Plagiarism is the act of deliberately using another person's work as if it were your own. It is dishonest - an attempt to deceive.
Very few students do this, but if they are found out - for example, by copying an essay produced by a student in a previous year - the University takes this very seriously and imposes severe penalties. The University must do this in order to protect the value of its degrees. We cannot give you credit for work that is not your own.
All that is very straightforward. But problems allied to plagiarism arise for all of us every day:
There are no easy answers to these questions - it is all a matter of judgement (or judgment). But I can offer guidance on how you will be assessed for your efforts, and that, after all, is what counts towards your grades.
The most important general point is this:
Remember that you will not lose marks for following the rules of acknowledgment. On the other hand, nobody will be impressed by an essay that has large blocks of text (in quotation marks) lifted directly from another source, even if it is preceded by a statement such as, I cannot put it better than Jones (1990): "[8 lines of text]".
Guidelines on good practice: a statement produced for students in the Edinburgh School of Biology
As a student, you are part of a community of fellow students, academics and other people. So, we DO want you to talk to one another, to share experiences, and to discuss problems - including the assignments you have been set. If you find a useful source of information in the library or on the World Wide Web, etc., then you SHOULD let other people know about it. That's what being in a community is all about - co-operating and learning together, helping one another to gain the most from your time at university.
BUT the crucial point is that, when you come to producing the piece of work that will be assessed, it must be entirely your own work, written by you in your own words, and containing your own interpretations, ideas, approaches etc. If you use other people's words or major ideas, then you should state clearly where they come from. If you use diagrams or photos from published works (as you should do, when appropriate) then you should state where the diagram or photograph came from, and also you should add your own caption or footnotes to it, not those of the original source.
In other words, it is quite easy to avoid plagiarism, while also being a good friend and neighbour! All you need to do is make sure that you put your own effort into the material you submit for assessment.
To take this point further, it is also permissible to use - with acknowledgements - another student's lab results if, for example, an experiment has wholly failed to work (although you should then try to suggest reasons for the failure) or you were ill and could not attend the lab class.
A guide to using information from literature sources: different degrees of plagiarism
[We practise what we preach! The following is based, almost entirely, on text produced by Dr Simon van Heyningen. He, in turn, got the idea for this illustration of plagiarism from Dr David French, Department of History, University College London.]
For many course assignments such as essays, especially in your first or second year, you might find that most or all of the information you need is in one "key reference" such as a very good recent review of the topic. How can you produce a piece of work of your own without plagiarising the key reference? To guide you in this, the following is an extract from an original source and we will use it to show what is acceptable and what is not.
The original text
From: S. van Heyningen (1982). Similarities in the action of different toxins. In Molecular Action of Toxins and Viruses (P. Cohen and S. van Heyningen, eds) Elsevier, Amsterdam.
If you use that information in an essay as shown below, then this is pure plagiarism. A few trivial changes have been made, but the text is almost unaltered and no acknowledgement has been made of this fact.
The following is another example of plagiarism. Reference has been made to the original source, but it is not explained that everything here, not just the first line, has been copied almost directly from the original.
Nobody could accuse the following of plagiarism, since the writer makes it quite clear that the material has been copied as a block of text from a source. However you could not expect to get much credit for this - it shows no evidence of any thought or understanding.
The following is not wonderful, because careful examination could show that the writer had used only one source (guess which?), but it is not plagiarism, and it is not cheating.
What have we learnt from all this?
1. Always cite the source of information that has been copied directly, making it clear where the copying begins and ends.
2. It is wise to restrict the amount of quoted material - usually only a single (and particularly noteworthy) sentence need be copied (with acknowledgment of the source). But it is quite acceptable to make a statement such as 'much of the following (or foregoing) information on cholera toxin is based on van Heyningen (1982)'
3. Wherever possible, use several sources of information, not just a single text. Then your own input becomes clear because you have 'sorted' and 'sifted' information from different sources.
It is tempting to add lots of references to an essay, suggesting that you have read a lot of different books or articles, when, in fact, all those references were cited in one major review article or book that you used. You should avoid this temptation, and cite only the books or articles that you have read. After all, some of the original articles might be in obscure journals - even in Japanese - and nobody would expect you to have read them.
The best (and most honest) way to get round this problem of citing 'secondary sources' is to write: Jones and Smith 1980 (cited in van Heyningen, 1982). In this way you give due credit to the original source, but you don't pretend to have read it.