Plagiarism: FAQs


What is plagiarism?

Definitions of plagiarism are outlined in the Academic Misconduct Procedure (see the Academic Misconduct intranet page). It should be noted that much plagiarism is accidental rather than deliberate. It is still plagiarism. This is a difficult notion for some to accept. But think of the way the Highway Code works: driving the wrong way down a one-way street is not blameless because it was ‘accidental’. When it comes to determining the appropriate penalty for an act of plagiarism then the element of ‘wilfulness’ or otherwise may be taken into consideration at this point. The penalties for plagiarism are also indicated in the Academic Misconduct procedure and must be applied consistently and equitably across the university. At levels 3 and 4, for a first occurrence, there is a developmental engagement with students.

Do your students know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it? Get them to use the Skills Online resource in Moodle - you should be able to find this in the Staff Resource Area of Moodle.

Why do students plagiarise?

There are several possible motivations, which you may view with varying degrees of charity. Whatever the reason, the outcome and the penalties are the same. The plagiariser is behaving dishonestly and the University response is clear (see the Tariff for details of the regulations)

The following are ten examples of reasons why students might plagiarise – taken from the JISC Electronic Plagiarism Detection Service site:

  1. Bad time management skills
    Having left it to the last minute to complete an assignment they panic and try to find the quickest solution. External pressures affecting much more of the student population, such as the need to work or care for children, may make the situation worse.
  2. Unable to cope with the work load
    This is similar to bad time management, but this problem lies with the students timetable and assignments from multiple modules clashing.
  3. The tutor doesn't care, why should I?
    If the student senses that the academic is not interested in the subject or the student's learning then the student is less inclined to care. This apathy by the lecturer can be shown in a multitude of ways such as showing no enthusiasm for the subject, providing handouts that have obviously been used for years or assignments that seem dated.
  4. External pressure to succeed
    In the US, statistics have shown that one of the main reasons people resort to plagiarism is the need to keep up a grade average. Although this does not appear to be an issue in the UK, there may be external pressures such as parental and cultural expectations that make students feel they have to plagiarise to achieve.
  5. Lack of understanding
    The most common cause of minor plagiarism is a lack of understanding of how to cite material from other sources.
  6. I can't do this!
    If a student is faced with an assignment they feel is completely beyond their ability they may feel they have no option but to copy the answers. However, this may have more to do with a lack of clarity in the assignment specifications than a student's ability. This problem is often linked to bad management skills: it is human nature to leave until last the things we either consider hard or unpleasant.
  7. I want to see if I can get away with it
    If they are trying to test the institution and/or academic, it is likely that, whatever prevention methods are put into place, this small proportion of students will always attempt to plagiarise. In fact there is an agreement that the more visible prevention methods are the more challenging for students.
    However, particular problems arise if the institutional policy encourages students to plagiarise merely to see if they can get away with it. If a student has left an assignment until the last minute, knowing that the penalty for plagiarism will simply be to resubmit the work, they are in a win-win situation. Either they won't get caught or they will effectively be given an extension.
  8. I don't need to learn this, I only need to pass it
    If a student is not motivated to take part in the educational process or does not appreciate that they need to acquire the knowledge to continue their education, they may be inclined to take the quickest route to success.
  9. But you said work together!
    Most people in the project identified collusion as far bigger problem than plagiarism from printed material or the web. As noted in the introduction to this section, no distinction has been made between the plagiarism of external sources and plagiarism of peers' work. In this instance the term collusion has been used to describe a situation when students have been asked to work together on an assignment and have presented the same text. Obviously in some cases the assignment specification allowed for this; if not the work will be regarded as plagiarism. It is important that the specification makes clear what is expected so students are aware if individual or joint assignments are required
  10. But that would insult the experts in the field
    Finally, there is the issue of cultural differences in learning and presentation styles. In some countries it is customary to include material from experts in the field without citation. Although all students must work under their institution's regulations it is worth taking this into account when training students in study skills.

How can I tell if work has been plagiarised?

In essay type assignments, suspicions are usually aroused by one of the following:

  • unusual references (eg books or journals not available at MMU)
  • sudden changes in writing quality, tone or tense
  • analogies with non-current or non-local events
  • American spellings (most online material is American)

Possibly apocryphal stories abound of tutors finding Internet headers and footers still on the pages of the material, or pasted material in different fonts, but you’re unlikely to be that lucky. In mathematical subjects you might find that students give the same incorrect workings to a problem, or identical experimental data when they weren’t working together in the lab.

See the FAQ “What do I do if I suspect plagiarism?” below for information on how to follow up your suspicions.

What do I do if I suspect plagiarism?

Remember that the best solution for plagiarism is prevention - not detection and punishment. (See FAQ: ‘How can I reduce the opportunities for plagiarism in my assignments?’ below)

For further information on what to do if you suspect plagiarism, please read the Academic Misconduct Procedure.

What do I do if I detect plagiarism?

If you detect a case of plagiarism, please read the Academic Misconduct Procedure and take the appropriate steps.

Is plagiarism a real problem?

Good question. Statistics are difficult to come by. A 2003 article in The Times by Louisa McLennan reports that a German academic thinks that “up to one third of essays submitted to German universities” contain plagiarised material. However, we aren’t told how he arrived at this figure. In the same article, 1 in 12 submissions to universities in Victoria , Australia were reported to be plagiarised – this was the finding of a study using an online detection service. A more recent article in the Times Higher states that “ 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.” (Baty, 2004)

Asking students whether they have committed plagiarism, or asking staff if they have ignored it if they’ve spotted it are not very productive lines of enquiry. Two recent studies have attempted to overcome this by asking ‘what if’ type questions. A study by Jean Underwood and Attila Szabo (2003) suggests that 20% of students would definitely plagiarise rather than risk failing a module, and 34% that they probably would.

Dardoy (2002) asked staff and students for their views on various aspects of plagiarism and academic honesty. In one question, students and staff estimated the incidence of plagiarism and other forms of cheating. Students thought that they were much more common than staff did. Students and staff were asked to rate the seriousness of a range of “wrong-doing” from violent behaviour to not buying a Metro ticket, and including academic misdeeds such as plagiarism, cheating and making up data. Students saw “every form of wrong-doing” as less serious than did staff. Coupled with the finding about estimated incidence levels, this suggests that staff have a more rosy view of students’ behaviour than they should. The students and their tutors both thought that the two most common forms of cheating are copying without citing references and working with other students on work meant to be individual.

  • 70.9% of staff (compared to 73.9% of students) thought it was common for students to copy a few paragraphs and not cite them.
  • 61.8% of staff (compared to 76.6% of students) thought that it was common for students to work with others on work that is meant to be individual.


Baty, P. (2004). "High-tech checks sink web cheats." Times Higher Education Supplement. 18 June 2004

Wilkinson, J. (2009). Staff and student perceptions of plagiarism and cheating International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 20(2): 98-105.

Underwood, J. and A. Szabo (2003). "Academic offences and e-learning: individual propensities in cheating." British Journal of Educational Technology34(4): 467–477.

How can I reduce opportunities for plagiarism in my assignments?

The following summary is adapted from Plagiarism: A Good Practice Guide by Jude Carroll and John Appleton (2001). Text in quotation marks below is extracted directly from this guide.

1) Change assignments regularly

If you set similar essay titles, problems or laboratory reports each year, then you are making life a lot easier for the student with good social contacts to find and reproduce a submission from a previous year.

2) Review learning outcomes

Carroll and Appleton suggest going back to the module outlines and trying to replace “knowledge and understanding” outcomes with “analytical and creative” ones. The idea is that you will find it easier to vary the tasks and to set novel assignments for which it will be difficult to find online equivalents.

3) Create individualised tasks

Leading on from suggestion (2), the presence of “analytical and creative outcomes” should make it easier to set assignment tasks which can be personalised. Carroll and Appleton say that “Assessing application or comparison rather than use will encourage more individualised products”. A common strategy here is to ask students to perform a transformational task (e.g. rewriting, synthesising or summarising several texts) and then to write a short reflective piece summarising their approach and reasoning. Other possibilities might include requiring students to select their best contributions to an online discussion and asking them to accompany the selection with a commentary, or asking them to make links from a topic to current events or publications. In science subjects, problems can be set from a bank of questions with randomly selected values for the variables if you use online assessment software, allowing you to vary the questions between individuals without increased effort on your part (and the questions can be marked by the computer, as well). Or you could ask students to set problems for each other rather than simply solving them - if you ask them to bring in topics in the news, they are unlikely to find samples elsewhere.

4) Incorporate drafts into the assessment process

There are two benefits to this strategy: firstly, you will be helping the students with poor time management skills to plan and structure their work, and secondly, you will get an idea of the students’ capabilities as they progress through the task, which should make glaring differences in the final product obvious, as well as providing educational opportunities. The downside is that this is a recommendation which usually raises groans: as if there weren’t enough to do without seeing drafts as well! You can ease the burden by seeing drafts in the forms of short bulleted lists, poster displays, or presentations. Recent articles published at MMU explain how this helped reduce plagiarism in an assignment (Eskins 2004) , and how the use of electronic feedback software reduced the effort required to give feedback on the drafts (Willson 2004) ).

5) Vary the tasks and assess process rather than product

Conventional assignments tend to be based on products: considering process as well can reduce plagiarism opportunities. Try to vary what you ask for (how many essays does an undergraduate really need to complete during his or her career?). You could ask for an essay plan together with an “annotated list of sources…that would have been useful” for a full essay, or a description of the process of preparing an assignment. In science, tutors often ask for outline lab reports rather than the full version.

6) Education

In a study (Dardoy 2002) , students and academic staff were asked to rate ‘wrong-doing’ in various forms, including academic dishonesty. Students consistently took wrong-doing less seriously than academic staff. This suggests that Informing students is not enough: they need to subscribe to our view of academic honesty as well. Clearly, plagiarism and its penalties can be clearly mentioned in all programme handbooks. All students have access to ‘Skills Online’ in Moodle, and this has a section on ‘Avoiding Plagiarism’ (usual Moodle Login required)  This probably needs to be supplemented by subject-based discussion of plagiarism. Why is it a problem in your subject? What are the consequences for individuals? For the institution? For the intended profession? What are the differences between collaboration and collusion? What does the department do to detect plagiarism?

This paper by George MacDonald Ross (word document) has the self-explanatory title of "Why my students don't plagiarise" - it is a very practical overview.



Dardoy, A. (2002). Cheating and Plagiarism: Student and Staff Perceptions at Northumbria. Northumbria Conference - Educating for the Future (subscription to journal required for full paper)

Eskins, R. (2004). "Designing out Plagiarism & supporting Widening Participation." Learning and Teaching in Action3(3).

Johnston, W. (2004). "Plagiarism Project 2002 - 2004: A how NOT to do it guide for students." Learning and Teaching in Action3(3).

Willson, J. (2004). "Enhancing Feedback to Students: Technology Can Help." Learning and Teaching in Action3(3).


In this video, Alicia Prowse from UTA talks about developing a culture where students view plagiarism as ethically unacceptable.

What do I need to tell students about plagiarism?

As a minimum, students need to know what plagiarism is, why it isn’t allowed (see the relevant FAQs!), what the penalties for it are, and how to avoid it. An online tutorial for students is available in Moodle, as part of the Skills Online resource which should be available to all staff and students. You should be able to find this in the Staff Resource Area of Moodle.

What are the penalties for plagiarism?

Penalties plagiarism are outlined in the Academic Misconduct procedure (see the Academic Misconduct intranet page).

Where can students find out about referencing style?

Can I combine the Moodle assignment tool with using Turnitin?

Yes. For full instructions, see the Moodle Training Guides in the Staff Resource Area of Moodle (you need to login to Moodle first).

Should I ask students to submit a Turnitin report together with the assignment itself?

We do recommend that you get the students to submit the assignment to Turnitin themselves – the purpose of the submission is to improve academic practice, not to catch students out. However, you need to think about asking for the Turnitin report together with the assignment, as you will effectively get two copies of the assignment. (Extra printing costs for students, unnecessary waste of paper...).

The report from Turnitin contains the entire assignment, but in smaller font, and with sections which are identified as not original being colour coded. Obviously these will only show on a printed copy if the student uses a colour printer – yet more cost.

The options are these:

  1. ask them to add the Turnitin 'paper ID' and the 'similarity index' on the assignment front sheet.
  2. ask them to provide the first page of the report from Turnitin, appended to the assignment
  3. ask for the Turnitin report in its entirety, but on its own (which, if your eyesight is good enough – you can mark as the substantive assignment)


Remember that you will always have a copy of the Originality Report available to look at whenever you log in to Turnitin.