Plagiarism at Universities

26 Nov Plagiarism at Universities

Plagiarism 2Plagiarism, or academic fraud, is rife at universities, and is probably worse than we realise or recognise. It is difficult to measure the extent of the problem but according to Irving Hexham “between 10% and 15% of books and theses in the Humanities and Social Sciences contain unacceptable levels of plagiarized material.”


Plagiarism is the use of other people’s ideas or words without acknowledging the source. Although plagiarism has been around for much longer than the Internet, easy access to the Web is making it easier and more tempting for students to copy other people’s intellectual property.


The problem of plagiarism is complex, and like with any complicated problem, a solution is not straightforward either.

The term covers a spectrum of “offences.” At the one end you have the plain cutting-and-pasting of text without including a reference to the source. Nowadays this form of plagiarism is quite easy to detect. Software like Turnitin, for example, is used by many universities to evaluate a work’s level of originality. But it is not just a “policing” tool for universities. Students themselves can also benefit from Turnitin as it provides feedback on their use of source material, and it highlights original writing and proper citation. According to the developers of the program it encourages students to think more critically.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the students who steal various ideas from other students or researchers without acknowledging the owners of the original work. This form of plagiarism is more difficult to detect and goes often unnoticed.


Not all students actually realise that they plagiarise, and universities often fail to even attempt to understand why students offend.

Academic writing is not taught at high school and when students arrive at university they are thrown in the deep end of academic writing. They can’t really be blamed for finding the academic literacy requirements a little overwhelming.

Rachel Dearlove, who serves on the Academic Misconduct Committee at the University of Reading, points out that only a small proportion of students deliberately copy the work of others and that the majority have no idea that they are doing something wrong.


I have no doubt that universities are trying hard to protect their academic integrity and they are not about to give up the fight. But a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work and prevention is certainly more effective than punishment. Coming down hard on students as soon as they arrive at university is probably not the right approach. Simply stating at orientation that plagiarism won’t be tolerated is not enough either. Universities have a responsibility to teach students the skill of academic writing and they need to educate students on how to avoid plagiarism. Just saying that it is wrong is not sufficient.

Please visit Education World for a very useful student guide on how to avoid plagiarism.