Guidance on plagiarism for students

Defining plagiarism

Plagiarism is a form of cheating and is a serious academic offence. It arises where work submitted by a student is not their own and has been taken from another source. The original material is then hidden from the marker, either by not referencing it properly, by paraphrasing it or by not mentioning it at all.

The most common forms of plagiarism are:

  • copying
  • self-plagiarism (also called auto-plagiarism)
  • collusion
  • fabrication or misrepresentation
  • commissioning work/buying essays and software
  • unacceptable proof-reading

Plagiarism may occur in a number of other forms, as well as in conventional written work. Another student may be involved, or the plagiarism may arise from the misuse of sources outside the University.

The key is proper attribution of source material. None of the activities listed above is, of itself, necessarily wrong.

Plagiarism is a serious matter for the University. If not dealt with, it will ultimately devalue all University degrees to the detriment of both students and the University. It also introduces a fundamental and inevitable distortion when the work of a student cohort is being assessed. This, in turn, is likely to lead to the undetected plagiarist obtaining better marks and a better degree than a student who is playing by the rules.

A student's responsibilities

A student at this University is expected to submit work that demonstrates compliance with two important prerequisites:

  • a level of independent thought, grounded in the teaching received;
  • the provision of clear referencing to all sources consulted, both within the main body of the work submitted and in any separate listing of sources.

It should be clear from a consideration of these two key requirements why plagiarism is unacceptable. By definition, a piece of work that has been plagiarised will never be able to meet either of the above criteria. Asking yourself prior to submission whether your work passes both tests is a useful method for determining whether there is likely to be a problem with plagiarism.

It is ironic that students sometimes seem to go to great lengths to hide the sources that they have been consulting. Proper referencing of these will normally be reflected in a good mark for the work submitted. This is because the appropriate use of source material is considered to be a crucial part of academic life. The resultant marking process will therefore acknowledge this, hence the inherent irony involved in the position of the student plagiarist who runs the risk of a serious penalty by hiding an aspect of their work that, done properly, is likely to help achieve a good mark without putting their student career in jeopardy.

'Accidental' plagiarism

The University accepts that students, particularly in view of the severe penalties that may be applied in cases of serious plagiarism, will be anxious to avoid inadvertently submitting plagiarised work. It is, for example, possible to cite a source in the separate bibliography and still commit plagiarism by then incorporating a significant amount of un-attributed material taken directly or indirectly (through paraphrasing) from that source into the body of the assignment.

Differences between working methods in school and at university are acknowledged too, as are the inevitable adjustments in cultural modes that international students must rapidly make, especially on postgraduate courses. Similarly, mature students may enter University not having been involved in academic study for a number of years.

Above all, the student body is not a single grouping and the University is aware of the need for a sympathetic approach to plagiarism, particularly in the first year of undergraduate studies and where there is no conscious attempt by the student to deceive. However, this is not a blank cheque for cheating. Penalties may be applied at any time.

The onus is on individual students to ensure that the academic conventions applicable to study at a UK University are understood and acted upon. The University, in conjunction with your School, will ensure that you have clear guidance on what is expected of you in terms of the referencing of source material. If you are worried about committing plagiarism, always seek help and advice from your tutor, supervisor or other academic advisor within your School. Members of staff are experienced in dealing with questions about proper referencing and will be happy to help.

The material issued by your School should always be your main source of guidance, however the following guidance from the Library may be of interest:

A referencing software package (Endnote) is also available for use by postgraduate researchers. For details and information on training please see:

Plagiarism-detecting software

Schools are making use of software systems, in addition to the existing and very effective methods that rely on the marker's knowledge of their subject. Systems such as Turnitin are currently available.

You should be assured that academic judgement is always brought into play when analysing the results. A School will not take action against you for plagiarism as a result of the findings of Turnitin unless it has looked very carefully at the report obtained from the software and assured itself that there are sufficient grounds for concern. You will be able to see the relevant report and to challenge the School's case if you are accused of plagiarism following a software-based analysis of your work.

Above all, the systems of software detection will be used openly and transparently by your School. Systems are not intended as a trap. However, the University reserves the right to protect the academic integrity of its degree awards by whatever means available to it. This will benefit those students who did not plagiarise. 

How Schools deal with plagiarism

This is a complex area. In broad terms, these are the various stages:

  • If an Academic Integrity Officer suspects that plagiarism may have occurred they will undertake an investigation which would normally involve considering any evidence. This may include a report generated by text-matching software, or observations reported by the marker or invigilator;
  • If, following the investigation, the Academic Integrity Officer has a reasonable suspicion that plagiarism has occurred, they will invite you to respond to the allegation and you will be invited to a meeting (the Academic Integrity Meeting);
  • Following on from the meeting, the principal academic unit will determine the level of plagiarism (if any) that it believes has arisen. There are three general categories: poor academic practice, moderate plagiarism and serious plagiarism.

The consequences of a finding that plagiarism has occurred in any of these above ways can be found under Section 6 of the Code of Practice on Academic Integrity.

In cases where serious plagiarism is found, the matter will be dealt with under University Regulation Section 8 Student Conduct.

You should consult the Code of Practice on Academic Integrity. This provides detailed definitive information on how plagiarism is dealt with.

Please note the information above relates to the current cohort (2018/19) - it is important to refer to the correct cohort details for your studies. Further information relating to alternative cohort years is available on the cohort legislation and regulations pages.

The Learning Agreement and plagiarism

This is a bipartite contract that sets out an agreement that you, for your part, will not submit plagiarised work and that your School, for its part, will help and support you to avoid plagiarism. It is seen by the University as a helpful expression of good faith and intentions by both sides of the academic partnership involving you and the University.

Plagiarism and postgraduate study

Given that you are likely to hold a First Degree already, there is an expectation that you are likely to be more familiar with how to reference source material that an undergraduate student just beginning their studies. However, the University is conscious that, particularly where a postgraduate student is newly arrived at Birmingham from abroad, they may need a short, initial period to familiarise themselves with the academic conventions that apply in the UK. The same would apply to someone who has returned to Higher Education after a long period of absence.

You should be assured that your School will not, provided it is satisfied that there has not been a deliberate attempt to deceive, treat any instance of plagiarism in the early stage of your postgraduate career as a matter normally requiring the imposition of a penalty. However, you must quickly come to terms with the University's expectations with regard to referencing. As an illustrative example, the first part of the initial Autumn term may be seen as a period when your School is likely to be willing to allow some time for adjustment, particularly for students from abroad.

Research students will, inevitably, be working closely with their supervisor. This is a different sort of relationship than that which inevitably applies on a taught postgraduate programme. Research students must ask for advice and guidance from their supervisor where they have any doubts about referencing.

Postgraduate students on taught programmes must seek guidance from their tutor or mentor, particularly when work is being carried on any dissertation element of the programme.

Student background and plagiarism

The educational background of students may make unintentional plagiarism more likely. Given the diversity of student background in the University, previous experience of formal education in the UK cannot be assumed. The expectations of learning and the learning styles that students bring will have been inevitably influenced by experience and circumstance, as well as by individual preferences. Student work that stays close to the original source and is therefore at risk of an allegation of plagiarism may, in some cases, be the result of:

  • past experience of what has proven to be successful in other academic contexts but which is now a liability to the student;
  • previous assessment systems and their differing rules in respect of source material;
  • any past shortages of teaching and learning resources;
  • a hierarchical understanding of knowledge-production in which the ‘novice student’ defers to the ‘expert source’ (teacher or text);
  • a different understanding of the ‘ownership’ of knowledge and what is to be expected of material in the public domain;
  • a poor standard of English leading to a lack of confidence in the free expression of individual ideas within an academic environment.

The University accepts that one (or more) of the above factors may play a role in a case of alleged plagiarism. Each case will therefore be treated on its individual merits and taking account of all relevant circumstances.

Referral to College Misconduct Committee

If your case is serious, it will be referred to a College Misconduct Committee. This committee will hear your case in strict accordance with the Code of Practice below, to ensure fairness. You should read carefully through the Code of Practice so that you know what to expect. Please note the Code of Practice below relates to the current cohort (2018/19) - it is important to refer to the correct cohort details for your studies. Further information relating to alternative cohort years is available on the cohort legislation pages.

Appealing the decision

You may appeal in writing within fifteen working days against the decision of the College Misconduct Committee, specifying the grounds of appeal, by using the following form:

Confidentiality

All cases will be recorded on the Student Conduct Office database and this
information will be retained in accordance with the departmental record
retention policy.

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