In a world where a plethora of knowledge is available at your fingertips, it is no surprise that plagiarism is thriving. So what exactly is plagiarism and what can students do to curb the urge to steal someone else’s ideas? In this in-depth article, Yasmeen Shahzad looks at the ethical issues that surround plagiarism and explores simple strategies to deal with it.

Consider the following situation: you are a student and have an important assignment that is due tomorrow. You have a computer and complete access to the Internet. You know that if you search hard enough you will be able to find the material required for the assignment, without having to do any of the work yourself. If you go ahead and do this, you would be engaging in the morally and ethically dishonest act of plagiarism.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism – a word we hear often – is considered by many as an act of copying or borrowing someone else’s work and presenting it as one’s own. However, what does it mean exactly? According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary the literal meaning of plagiarism is “Taking or using the thoughts, writings and inventions of another person and presenting it as one’s own.” The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary gives a more elaborate definition of plagiarism, which is:

• To steal and pass off (an idea or words of another) as one’s own
• To use (another’s production) without crediting the source
• To commit literary theft
• To present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

Types of plagiarism

Whatever word we use, a simple definition of plagiarism is the theft of words or thoughts. There are many forms of plagiarism such as:

• Copying from a single or many sources
• Failing to put in quotation marks
• Giving information that is incorrect about the source
• Paraphrasing or putting someone else’s views into your own words
• Recycling essays or practical work done by others people and passing them off as your own
• Collusion. Collusion is when two students, without official approval consciously collaborate in the preparation and production of work, which is ultimately submitted by each in an identical, or substantially similar form and is represented by each to be the product of his or her individual efforts.

Here the question arises: how can anyone steal ideas? After all they are not material things. The answer is that while ideas might not be tangible or physical, they are still someone else’s property.

Can plagiarism be unintended?

We can judge the importance of avoiding plagiarism by this anecdote:

“Andrew Lloyd Webber once ordered his chauffer never to play the radio while driving. Why? The composer feared lawsuits charging him with musical plagiarism!”

Sometimes, of course, plagiarism is a determined and deliberate attempt to gain credit without actually doing the work, whereas at other times, it can be unintended. In this age of technology, computers are the first and foremost source of information for all of us – teachers and students alike. Whether it is a project or an assignment, we surf around and find the needed information. Sometimes we tend to plagiarise without realising it. To stop this from happening, we should educate ourselves. There is no harm in browsing and reading for information or knowledge, but we have to be careful about what we use.

There’s a very simple rule, which you can follow to avoid becoming an inadvertent plagiariser – when in doubt, cite the source. It would also help to know what exactly unintended plagiarism is.

There are various reasons for plagiarism. One of the most common is the submission date of the assignment. Students are expected to hand in the assignment on time and in the rush, the student just wants to be done with the work, and hence commits plagiarism without realising it. Sometimes we forget to add proper references or quotation marks and present the work as our own.

Whatever the reasons, we have to make ourselves aware, as avoiding plagiarism, whether intended or unintended, is imperative.

How to avoid plagiarism?

Quite a few things should be kept in mind to avoid any kind of plagiarism. The most important one is to learn what plagiarism is. If you know what it is, only then would you be able to stop it.

Secondly, learning to write references properly and citing accurately is also something that would help you avoid plagiarism. Citation techniques are readily available on the Internet and can be consulted by anyone.

Another way to curb the urge to plagiarise is to give personal views or opinions about the topic and to discuss it amongst friends.

When to get suspicious that a student has plagiarised?

The World Wide Web has brought the world to our fingertips, but at the same time, it has become relatively easy to find plagiarists. Not only is sophisticated software available to detect plagiarism, but also if the person reading your work is knowledgeable and feels a certain part is copied from somewhere else, the same technology, that has helped the offender, will help him.
Culwin and Lancaster have discussed the four stages of detecting plagiarism.

According to them, the four stages are:

• Collection
• Analysis
• Confirmation
• Investigation

Collection is when students submit their work and it is analysed and compared with the work of others. At this stage a list of names of the wrongdoers is made, which is later confirmed or verified. Last, but not the least, an investigation is conducted to find the extent of the misconduct and punitive actions are taken according to it.

While this method works in Western countries, I was happy to discover that Pakistan is also taking steps to curb plagiarism. Until recently, hardly any action was taken against plagiarists, however now the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has come up with a policy to take strict action against anybody who breaks the rule. The offender would have to pay the price and punitive actions will be taken against the culprit.

Apart from this, I also feel, we should be bound by moral values and an ethical code of conduct that deters one from stealing, whether from a child or a grownup, and even from an individual who has caused you pain. This prohibition applies even to an object of minimal value.

Why I should not plagiarise

As discussed previously, students plagiarise due to a variety of reasons. It may be because of not being fully aware, or a panic-response to an assignment that is due soon. It might also be because of the fear of being termed a failure. Whatever the reason is for plagiarism, it doesn’t change the fact that it is akin to cheating.

Here are a few more reasons one should not plagiarise. One of them is to take pride in one’s work. If a person were writing his views and opinions, he would not only be comfortable, but would easily come up with better content for his assignment. Secondly, an important part of writing an assignment is the opportunity to learn and grow, and we definitely get better by writing and editing our work over a period of time. To be able to do that, the writer should start early so that he gets the cushion period to edit and re-edit his work. Thirdly, the more the students plagiarise, the more suspicious teachers and professors become. A plagiarist does not only harm himself, but also the reputation of others. Even if you think you are really good at plagiarism, and can easily change the words without being caught, wait and think for a moment: do you really want to cheat? I am sure the answer for most of us would be an emphatic ‘No’.

Teachers’ responsibility

We have talked in detail about what students should or should not do, but I feel teachers can also play an important role in minimising plagiarism. They can discuss the severity of such an action. I, as a primary teacher, was afraid that it was too big a word for my fourth and fifth graders, but I was wrong. My students not only accepted this difficult word, but also bombarded me with many questions, which showed their eagerness to learn.

Sites that offer free/paid papers

Paid essays that are sold by the writers are also readily available. The buyer (student) has to pay a certain price (in many cases it is quite exorbitant) to get a readymade assignment. Such a student may get the desired grade, but I feel, it is morally and ethically incorrect, as the offender would be submitting the paper under a false name.


I would wrap it all up by saying that you are the best judge of yourself. If you even have a little bit of doubt that you have not met the required standard before submitting your assignment, wait and think! I am sure that you will reach the conclusion that is morally and ethically acceptable, keeping in mind that the most important skills to be learnt are interpreting, analysing and what to do with the information that you have. All this is better than getting an A-grade that you have not earned yourself.

The Deakin University Website:
UK Centre for Materials Education Website:
“Plagiarism” from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

The writer, Yasmeen Shahzad is an IECE graduate (2010-2011) and teaches English to classes 4 and 5 at the PECHS Girls’ School.

February 2012