Let’s face it, essay writing can be a rather dull and uninteresting process. All of that research and writing, quoting, referencing, editing and the inevitable stresses that come with it. To quote one of my friends on the subject ‘if you’re not tearing your hair out over your essays, something is probably going wrong.’
Therefore, anything to make it easier or cut down on the workload is always going to help. I can remember during my first year of university my tutor giving me the simple solution to the problem:
“Simple: whichever question looks the easiest is probably the one to do. Officially, they are meant to be the same difficulty, but if one looks easier than the other, fair enough.”
Wise words really. If you can make the work easier, then why not? Instead of struggling all the way through, you can save yourself a lot of time and effort and ultimately you might come out with a better mark. You’d be mad not to, right?
Unfortunately, some students (at university level in particular) might think that the best way to get around this is to cut a few corners in their work.
Now, I should point out there is a distinct difference between skimping on your work and downright cheating, so I should probably explain the latter and look at the most common form of cheating when it comes to writing academic pieces of work: plagiarism.
Plagiarism, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is the ‘practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas or passing it off as one’s own.’ The word can be traced back to the 17th Century, where it came from the Latin word plagiarius, meaning ‘kidnapper’.
The word has moved on a bit since then, but carries the same general meaning of stealing and taking something which does not belong to you.
Generally, the idea of claiming something as you own without it actually being the case is the academic definition, though it has come to mean different things as many people try and find different ideas and ways to beat the system. Some of them are deliberate attempts to get ahead of the game, others can be a simple misunderstanding which can easily be interpreted the wrong way and land you in a spot of bother.
Here are some of the most common ways this happens:
Simply using someone else’s ideas
The first way that people plagiarise is very simple and is rather in keeping with the definition – they find an idea or theory in an academic paper and include it in their essay, claiming it to be their own.
If the person marking your paper or work happens to be a specialist in this given area, the chances are they are going to understand this theory – they don’t become a lecturer or tutor without years of study and research work. Any theory which is significant enough to use as part of your essay and is significant enough to be spotted will always be noted by a competent marker. Alright, so some people argue that their tutor isn’t competent at what they’re doing but you really don’t want to take that risk, do you?
The solution: cite the author and his/her theory. Make sure you understand what they are trying to achieve and structure your essay to include an analysis of their theory or idea.
Incorrect / lack of citation
Remember in the old days of GCSE and even pre-GCSE when you could just quote an idea? It’s not going to cut it at Degree-level and will probably be frowned upon at A Level too.
Correct citation is absolutely critical because even if you’re just a bit forgetful, your marker isn’t going to know that and might interpret it as you trying to pass it off as your own. Even if you write ‘According to Person X, the theory of Y means Z’ you are going to need to prove where exactly you found that information – whoever looks at your work will need to not only see evidence that you’ve read something, but also that you’re actually attributing the work to the correct source. Most universities will require you to provide footnotes to cite a particular reference or piece of information and then include the sources you used in a bibliography at the end. This is the bare minimum you are going to be expected to do.
The solution: make sure you are almost obsessive over your citations. Make sure you know exactly where each piece of text came from and make sure your tutor knows too – put every source in your work to make sure there is no doubt. Make sure also that everything is correctly cited in the correct format – your university will advise you on which format to use.
Copying your friend’s piece of work
OK, let’s face it, you probably did it at school with your homework or whatever when you forgot it. However, when it gets to university level tutors will use software to make sure that everyone’s work is their own. They will check for similarities between pieces of work and ensure that no-one has collaborated on work they shouldn’t have. Make sure you put things into your own words and ensure your piece is thoroughly unique.
The solution: If the piece is an individual one, be careful if you decide to share ideas with your friends. Also, make sure that, if you work together to produce your own work, you make sure that they look distinct and that you don’t produce similar-looking copies of the same thing. If you definitely contribute to your friend’s work, either cite it in your acknowledgements or ensure that you are actually allowed to share ideas. Check that with your tutor.
These are, in my view, the ruin of higher education. The notion that you can buy an essay online to submit actually makes me very angry – firstly that students would be willing to part with cash instead of actually putting in the work necessary and secondly because there are companies out there who prey on students and take advantage of high-stakes testing and pressures on deadlines. You can read my thoughts on these scams and frauds here.
The solution: don’t get involved. Make sure that you plan ahead and ensure that you can get your work finished to the best of your ability. If anyone offers you such services around your university, that can be a serious offence and breaking university rules. Report it to your student union or the university themselves – keep the flyer if you’re offered one.
You now know exactly what might be considered an instance of plagiarism. I urge you to pay attention to detail, be very attentive and don’t fall into any traps. Best of luck to you!