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MMU Learning and Teaching in Action
Volume 3, Issue 3: Focusing on Students

Published by: Learning and Teaching Unit

Rachel Forsyth

Conceptualising the Student-Tutor relationship
David Webster

Developing and Sharing Best Practice
Della Fazey

Plagiarism: a how NOT to do it guide for students
Bill Johnston

Designing out Plagiarism & supporting Widening Participation
Richard Eskins

Enhancing Feedback to Students
Jonathan Willson

Degrees of Uncertainty or TIPS for Success?
Gill Rice & Karen Duggan

The Employability of History Students
David Nicholls

Diversity and Achievement
Kate Kirk

LT2004 fast-forward: A winning formula
Mike Cole

Faculty Learning and Teaching Reports

Learning and Teaching News from the Library

| View this article as a .pdf file |

photo of bill johnston

Wm Johnston

Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities, Law and Social Science

Plagiarism Project 2002 - 2004
A how NOT to do it guide for students

The opportunities to deliberately plagiarise, through the blatant or disguised use of unacknowledged source material, have always been available to the dishonest student, but are now considerably increased due to the existence and nature of the World Wide Web.

There is also a paradox within our current position in that good educational practice – practice grounded in trust that allows for and indeed encourages independent study and group work – increases the opportunities for plagiarism. We need to do what we can to minimize plagiarism without creating a kind of academic police state. Good learning requires a climate of trust, and trust can be abused, and that abuse may be a price we have to pay.

A Faculty Seminar on ‘Plagiarism, Detection and Penalty’ (09/01/01) highlighted several issues, amongst which was:

The need for greater emphasis on encouraging good student study skills, so that they clearly understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

One of the recommendations arising from the seminar was that a bid be made by the three Senior Learning & Teaching Fellows of the Faculty to the Learning and Teaching Committee for:

A project to produce an on-line learning module for first year students, to be used at induction, as a remedial/support aid for those who need help, or as a requirement or recommendation for those considered in danger of developing poor academic practice.

A successful bid to the L&T Committee arose out of that recommendation, and a two year project commenced in summer 2002. This report outlines what has been achieved and the kinds of ways in which it envisaged that we can use what has been learned to help combat plagiarism in the future.



The JISC Report ‘Plagiarism – A Good Practice Guide’ (May 2001), deals in detail with how students might be better informed about plagiarism and better taught to avoid it. In particular the JISC Report notes that when plagiarism is raised in disciplinary committees, they are “almost universally met with protests that the alleged plagiariser didn’t understand the rules.” (JISC p.13) Current QAA Codes of Practice require institutions to provide guidance on academic misconduct that is explicit and readily available. From a brief survey of student handbooks available in the Faculty of Humanities, Law and Social Science at MMU, it is clear that whilst they all contain information on plagiarism and its penalties, they are not all written in student-friendly language nor do they include illustrations or examples.

The project was intended to remedy this defect by producing an interactive and accessible on-line tutorial for students, designed to be generic in content and approach across the Faculty.

The project was informed by a parallel project occurring over the same time scale: a project based in the Department of Information and Communications, creating an on-line tutorial on bibliographic citations, (now available on-line as the Citing Proficiency Test – see Margaret Kendall – m.a.kendall@mmu.ac.uk for details)

The project was also informed by the JISC Report and its findings. The Report recommends that we should aim to, “ensure that students are taught how to avoid plagiarism with active learning techniques, providing opportunities for discussion, practice and feedback.” (JISC p.19) The work of Roig, ‘When students attempts at paraphrasing become instances of potential plagiarism`, Psychological Reports, 84,973-982, 1999) shows clearly the need for students to be clear about the academic conventions surrounding paraphrasing in particular.


Phase 1

Planning and data-gathering
(autumn 2002 - spring 2003)

It is impossible to be sure whether plagiarism is a real problem of modern academic life. An often quoted study carried out in the state of Victoria, Australia in 2002, which ran over 1700 essays through a plagiarism detection program, showed that about 8% contained ‘some copied material’(1).

In Germany, the head of the University Association was recently quoted as saying that about one third of essays submitted contain material plagiarised from the Internet.

A 2003 Rutgers University study of 18,000 students on 23 campuses found that 38 per cent of undergraduate students indicated that they had cut and pasted material from the internet to plagiarise in the past year. This was up from 10 per cent of respondents to a similar study two years earlier (2).

It is true that information technology facilitates plagiarism by giving much readier access to sources. It also gives students access to a rich archive of material from which they may draw ideas and inspiration. The availability of information technology is not usually seen as being the problem. More often it is felt that staff may not currently have enough information, training and support to identify and penalise plagiarism.

Currently, we have no idea what the scale of the problem might be at MMU. Anecdotally, when talking about introducing online assessment with colleagues, the question, ‘How can you be sure it’s the student’s own work?’ is regularly raised – even though the problem is no different here from when the assignment is handwritten and handed in to the tutor.

At the beginning of the project, it seemed that plagiarism is something that causes anxiety without staff having the power to do anything about it – a ‘bogeyman’ conjured up by those who fear the intrusion of information technology into learning, teaching and assessment.

An initial step in the project therefore was to try to establish the extent of the problem in the Faculty.

In the autumn term 2002 all academic staff in the Faculty were e-mailed with a questionnaire asking for information on their experience of plagiarism. This questionnaire was followed up by interviews with all those who responded. A total of 22 staff were interviewed. Several things became immediately clear:

1. Tutor Responses

Cases of plagiarism were regularly being detected by tutors but a wide range of responses to their detection was apparent. This, in many ways, was the most worrying aspect of the survey results.

The (since revised) MMU ‘Guidelines on Cheating and other forms of Academic Misconduct’ are set out in the Regulations for Undergraduate Programmes of Study. Whilst not as lucid as one may wish, they nevertheless identified a clear set of procedures to be followed.

The procedures identify the Head of Department as responsible for determining whether there is a case to answer, and if there is, and the student admits it, to recommend penalties to the Examination Board.

In the interviews with tutors, in their questionnaire responses, and in informal discussions, it is clear that this schema was regularly deviated from.

The reasons for this are various, but certainly include widespread ignorance amongst tutors of the Guidelines. Tutors were regularly giving a mark of 0% to work that they determined to be plagiarised:

With first year students, doing first essays I usually give then a dressing down and made them do the work again for a maximum of 40 or gave them 0.

Or alternatively:

In the end the course team decided on a low third class mark – a reflection of the fact that the essay did contain relevant and original material

On the other hand we have also talked with many tutors who, whilst they understood the regulations, were reluctant to use the ‘P’ word on the grounds that the procedures for dealing with identified cases were time-consuming and acted as a deterrent to academic staff reporting incidents.

2. Course Handbooks

As part of the project we examined Course Handbooks issued to students in the Faculty. Again, there were identifiable cases of confusion and inaccuracy. Especially common were statements to the effect that plagiarism is intentional – that it is a form of cheating.(3)

In some cases the wording of the information given to students suggests that plagiarism only occurs deliberately.

Plagiarism is where someone pretends that work is their own when it is not


Plagiarism is essentially the action of taking other people’s language, sentences or works and passing it off as your own. It is considered a form of cheating and is a serious offence automatically leading to disciplinary action

In other cases, published information repeats the inaccuracies found when talking with tutors on the way the university deals with cases where plagiarism is suspected, as in this example of one Department’s marking conventions statement:

0%-9%: Virtually worthless work Total irrelevance, complete avoidance of the question or plagiarised.

Or here in the same Department’s information sheet on assessment:

Failure to acknowledge the books or other sources you have used is a serious matter, known as plagiarism, which carries heavy academic penalties because it undermines the whole point of assessment. If this is deliberate it is dealt with under the University disciplinary procedures and can even put at risk your place on the degree. If it is done in ignorance of proper academic working practice, a fail mark is normally awarded in year one.

And here are both mistakes together:

Plagiarism is cheating. Deliberate plagiarism (attempting to pretend that someone else’s work or ideas are your own) is dealt with by the University’s disciplinary procedure and can put your place on the Programme at risk. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to learn quickly how to follow proper academic practice. Plagiarism through ignorance will be penalised by a zero mark, but please note that ignorance will not be a satisfactory excuse after Year One, when the penalties will be much more severe.

There is widespread failure to appreciate that whilst the University does not have specific regulations on plagiarism, since it is viewed as just another form of academic misconduct (like cheating) which gets dealt with under the examination misconduct regulations, nevertheless there are University ‘Guidance Notes on Cheating and other forms of Academic Misconduct’ as part of the ‘Regulations For Undergraduate Programmes Of Study’. This misunderstanding has led to some Handbooks containing information such as the following:

Plagiarism is a widespread and growing problem across the institution. Whilst staff attempt to deal with the problem in a fair and just manner, a variety of practice is adopted by different departments. . . . Until the University develops a clear policy, there is a need for guidelines which will operate across all units on the [ . . . . .] programme. These guidelines are far from complete, and are not intended to cover every possible plagiarism offence. Staff are asked to use their professional judgement to extrapolate appropriate penalties in respect of individual offences they encounter.

And recommendations for tutors to act on their own initiative, such as:

For a case of excessive plagiarism a mark of zero should be awarded. Where some but not all of the work is plagiarised, the original part should be marked as normal and the copied part given a zero.

In correspondence with the University Registrar, he notes that:

Plagiarism has become a significant problem and students are given guidance by their tutors as to good academic practice – I think most if not all course handbooks contain notes warning about plagiarism . . .

This optimism should perhaps be tempered by our findings, and the need for clearer and more visible guidance to staff clearly needed to be implemented as quickly as possible.

It is important to point out that these interviews took place, and Handbooks were written, in 2002­2003. The situation is now significantly different – see below.


Plagiarism and Citation

The confusion about what plagiarism is, and how it is dealt with, was also found to be further exacerbated by the, perhaps inevitable, disputes about citation standards.

The MMU ‘Student Study Guide’ notes that:

Citing references is a vital aspect of academic work which can cause a great deal of anxiety and often generates some criticism from academic staff. In this guide we can only provide a brief introduction to referencing. This is partly because all departments have different approaches to it. You may be given a handout by your department about referencing. If not, check with your tutor to find out which convention is used in your department. (p14)

Student Responses

Although not formally part of the project brief, we had numerous discussions with students, both individually and in small groups, on their perceptions of plagiarism.

All were aware of its seriousness.

Few were able with any degree of confidence to say what it was.

A common component of our coursework receipt forms is the statement:

I confirm that I have read and understood the University Regulations contained overleaf with regard to plagiarism and can confirm that this is all my own work.

There is a demonstrable need for this understanding to be augmented in all ways possible. One way forward was the implementation of the second phase of this project - producing an interactive and accessible on-line tutorial for students, designed to be generic in content and approach across the Faculty.

In our discussions with Faculty staff and members of the Faculty Learning & Teaching Committee it is clear that such a tutorial could be used in a variety of ways – for example as an option available to Course Leaders at induction or for individual tutors to use when student plagiarism is suspected in a early piece of coursework.


Mid-Term Report.

A report was submitted to Faculty Learning & Teaching Committee in summer 2003 containing the above observations and supplemented with a list of recommendations.

Summary of Recommendations

Recommendation 1

That the University regulations relating to plagiarism be clarified; that the procedures involved be simplified, and that they are promoted to staff in a way that encourages them to see plagiarism as a significant form of academic misconduct.

Recommendation 2

That the role of the Head of Department in dealing with cases of plagiarism be clarified, and in particular that the University regulations be amended to clarify the criteria to be used for progressing a case. At present the principal criteria is based on admission of guilt. We propose that it be based on intention.

Recommendation 3

That all Course Handbooks and other literature contain a common, Faculty-approved, statement regarding plagiarism, its definition, determination and penalties.

Recommendation 4

That, as far as possible, all Departments in the Faculty adopt a common standard of referencing. The new WebCT ‘Citing Proficiency tutorial’, written by Mary Harrison, All Saints Library, and Margaret Kendall, Department of Information and Communications, is recommended as a model for students and staff.

Recommendation 5

To move to Stage 2 of the project and the construction of an online interactive tutorial for use by students. Its function would be:

To guide students into:

  • Understanding what plagiarism is, how to identify and avoid it
  • Understanding the penalties for plagiarism at MMU
  • Practising examples of writing, showing plagiarism and good practice

The Plagiarism Tutorial

This tutorial is seen as a key element in our response to the growing problem of student plagiarism. It has been designed for use principally by first year undergraduate students in our Faculty, but is sufficiently generic in nature to be easily adapted for other contexts. It has been developed jointly by Bill Johnston and Margaret Kendall, with WebCT input from Guy Lancaster.

Most students are aware of the danger of committing plagiarism, but many are not too sure exactly what it is and how to make sure they don’t do it. This WebCT interactive tutorial explains what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. It takes students though the various kinds of plagiarism using examples, illustrations, self-tests and quizzes to develop and check on understanding, and guides them to see where and how correct citation is needed.

It is hoped that this will become an important resource for all colleagues in the Faculty to use with their students as they see fit. The tutorial (or variants of it) is currently being piloted in various departments within the Faculty, and also on the Foundation Year as part of the Academic Methods unit and by colleagues at MMU Cheshire and elsewhere.

This research had several other outcomes related to the recommendations made in the Mid-Term report, including:

  • input to the 2003/2004 MMU pilot plagiarism tariff system;
  • the pilot of the JISC detection service on behalf of the university (see Learning and Teaching in Action Vol. 3 issue 2);
  • a section on plagiarism in the Faculty Code of Practice;
  • changes to the definition of plagiarism in the university undergraduate regulations.

As a follow-up to this I have now been awarded funds from the Faculty L&T Committee for 2004/2005 for the creation of an on-line staff resource on plagiarism, its detection and alternative assessment strategies to help reduce it. I have also agreed to work with Rachel Forsyth (Learning and Teaching Unit) on the production of a section for the L&TU website summarising good practice and links to other resources for staff and to provide information about avoiding and detecting plagiarism in students’ work.

The tutorial is accessible for evaluation at http://odl.mmu.ac.uk, using the ID and password: plagiarism_guest



1 Buckell,, J. “Plagiarism at 8 Per Cent.” The Australian, 11th September, 2002

2 Times Higher Education Supplement, 18th June, 2004

3 see Johnston, W. The Concept of Plagiarism, Learning & Teaching in Action, Spring 2003

Wm Johnston
e-mail: b.johnston@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 3025


Winter 2004
ISSN 1477-1241

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