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Plagiarism in Higher Education: What Do Students Need to Be Aware of?

Plagiarism in Higher Education: What Do Students Need to Be Aware of?

Plagiarism, simply put, is using the work of another and trying to pass it off as your own work by not giving due credit to the original author in written assignments.  For a number of years, plagiarism has been an increasing problem in higher education. The increase has been described as “disturbing, provocative and challenging” (Campbell, 2006 cited in Williams, 2008, pp 25). Even though universities around the world place great emphasis on the importance of ‘academic integrity’ by publishing student guidelines to ensure students do not violate the expected norms of university study, there is an abundance of research that would suggest that neither guidelines nor the threat of serious disciplinary action are having any impact in deterring students from plagiarising.

Digital technology and plagiarism

Digital technology such as the internet, has arguably made plagiarising much more tempting and indeed easier for students (Doró, 2014). It allows easy access to an enormous amount of knowledge, which in turn provides opportunities for students to plagiarise; opportunities that were very limited in the pre-internet era (Jereb, Perc et, al (2018). To try and combat this, many universities have turned to internet-based plagiarism detection services.  However, though these services may act as a deterrent, they are not infallible. 

Plagiarism may not always be intentional. International students (students from non-English speaking backgrounds in particular) may be unaware of what exactly constitutes plagiarism, simply because what is deemed plagiarism in one culture might not be in another. 

In order to excel, international students entering academia need to understand what plagiarism is, and how best to avoid it.

How Prevalent is Plagiarism?

Such is the seriousness of academic misconduct in Western universities, that national newspapers have reported a huge increase in incidents.  Headlines such as: “UK Universities in ‘Plagiarism Epidemic’” (The Independent, 2016); “Cheating at UK’s Top Universities Soars by 40%” (The Guardian, 2018); “Cheating at Major Australian Universities May Be Easier Than Many Realise” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2016); “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age” (The New York Times, 2010).

Is the increase in cases of plagiarism as serious as these national newspapers claim?  A lot of research has been conducted to establish the extent to which students plagiarise in higher education.  McCabe (2005) surveyed 83 North American campuses.  His findings revealed that 38% of undergraduates and 25% of graduates admitted to plagiarism.  In the UK, Pickard’s study of university students found a third “pass off work that is not their own” (2006, p.221). According to statistics collected from 24 elite UK universities by The Guardian Newspaper in 2018, the number of cases where students were caught plagiarising between the academic years 2014-15 and 2016-17 increased by 30% from 2640 cases to 3721. 

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is defined as: “when someone uses another person’s words, ideas, or work and pretends they are their own” (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 2012).  “Presenting the work or property of another person as one’s own, without appropriate acknowledgement of their work” (Curtin University Student Guidelines 2015, p.4). “Deliberate or reckless representation of another’s words, thoughts, or ideas as one’s own without attribution in connection with submission of academic work, whether graded or otherwise” (The Writing Center, University of North Carolina). 

Westmont College in the US defines plagiarism as doing any of the following without clear attribution:

  • Inserting verbatim phrases of 2-3 distinctive words, sentences or entire passages from a source
  • Substituting synonyms into the original sentence rather than rewriting the complete sentence
  • Combining paraphrasing with verbatim sentences to create a paragraph or more of text
  • Reordering the clauses of a sentence
  • Imitating the sentence, paragraph, or organisational structure, or writing style of a source.

Forms of Plagiarism

  1. Failing to properly paraphrase
  2. Self-plagiarism
  3. Collusion
  4. Contract cheating
  5. Failing to properly paraphrase


  1. Failing to properly paraphrase

Cambridge English Dictionary describes a “paraphrase” as “the same thing written or spoken using different words, often in a simpler and shorter form that makes the original meaning clear”.  Similarly: “to express in a shorter, clearer, or different way what someone has said or written” (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English).  Curtin University provides a more detailed description: “paraphrasing means incorporating the ideas from an author’s passage of text into your own work. To paraphrase you must use your own words and the sentence/paragraph structure must be different from the original” (2015, p11).

If a student paraphrases sentences, paragraphs or ideas too closely, such as copied sentences or simply just substituted words with similar meaning, it would be deemed plagiarising.  To avoid plagiarising when paraphrasing from a particular source, it is important to ensure the meaning of the sentence or paragraph is expressed in the student’s own words without copying either the words or the structure of the sentences/paragraph (Curtin University Student Guidelines, 2015).

  1. Self-plagiarism

It is possible to be guilty of plagiarising yourself!  Self-plagiarism is sometimes known as ‘auto-plagiarism’ and occurs when a student submits work that has previously been submitted (either in the same or in a different unit, for example) at another institution, (Curtin University Staff Guidelines, 2015).  This can occur when a student repeats a unit and submits the same work, or portions of it, without appropriate acknowledgement of their original work.   

  1. Collusion

Collusion refers to the practice of ‘borrowing papers’.  It occurs when two or more students work together on an assignment that is meant to be completed individually (Curtin University Staff Guidelines, 2015).  A typical scenario might include a small group of students who take it in turns to produce an assignment.  When a student has completed it, the other students in the group individually make a few minor alterations to grammar (e.g., active to passive voice) or simply change a few words/synonyms.  Each student might add a new introduction or conclusion.  The assignment is then turned-in to the course tutor for assessment.  This is deemed plagiarism because the paper is not the original work of the other students who submit it.

  1. Contract Cheating

Another form of intentional plagiarism is for a student to buy a pre-written assignment from an essay mill (essay writing service). Contract cheating is similar to collusion in the sense that students are turning to a third party to produce their written assignment. The term ‘contract cheating’ was coined in 2006 (Evans 2018) and describes how a student ‘outsources’ their assignment via a website which in turn will produce a completed assignment for a fee. These businesses typically target English as a foreign language (EFL) or non-native speakers (NNS) and other vulnerable students who may be struggling to express their own ideas in a logical and coherent way. The essay mill typically asks the student for a topic, a deadline and a wordcount, and then promises to provide them with an essay/assignment to that exact specification.  

According to Evans (2018), over the last few years ‘contract cheating’ has become big business.  Evidence of this was reported by The Telegraph in the UK, in 2017, over 20,000 university students paid for professionally written assignments from online essay writing services.  A study carried out by Swansea University (2017), found that contract cheating is on the rise around the world.  The study was based on an analysis of 71 survey samples from 65 studies, covering 54,514 participants. The findings of the study revealed that “as many as one in seven recent graduates may have paid someone to undertake their assignment for them, potentially representing 31 million students in higher education across the globe”. The same study also revealed that since 2014, almost 16% of students admitted to paying someone to write assignments for them.

Why Might Students Deliberately Plagiarise?

There are a number of reasons why a student would deliberately plagiarise.  Banford & Sergiou (2005) and Jereb and Perc et al (2018) argue that students may plagiarise due to external pressures, such as family and society pressure of gaining good grades.  The fear of failure may be too much for some students.  Another reason might be the pressure to maintain an active social life, commitment to sports or family responsibilities. There is also the pressure of competition for entrance into graduate school or for lucrative scholarships. Poor time management and organisational skills may lead to plagiarism, examples might include: leaving assignments to the last possible minute, or having too many assignments in a short space of time.

International Students

According to The Independent (2012), the significant increase in the number of UK university students caught cheating is to be attributed to the large increase in the number of international students who “come from countries with different practices and cultures”.  In a similar article, The Independent (2016) blamed international students from outside of the European Union (EU) for being the most frequent plagiarism offenders and reported that those students “are more than four times as likely to cheat”. The newspaper reported that at one particular university in London, of the 75% of postgraduates caught plagiarising, 25% were from China. Chinese students come under further criticism in The Sydney Morning Herald (2016) which reported that the Australian National University investigated Chinese students who purchased completed assignments from an online service. The online service, which advertised in Mandarin, promised original assignments. 

What are the reasons why EFL students would choose to plagiarise assignments? There are possibly three reasons: culture, low English Language proficiency, and simply not knowing what plagiarism actually is

Culture and plagiarism 

Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that culture does play a role in affecting students’ understanding of plagiarism (Youmans & Evans (2000).  Sowden (2005, p 277) noted that “good students in China do not challenge their teachers or other authorities but faithfully copy and reproduce them”.  Similarly, Alford (1995), Butterton (1996), and Dryden (1999) cited in Yang (2014) argue that Chinese and Japanese education systems value emulation, and further argue that instances of plagiarism were regarded as a practice to reinforce community values. Furthermore, Hayes and Introva (2005) found that Asian students in general, believed they had copied from authors out of reverence.  This would explain why, as Yang (2014) argues, students who enter academia from outside the US/UK etc., simply do not realise that they are plagiarising and are baffled when they are penalised.

Low English-language proficiency

Conversely, some researchers argue that EFL students have been caught plagiarising as a result of ‘linguistic incompetence’, not cultural background (see Pecorari 2003).  Schwable, Rossiter and Abbott (2013), citing Campbell (1990) argue that non-native speakers (NNS) of English tend to plagiarise because their compositions tend to be less academic than those of native speakers. They further argue that NNS of English use of patchwriting in their compositions was due to their lower English language proficiency. They argue that this use of unacceptable paragraphing practices may be the result of not having been taught proper academic practices prior to entering academia.

No knowledge of what plagiarism is

A third argument for plagiarism is, that NNS of English have very little knowledge of what plagiarism actually is.  As Yang (2014, p2) points out: “After coming to the US to pursue my MA degree, I have found so many academic writing conventions that I never learned in my home country before”. On what plagiarism actually means, Yang explains: “dictionaries, manuals or university policies always defined or explained the term plagiarism in a short sentence and often at an abstract level.  This may explain why NNS fail to identify the boundary between paraphrasing and plagiarism, and this, coupled with low language proficiency, may account for being unable to avoid plagiarism in higher education. 

The definition is not concrete

Furthermore, Pecorari (2003) argues that university policies in the US and the UK do not provide adequate information on what plagiarism actually is, which can lead to confusion for students entering higher education. As Yang puts it: “the definition of plagiarism is not concrete” (Yang, 2014, p3). Referring to a survey carried out by the University of South Australia, Evans (2018) reports that international students are more likely to plagiarise than native students because they are much less aware and less confident of how to avoid plagiarism in their assignments. Similarly, Sivasubramaniam (2006) supports this view, and argues that both undergraduate and postgraduate NNS have only a vague knowledge of plagiarism.

Unintentional Plagiarism

It is important to take into consideration that not all plagiarism is intentional.  According to Bamford and Sergiou (2005), a misunderstanding of what constitutes plagiarism is more often the case rather than a deliberate intention to cheat.  Indeed, students from different cultures, particularly Asia, cannot always understand The West’s position with regard to plagiarism. Furthermore, unintentional plagiarism could also result from a student’s “inexperience with academic writing or presentation of academic work, or a lack of knowledge of the conventions used for referencing or acknowledging sources” (Curtin University Staff Guidelines, 2015, p16). Therefore, intentionally intending to deceive a tutor would arguably not be the case as it could be argued that a student had not received adequate instruction on academic integrity.

Why Should Students Avoid plagiarising?

Students should not think of plagiarism as a minor form of cheating.  They have to consider that they will harm their reputation, if not destroy it, as a direct consequence of plagiarism. Students would not only be letting their institution down, but also letting themselves down. Plagiarism could result in long lasting consequences, such as, limiting future job prospects. According to Viper, if a plagiarism checker (such as, identifies evidence of plagiarism, it has the potential to seriously harm the academic and future career of a student in higher education.  To avoid these consequences, Viper suggests that students should consider the implications of being caught plagiarising which could result in:

  • Expulsion from their course, college and/or university
  • Career opportunities destroyed
  • Legal action, such as fines and penalties
  • Being banned from enrolling into an academic institution in the future
  • Prospective employees being unlikely to recruit a candidate who has a proven track record of cheating
  • A damaged academic record following a student wherever he/she goes, whether it is gaining access to post graduate study or entering into employment post study.

Plagiarism Detection Software

Plagiarism detection software typically checks an essay/assignment (or a portion of an essay/assignment) for duplication or plagiarism content, by scanning through the internet for other similar uses of those phrases, terms or quotes. It then compares the essay/assignment with others, and highlights the similarities.

The ability and credibility of plagiarism detection software depends on the database. To be accurate, the software must have a very extensive database.  Some software may have a limited database which may impact on accuracy, therefore, the reports may lack quality. The best software not only has access to internet content, but also access to a wide range of research manuscripts, conference proceedings, books, articles and journal articles.  Examples of plagiarism detection software used by academic institutions are Turnitin, Grammarly, and Vipor.


It is vitally important that students in higher education understand that they have sole authorial responsibility for their work. Therefore, it is important that students, whether native or international, understand what plagiarism is and why it is not acceptable when writing and proofreading their assignments.  Using one’s own voice in an assignment is a skill and requirement that all students in higher education must aspire to.  It is also important that institutions identify students who are struggling or vulnerable, and provide the necessary support so that plagiarise is not a temptation.  Even a hint of an accusation of plagiarism can impact upon a student’s grades, and indeed, reputation, so it is essential to avoid the scenario of plagiarism in higher education.



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