus from detection to pedagogy" (Magyar, 2012, p2). Helping students gain new understandings of learning and enhanced ways of thinking about writing clarifies their concept of plagiarism. By using ideas we recommend here, tutors can help students become less likely to commit plagiarism for time pressure reasons or because they misunderstand expectations. Whilst plagiarism also exists as a willful attempt to pass off other people's work or ideas as one's own, we believe few cases exhibit such deliberation and students who understand what plagiarism means are also less likely to consider doing it consciously.

Oxford information

The University has in place a number of policies aimed at preventing plagiarism which focus on providing students with sufficient information to understand what it is, how to avoid it, and why it is important to avoid it. University policy states that every faculty and department should include the University’s definition of plagiarism, and a summary of the consequences of plagiarising, in all handbooks or website information for students. Many course handbooks are published on subject websites. If you cannot find yours ask the Academic Administrator in your department/faculty.

The University's definition of plagiarism and further guidance on academic good practice are available online on the University’s Academic good practice page. A downloadable guide is also listed under Useful documents on the same page. Some subjects have gone further and provided guidance tailored to their discipline. 

University policy also stipulates that departments and faculties should provide an induction session specifically on academic good practice and the avoidance of plagiarism; and consider the needs of non-native speakers of English in their guidance.

Most importantly, though, the University’s Policy and Guidance on Undergraduate Learning and Teaching indicates all tutors should supplement general department or faculty-level study skills advice with “tailored comment in tutorials”. Discussing students’ essays or other written work in the tutorial is standard practice but tutors are also well positioned to advise students on study techniques. For example, it is easy to take lecture and reading notes for granted, but good note-making practice, as part of a holistic and reflective approach to learning (see Ideas and tools, below), can be instrumental in helping students learn effectively and avoid plagiarism (Burns et al, 2010, p4). By discussing note-making’s potential contribution, and talking about the various alternative methods, tutors can help students become more effective learners.

Moreover, the tutorial is Oxford's most appropriate pedagogical setting to address plagiarism because it is the situation most concerned with student writing. As the forum for discussion of written work, it is the natural place to engage students with ideas about the nature of evidence and knowledge in the discipline, and expectations concerning citation, referencing, and attribution more generally.

So what is the tutor’s role in relation to plagiarism and good writing? All tutors and supervisors (we address both undergraduate and graduate work here) are responsible for guiding students towards certain fundamental understandings. The items listed below will mostly be woven seamlessly into weekly tutorial conversations or supervision meetings. From time to time, though, it may be necessary to make an idea explicit. Students do learn by ‘picking things up’ but unambiguous explanations are invaluable, especially if, as a tutor, you tend to take something for granted in your own work.

  • Making sure students understand what plagiarism is.
  • Promoting an understanding of what good writing is.
  • Helping students recognise different forms of allusion to others’ work (e.g. using conceptual frameworks, an overall argument, direct or indirect quotation, paraphrase, etc.) and appropriate acknowledgement styles.
  • Helping students appreciate citation and referencing as demonstrating their research process, their engagement with literature, and forming a basis for synthesis, linkages and new ideas created by them as they write.
  • Awareness and understanding of different styles of citation and referencing, according to disciplinary norms, publishers’ conventions, etc.
  • Helping students learn how their reading underpins their learning.
  • Helping students develop good study habits in reading, note-making, referencing, etc;
  • Helping students to understand and use disciplinary norms for essays, reports, other genres...i.e. passing on the norms and standards of your discipline to enable students to begin to write like a Sociologist... a Historian... a Scientist..., etc.
  • Promoting recognition of disciplinary norms being based on underlying (frequently tacit) epistemological beliefs, and that difference arises from variation in those beliefs (Magyar, 2012). An example given by Magyar concerned student writing (in the area of social work). A student who wished to use her own observation and practical experience as evidence in written work found this was unacceptable; she learned that the disciplinary expectation was for 'evidence' to be 'published evidence'. Other disciplines or writing genres might treat personal experience differently.

In March 2012 the demitting Proctors’ and Assessor’s oration covered plagiarism cases dealt with during their year of office. Noting that the Independent on Sunday had reported that incidents in the University of Oxford remained a minute fraction of National levels, they stated that forms of dishonesty are more varied than hitherto. We can promote honesty, teaching students to value learning for its own sake and not to be satisfied with unearned commendation. The Proctors highlight ‘inadequacy’ of referencing in submitted written work, especially in the cases of online sources. Inadequacy does not imply dishonesty and as such it is within tutors’ scope to address it, arming students with understanding and a methodology to address the failing.

Ideas and tools

Writing models: skills, socialisations, literacies

The thing I’m finding difficult in my first term here is moving from subject to subject and knowing how you’re meant to write in each one. I’m really aware of writing for a particular tutor as well as for a particular subject. Everybody seems to want something different. Student Interviewee, quoted in Lea and Street (2000, p41)

As the quotation highlights, students are often negotiating conflicts between the expectations placed on them. For example, they may need to balance or adapt to separate requirements of more than one discipline when doing interdisciplinary work. There can even be conflicts within disciplines; while one tutor might promote a particular style or approach, another might have different ideas and enforce different norms. Competence to deal with these variations has been termed "academic literacies"(Lea and Street, 1998) and tutors who are alert to this can help their students to gain such literacy.

Other models for teaching students to deal with new academic work demands have been termed "study skills" and "academic socialisation". Lea and Street (1998) contend that these three concepts are a nested hierarchy, where "academic literacies" incorporates all the ideas of the other two.

When Magyar (2012, pp11-12) considered Lea and Street’s (1998) conceptions of study skills, academic socialisation and academic literacies she concluded that each model had strengths which might be used to help students master good writing practice. Learning to write at Oxford (390kb) is a downloadable resource which explains what students and tutors do that is characteristic of each of Lea and Street’s models, and suggests how they are expressed in typical Oxford practices, offering recommendations to tutors for using the ideas to maximise student learning benefits and help them to avoid plagiarism.

Using the transition from school to promote good study habits from the start

It would be a wasted opportunity not to expect students to learn and attain accepted standards for writing practice in their disciplines at the earliest stages of their career. They arrive to take up University studies expecting to have new requirements placed on them, different to those encountered before.

Nowadays, school students in England are required to reference written work (OFQUAL, 2009a and b), making it important for the University to reinforce and strengthen these practices, even from students’ earliest essays. Others (often international students) arrive at the University having been instructed in different principles concerning plagiarism, often based on important cultural values. For example a particular kind of focus on respect for earlier writers sometimes leads to direct quotation without citation. As a tutor you should never disparage cultural norms which are not your own; nonetheless, it is important to help your student adapt to what are considered acceptable academic standards here. Some may have to unlearn deeply established practices and thought processes.

The beginning of a course is the ideal time to encourage appropriate new work habits, building on established ones by enabling students to adapt to a higher standard or variation in style as necessary. Tutors must ensure that students understand the requirements and standards they are aiming for and open discussion of good and bad practice is a good way to achieve this.

Moreover the teaching principle of discovering the student’s position and teaching “accordingly” (Ausubel et al, 1978) applies to this matter too and you should discuss with students what they already know and understand about plagiarism. If they are having difficulty it may or may not be based in a culturally-held view, it may simply be a lack of understanding.

Other difficulties can arise for students whose first language is not English, particularly in technical disciplines which do not focus on writing essays consisting of paragraphs of discursive text. Mathematical and technical material is also capable of being plagiarised (see Scientists behaving badly), so tutors need to be able to instruct students in the boundaries of acceptable practice, and explain how principles and rules are applied.

What skills need to be addressed?

The skill of reading

Oxford tutors use various strategies to promote students’ critical engagement with disciplinary literature. For example, Heather Viles uses a wide range of literature types (from textbooks and journal articles to websites and other forms) in the first year of the Geography degree course. She encourages students to consider “content... structure, approach and purposes” (Maxwell, 2001) whilst examining style, use of graphs, etc. Professor Viles uses these approaches to demonstrate the conventions of academic argument in Geography, acclimatising students to what is considered acceptable evidence, showing how to frame a convincing geographical argument, and building increasing fluency in using the language of Geography.

In Politics, Ngaire Woods encourages teams of students to critically analyse and evaluate a key text before presenting their ideas to the author, whom Professor Woods invites to come along and respond to the students’ critique. Working in a group is an important aspect of the assignment because within-group debate “helps students to fully engage with material, and internalise their own understandings” (Maxwell, 2001). The nature of this exercise makes it most suitable for advanced students. A further aspect which Professor Woods insists on is a discussion with students ‘after the event’ to assess how they experienced the exercise. She may use the outcome of discussions to modify future exercises.

The skill of note-making (notes on reading)

One simple and helpful practice is the use of file cards for making notes. This method entails writing each discrete note on a separate card, so they can be re-sequenced many times. Having a master bibliographical list which numbers each source, means a number added to each note card is sufficient to identify the source (provided page numbers are also recorded, of course).

If students make notes using some kind of electronic device (laptop, tablet, smartphone…), especially where the material being read is available on the same device, cutting-and-pasting may come into its own. However, not making the effort to record the source of every quotation gathered in this way, or to distinguish the ‘quotes’ from the ‘notes’, can easily lead readers into sloppy habits. If you don’t note the important meta-data at the time, when will you return to your notes to tidy them up and check the references? Few people have time to do this and it is far more effective to take slightly longer over the notes in the first place.

There are many ideas about the role of note-making in student learning in Burns et al (2010), further discussed in Insights from research and literature, below.

Burns et al (pp4-5) criticise Linear notes, the most commonly used format, which tend to consist of lists, set out as organised by the author, and with some means of emphasising what are considered the most vital points. Instead they favour Cornell notes, which have similarities to linear notes, but users make space on each page for the addition of “critical commentary”. This could include: connections identified to other ideas, why particular points are important, how to make use of a piece of information, links to a specific assignment or essay. It could also include the answers to questions like: which other writers would disagree? or agree? what should be read next to clarify this? (London Metropolitan University, no date). This note-making style can also encourage students to put ideas into their own words more effectively, thereby discouraging overuse of verbatim quotations and inadequate paraphrasing.

By using this type of note-making format students effectively commit themselves to returning to the notes later on and engaging with them “reflexively, analytically and critically” (Burns et al, p5). The point is, notes which simply reproduce the author’s ideas in a lesser (abbreviated) form do not enable students to learn unless they fully engage with the ideas the notes represent in order to bring about fuller understanding. Students need to think about what the ideas mean, what are the consequences of this author’s view being correct, why an idea is important and how it operates in conjunction with other writers’ arguments. By taking the time to go over the notes again looking for, say, agreements or disagreements between authors, correspondence or divergence when applying conceptions or models to reality, etc, students learn to read critically and use what their reading tells them to construct new ideas.

Using EndNote, RefWorks, or similar

A useful tool for students and academics is a bibliographic database like EndNote or RefWorks. These computer applications have features to simplify the creation of lists of references for the end of each essay and to enable the writer to apply different citation and referencing styles as required. Nonetheless, simply keeping a straightforward master list of readings in a separate notebook would be a perfectly adequate approach. The important thing is learning to be systematic in recording the details of each book or journal as it is consulted or read. For material found on the internet, or in electronic journals, etc, the source, the URL, and all the information which equates to bibliographic details of books, must also be recorded. For internet sources it can also be important to record the date of consultation, as webpages are frequently updated, or otherwise changed.

Citation and referencing practice

As well as needing to know and understand correct citation and referencing, it is also of utmost importance to help students understand that acknowledging others’ work and then building on it is a foundation of academic practice across all disciplines. Students should be encouraged to develop their intellectual appreciation in parallel to their technical competence to follow ‘the rules’. Ideally, students need to learn that citing others’ ideas and referencing them is important because it lends authority to their work, and gives proof to the sufficiency of the evidence quoted; it is not purely a technical requirement.

What is covered by rules about plagiarism?

See the University’s Academic Good Practice web pages. The following is a basic list giving examples of different things that should be referenced when they are used as a source for new writing or other outputs. It’s not an exclusive list though: credit needs to be given to anyone whose ideas and outputs are used in any way – see below for more about the complex concept of “attribution”.

  • Text (includes published text drawn from books and journals, unpublished text, lecture handouts, theses or other students’ essays, downloaded text from web sites; it also includes the author’s own text quoted from earlier work);
  • Other media, such as computer code or music;
  • Illustrations;
  • Graphs, diagrams or charts;
  • Datasets.

The complexity of the concept of attribution

Magyar (2012, pp9-11) also considers “attribution” rather than simply “referencing”, calling it “a complex practice”. A question of attribution (218kb)  is a document based on Magyar (2012). It gives ideas about why and how we use other authors’ written texts in the construction of our own, and indicates what needs to be referenced when we do so. Magyar mentions the need to understand:

  • what counts as ‘general knowledge’ in a specific subject;
  • how to paraphrase;
  • linguistic strategies for paraphrasing and referencing;
  • how to manipulate the language of in-text referencing;
  • “culturally and historically situated ideas about texts, knowledge and ownership”;
  • “how to incorporate, build on and critique others’ work”;
  • how to attribute value to “various potential sources of evidence” (an epistemological practice – because different disciplines hold different values);
  • ideas about the “production of academic knowledge”;
  • that “attribution... is also used to strengthen or lend authority to one’s own arguments”;
  • that “mastering attribution practice involves developing an ‘academic identity’, finding or simulating an authoritative voice with which to critique others” [emphasis added].

Developing an academic writing style – the problem of “patchwriting”

“Patchwriting” refers to “students developing their writing by picking up generic academic phrases and language chunks and using them in their writing” (Magyar, 2012, p8). It is often characteristic of writers using a non-native language because they are still acquiring and developing fluency in the language of instruction as well as in the specialist language of their discipline. Magyar calls patchwriting “part of the developmental process of learning to write in an academic context”.

English native speakers may use the same strategy if they lack confidence and fluency in the specialist language encountered in scholarly articles or textbooks. Imitating the phraseology or copying the technical terminology may seem a good way to learn how to do it for themselves. Tutors need to support students as they pass through this phase of development, whilst making it clear that any too close reliance on the words of other writers lays them open to accusations of plagiarism. Students would benefit from an open discussion, perhaps based on de-personalised examples from real student essays, of what is and is not acceptable practice. The boundary between simply using the terms that are correct in the discipline and using ideas and concepts ‘owned’ by other writers could be a very fine line, thus requiring input from experienced tutors.

Short writing tasks

Queen Mary University of London’s Thinking Writing website provides “a guide to writing-intensive teaching and learning” and includes exercises to promote thoughtful writing.

One exercise (see Countering Plagiarism) uses a series of shorter and shorter summaries to give students practice in distilling meaning and re-framing ideas. The exercise helps students understand the need to reference ideas summarized or paraphrased from another writer. It would also test and develop students' skill in careful reading. The tutor’s task is to reinforce the referencing of ideas which remain in essence those of the original author though they be presented as quotations, re-framed and completely rewritten, or even drastically summarized.

Quizzes

Oxford has two online quizzes for students to use to test their understanding: Avoiding Plagiarism 1 and Avoiding Plagiarism 2. To try the quizzes, follow the link and select the courses from the menu on the left-hand side of the screen. Users need to log in using their Oxford Single Sign On.

Indiana University offers several useful resources on its How to recognize plagiarism. These include a five-minute quiz which students can use to diagnose their understanding of the concept of plagiarism. It can be particularly useful for those who think they already understand exactly what it means.

Cite them right: the essential guide to referencing and plagiarism is a free, downloadable guide (also available elsewhere at a cost) originally published by the JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service. It gives clear and straightforward guidelines on how to cite any type of source, from e-books and e-mail, to live dance performances, musical scores and Acts of Parliament.

Turnitin

Turnitin is a text-matching software programme. University policy permits the use of Turnitin for formative work but protocols must be observed, such as obtaining written consent from students in some cases. It is therefore important that tutors participate in training before using Turnitin. Short guidance courses on Turnitin are provided by IT Services. 

Tutors have always had to exercise academic judgement in marking student work and the same applies when using Turnitin. It is only a time saver in enabling tutors to eliminate the need to go through the process, for example, of thinking “I’m sure I’ve seen that idea expressed in that way somewhere else”, going to their bookshelf, or further afield, to find the quotation and try to work out what the student has done. The programme suggests incidences of text matching, upon which tutors must then make reasoned academic judgements. Appropriate responses to a match could include the following:

  • It is not a problem because this is merely a very common turn of phrase in our discipline.
  • It’s not a problem because the student has put the matching text in inverted commas and given both a correct in-text citation and full reference in a list at the end of the essay. NB: you can set up a filter in Turnitin to ignore any matches that are within double inverted commas – tutors still need to look for the correct referencing practice, though.
  • The text is not in inverted commas and a match has been found, although some key words have clearly been changed. There is or is not an in-text citation and reference. The student has made an incompetent job of paraphrasing another author’s idea and referenced it either correctly or incorrectly. In both cases it represents bad practice and you need to explain to the student why it is not acceptable.
  • You see that there is a substantial, but not complete, matching of text, and a fundamentally incorrect idea being put forward, while both reference and in-text citation are present. The software suggests sources of which you recognise one as being available in your library, or a well-known online source. You see that the student has misunderstood the meaning of the original author’s idea and paraphrased his or her idea inaccurately.
  • If you see matching of a similar nature without any citation or reference it may represent plagiarism. The other author’s idea has been used without reference. If the student has made a good attempt to put that idea in his or her own words they need to hear an explanation of the expectation that it is not only direct quotation that requires attribution. However in such a case there may indeed be either no matching or very little; your academic judgement is needed to recognise another person’s idea being represented as the student’s own.

The message is: having an Originality Report from Turnitin at your disposal is no substitute for reading the work carefully as a whole and using mature, well-informed academic judgement as to its merits and failings.

Insights from research and literature

A study by Lea and Jones (2011) found that wide discussion of concerns about indiscriminate use of internet sources leading to plagiarism seemed to have produced strong plagiarism-awareness in students. However the conception of plagiarism they held was partial, restricted to a simplified view which condemned ‘cutting and pasting’ and thought ‘changing the wording’ was sufficient to avoid the charge. They did not demonstrate awareness of wider meanings of plagiarism and its relevance to traditional academic practices (p388). There was a view of plagiarism as a technical, rather than a moral, issue (p389), which Lea and Jones linked to the ways in which students used Turnitin to check their own work and make decisions, as necessary, about adapting it to better meet institutional requirements.

There was, however, a strong sense that questions about the availability and ease of use of the internet to access texts had in fact led to students relying more heavily on institutional attitudes and policies to judge the validity of particular sources. They seemed to have been sensitised to issues of validity and reliability of texts and were worried about ‘plagiarising unintentionally’ (p388).

In applying the academic literacies model to the question of “digital literacies”, Lea and Jones (2011) acknowledged students’ reading and writing practices have changed as new sources of evidence become available, and new working modes become everyday practice. Tutors are carrying out traditional academic work in new ways, whilst students take the new ways for granted. Consider:

  • downloading online journal articles vs. sharing a library copy;
  • using resources like the WW1 Digital Poetry Archive;
  • using laptops vs. paper for note-making in lectures;
  • listening to lectures as podcasts;
  • typing essays on a computer vs. laboriously handwriting them.

New practices can be problematic if tutors do not engage students’ understanding of the new processes they are now so accustomed to using. Seeking essay topic information on the Internet is different to searching the library insofar as it is quicker and easier; this much is obvious. However, students may remain unaware of the level of judgement they need to exercise in questions of reliability and validity of texts when they are accessed via the internet. Journals and books which are available in libraries have gone through a process of selection by experts and their mere acquisition indicates a certain air of authority.

In his study of the purpose of the essay, Womack (2008) contends that plagiarism may arise as a symptom of particular tensions experienced by students. In essays, students are expected to demonstrate their reading and understanding of authoritative sources, compare alternative views, and use suitable scholarly language; all whilst also expressing “independence of mind” and “originality” (p46). Noting that his journal article itself is an expression of the essay form he stresses the importance of enabling students to achieve success with the format but he is strongly:

suspicious of the democratic credentials of a pedagogy which doesn’t seek, as a priority, to give its students access to its own metalanguage (p48).

In other words, perhaps, discussing the essay with other learners and with the tutor (such as occurs in an Oxford tutorial) is vital to its validity as a tool of learning and method of scholarly communication. And discussion of all the essay’s aspects should be included at some point in a student's education. What sources were used? How were they used? What sorts of note-making methods were employed? How was the choice made between quoting directly from x and paraphrasing her ideas? Would it have been better to do it differently? Which other sources disagree with the argument this essay puts forward? Are counter-arguments sufficiently acknowledged? Is there any plagiarism evident in the text of the essay? Have any other authors’ ideas been misrepresented? Have other authors’ ideas been put forward as the author’s own without acknowledgement? Has the student writer developed ideas of his own? Has she succeeded in putting her own ideas across successfully?

Burns and his colleagues (2010) discuss student note-making practices and the encouragement and active teaching of students to make and use reading or lecture notes in ways central to learning. They argue that “active notemaking… places the student at the centre of their learning” (p7) and specifically that it “allows students to take ownership of theories and concepts and to critically engage with ideas” (p9). Recognising that students tend now to take fewer notes than was once usual practice, they state this means they also “avoid… acquiring skills of summarising, synthesising and ordering that require the material to be actively processed and understood”(p4).

Burns et al (2010) consider a range of note-making styles for their potential to promote learning (pp4-7) and identify a number of learning opportunities that are present or absent from these. They say students benefit from:

  • “breaking information down into its component parts and re-structuring it for oneself (p5)”
  • “wrestl[ing] with ideas and information for themselves (p5)”
  • making “critical commentary upon the notes (p5)”
  • “engag[ing] reflexively, analytically and critically with the notes (p5)”
  • “promoting their concentration, participation, learning and active engagement (p6)” (in reference to mind maps, Buzan and Buzan, 1999)
  • “select[ing] and connect[ing] information for themselves” where the “selection/connection process is itself an active learning strategy (p6)” (in reference to pattern notes).

And, by doing these things, students:

  • “gain the means to contest, or accept (!), dominant political discourses and gain their own voice (p5)”.
  • make “sense, meaning and connections (p5)” and engage in a “knowledge construction process (p5)”.
  • achieve “ownership of ideas (p7)” and experience “transformatory and emancipatory education (p7)”

Of course, standards of good writing depend on the norms and requirements of each individual discipline. So, whilst every university department expects its students to be capable of correct spelling, each may prefer something different in terms of citation and referencing styles. The style of citation and referencing doesn’t matter, but what matters a great deal is acknowledging from whom we derive the ideas which contribute to our written arguments. Proper acknowledgement, quite simply, strengthens the force of claims and enables us to avoid the offence of even seeming to try to pass off someone else’s ideas as our own.

Bibliography

Ausubel, D P, Novak, J D and Hanesian, H. (1978) Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View (2nd Edition). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Burns, T., Sinfield, S. Holley, D. and Hoskins, K. (2010) ‘Very urgent, very difficult and quite possible’: changing students’ attitudes to notemaking by encouraging user generated content. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. 2.

Lea, Mary R. and Jones, Sylvia. (2011) Digital literacies in higher education: exploring textual and technological practice. Studies in Higher Education. 36(4), 377-393.

Lea, Mary R. and Street, Brian V. (1998) Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-172.

Lea, Mary R. and Street, Brian V. (2000) “Student writing and staff feedback in higher education: An academic literacies approach”. In Mary R Lea and Barry Stierer (2000) Student writing in higher education: New contexts. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

London Metropolitan University. (no date) Notemaker Resource   (http://learning.londonmet.ac.uk/TLTC/learnhigher/notemaker/index.html). Accessed 19 April 2013. 

Magyar, A. (2012) Plagiarism and attribution: an academic literacies approach? Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. 4.

Maxwell, S. (2001) “What do tutors do?” Illuminatio 2001. Oxford Learning Institute.

OFQUAL (2009a). Authenticity – A guide for teachers. Coventry: Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator.

OFQUAL (2009b). Using sources – A guide for students: Find it – Check it – Credit it. Coventry: Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator.

Womack, Peter. (1993) What are Essays for? English in Education. 27(2), 42-49.