home icon

How to avoid unintentional plagiarism in research

Never reproduce the work of others verbatim in the belief that you are honouring them or merely reproducing the 'best' way of expressing something. This is regarded as extremely bad practice.

It is, however, entirely acceptable to quote from the work of others in certain circumstances. This page elaborates.

Intellectual property and plagiarism

Everyone has what is known as 'intellectual copyright' or 'intellectual property rights' on what they write. No formal patent is necessary. Plagiarism is taking the written work of others and passing it off as one's own – although the meaning is increasingly becoming blurred to include passing off the ideas of others as one’s own.

Allowable copying

It is not plagiarism to quote short passages, provided that one points out where the quotation comes from and uses it for illustration or criticism. It is plagiarism to copy a chunk of material and present it without indicating its source as if it is one's own. Plagiarism is a form of fraud and malpractice.

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on handling ethical issues

The place of ethics in research

Towards an ethical research proposal

Getting the research proposal approved for ethical consideration

The ethics of ownership in research: conflicts of interest

The ethics of ownership of the work of others: plagiarism

Avoiding 'unintentional' plagiarism

What to do if you meet malpractice and fraud

Subject specific ethical guidelines

The internet, particularly online academic journals, may seem to provide considerable scope for taking the written work of others and passing it off as one's own. Cases are even reported of students with short research projects buying complete theses or dissertations on the internet. They may get away with it on a short programme, but they almost never get away with on a full research programme like a PhD.

How plagiarists are caught

There are many checks along the way, which immediately alert supervisors* to suspected plagiarism. In particular supervisors can often spot plagiarised chunks of text because the different authorship of the various sections is so obvious from the different writing styles.

To add to the armoury against plagiarism, there are on-line tools which take only minutes to analyse and compare text. Supervisors can run the software themselves, but common practice is to ask students to do it as part of their personal development, and to produce the downloaded report as evidence.

Penalties for plagiarism

Blatant plagiarism is being taken very seriously indeed. Do it at your peril. Not only would you be risking the most severe of penalties, you would also be destroying the educational value of your programme of work which is supposed to be original.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.