Given the dramatic increase in its incidence, most universities around the world have made a point of including definitive statements on plagiarism in student handbooks and on university websites in the hope that no student standing accused of plagiarism can mount a defence on the grounds of their ignorance[i]. The fact remains, however, that even proceeding on the basis that all students are diligent enough to read the ‘fine print’ in university policy documents, the scope of plagiarism is such that it incorporates a range of offences not easily defined in the space of a few sentences. In short, there will be instances where the extent of plagiarism is very serious, others when it will be relatively minor, and times when it falls somewhere in between. As a consequence, a range of policy responses is required to match the gravity of the offence.

It is certainly important to send out a clear signal to the student body that plagiarism will not be tolerated, but it is also important to acknowledge the possibility of genuine cases of unintentional plagiarism, and to be wary, therefore, of over-zealous policing of plagiarism. In any case, it is essential that the institution be capable of distinguishing between intentional and unintentional plagiarism.

Without wanting to over-generalise, plagiarists may be identified as one of the following three types:

  • the lazy plagiarist;
  • the cunning plagiarist;
  • the accidental plagiarist.

The ‘lazy’ plagiarist is generally an academically weak and otherwise under-motivated student, the type who would happily take the work of someone else in its entirety, do little more than to change the name on the paper and claim it for their own. This type of student may use the ‘cheat sites’ or simply steal the work of others – maybe that belonging to a student who studied the subject in a previous year. For this type of plagiarist, if a ready-made answer to a question cannot be found electronically, it simply cannot be worth having. The development of an educated opinion, a lively inquiring mind, a creative impulse: these things are not worthy of consideration. As a student’s e-mail signature once read: ‘Clay’s Conclusion: Creativity is great, but plagiarism is faster’.

For those student plagiarists who elect not to procure work from their colleagues or consume the services of the online paper mills, there is still an abundance of other point-and-click plagiarism opportunities. Plain, old-fashioned laziness is certainly a factor, but internet-inspired indolence has given rise to a more refined form of sloth. The ‘cunning’ plagiarist is more sophisticated than the lazy plagiarist and takes full advantage of these abundant opportunities: they are quite clear about what plagiarism is, but work hard to avoid detection. Content is cut-and-paste from a variety of sources on the Web (and possibly from other students’ papers), with a view to manufacturing an answer. They may also attempt to cover their tracks through the provision of incomplete or inaccurate bibliographic details in their list of references, which make it more difficult to track their misdemeanours (Renard, 1999).

The most sophisticated lazy plagiarist is well versed on the existing plagiarism detection tools (see section 2.3 below) and knows how to avoid detection by, for example, changing every 7th word of the original text so that the automated plagiarism detection software does not pick up the offense[ii].

The ‘accidental’ plagiarist, by contrast, is not in the least bit devious. Their transgressions arise typically as a consequence of inexperience, poor study skills, local academic norms or some combination thereof. Such students typically insert slabs of unattributed text in their essays and, when challenged, will be either embarrassed by their sloppy referencing or genuinely surprised that they have been challenged at all, claiming ignorance of the system.

In many instances, it is international students who fall into this latter category, particularly those from East Asian countries. Apart from a lack of exposure to western academic norms when it comes to academic work, these students can sometimes experience difficulty in constructing a critically analytical essay out of cultural respect for those in authority. This is sometimes mistaken for poor writing ability and/or a lack of ethics when the reality might be somewhat different. In Confucian cultures, for example, conventional wisdom is that the best ideas are those of the ancients, and their philosophy and insights are so wide-ranging that to challenge those ideas would be interpreted as quite an audacious act. Instead, memorisation and recitation are valued. It follows that to challenge ‘the truths’ handed down by ‘the sages’ who author textbooks and write lecture notes would be counter-cultural for students of this tradition (Smith, 1999).

Not everyone accepts this view, of course, and a standard response is that it should be a case of ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’, with students observing the cultural norms of the country in which they are studying rather than those of their home country. Without going into an in-depth discussion of the validity of this argument, it is probably fair to say that first-year students, in particular, might be extended some latitude, at least until they have had an opportunity to commence with the cultural transition and adjust to the different cultural norms.

Top Tips 2

4. Always be sensitive to cultural differences that may confuse students’ understanding of the plagiarism concept, especially those who are new to your country’s education system.

5. Encourage students to check with their tutor prior to submission as to whether they may have inadvertently broken (accepted) practice.

In any event, some allowances will have to be made where assignments must be written in a second or third language. This is not to condone wholesale plagiarism; simply to recognise that writing in a foreign language engenders a strong temptation to get linguistic assistance.

Finally, it is also important that the department has a unified position about how to deal with and communicate about plagiarism. On the one hand, the message about plagiarism will be assimilated much faster if all academics use a common language and apply a similar approach on how to deal with plagiarism cases. On the other hand, coordination among academics will help come up with efficient prevention strategies by for example applying a progressive approach to deal with plagiarism (this might include, for example, teaching students about plagiarism by setting an intermediate formative assessment before the summative assessment or allow first year students to view the Turnitin’s Similarity Report before submitting the final version of their assessment – see section 2.3).


[i] Many universities now require students to sign ‘student contracts’ that include specific regulations on cheating, collusion and plagiarism. For an example see University of Leeds student contract web page

[ii] When academics set a Turnitin assignment (see section 2.3), they can set a threshold minimum numbers of words to be picked up by the similarity report. Setting a high limit (say 7 words) will exclude a large amount of sentences that are not of sufficient length from being considered in the similarity report making it much easier and faster to interpret the results.