How can universities help students avoid plagiarism?

Be it in music or writing, plagiarism – “stealing other’s ideas” – is a complicated and yet serious offence. So how can universities help students improve their writing and avoid it? Professor James Elander, Head of Psychological Research, gives his top tips.

Plagiarism happens so quickly and easily in these days of ‘cut and paste’, multiple deadlines and pressure to produce excellent work.

Universities, therefore, need active strategies to help students learn not to plagiarise, and one approach focuses on improving their ‘authorial identity’ – a concept I have developed with Derby PhD student Kevin Cheung, which centres on how writers see themselves as authors, and how they approach their writing.

The Authorial Identity approach is increasingly being used to help students to understand the values of integrity and transparency associated with academic writing and to write assignments without plagiarising.

My interest in this area began when I sat in on a first-year induction session about plagiarism. I asked myself, what is the opposite of plagiarism? Surely the answer to that is authorship and, if authorship is the desired outcome, what are the behavioural or psychological characteristics needed for students to achieve that?

To qualify genuinely as the authors of their written work, students must understand the role of an author, and must be able to identify with that role. This protects them from accidental plagiarism, which often happens when students produce written work without being really in the role of an author. This reflection was the starting point for several projects with different groups of colleagues to help students not to plagiarise.

Supervised by myself and Ed Stupple in the Department of Psychology at the University of Derby and Mike Flay in the Department of Education, Kevin Cheung collected data from 745 UK university students and interviewed 27 lecturers in a range of different subjects at five UK universities.

The student data was used to develop a brief questionnaire to measure students’ authorial identity, which could be used to spot the students who need the most help and measure how students change. The interviews with lecturers were used to get insights into what university lecturers think about authorial identity, and how we can get them more involved in helping students write better and avoid plagiarism.

These showed that changing identity, or how one sees oneself, is important, so that as a student becomes a more authorial writer, they change as a person, and they see themselves more and more as belonging to a community of writers in their subject, and as contributing to the shared knowledge and understanding in that community.

Previous workshops to develop students’ authorial identity had focused on the ‘authorial decisions’ that authors make about their writing. To help students understand the authorial decision process, we designed exercises where examples of writing were deconstructed to analyse the decisions that led to those pieces ending up the way they did.

When students were asked afterwards about these workshops, 86% agreed they helped them understand how to avoid plagiarism and 66% agreed they helped them write better psychology assignments. The workshops led to significant improvements including increased confidence in writing, understanding of authorship and knowledge to avoid plagiarism.

The changes were greatest for year one students, supporting the common sense case for providing workshops like these at the beginning of university courses.

The most recent findings show that becoming a more expert and authorial writer is not something we can teach students to do on their own, but is something that is best achieved by working in groups supporting one another, and by helping students become more active members of the professional communities of the subjects they are studying.

It’s important that universities spend time speaking to their students about what plagiarism means and the impact it can have. However, rather than focus on the negative consequences, opening up focus groups, like we did, and discussing how to write assignments without plagiarising, is of much better value.

We hope this research will help to guide future efforts to help students improve their writing and avoid plagiarism, and also give us a simple tool to measure how students’ change through taking part in those efforts.

Top tips to avoid plagiarism

Here are some general tips to help students avoid accidental plagiarism. Some of these are related to the early stages of work on a written assignment:

  • Think about what your own position (opinion) is before you start writing
  • When working from other sources:
    • Read, think, then put the book or journal on one side before writing about it in your work;
    • Think about what you have added to the points made in the source work; and
    • Use the source material to support what you are saying in your work – refer to it to make a point of your own.
  • Allow enough time for full review of your final draft;
  • Focus especially on your secondary material;
  • Keep track of the sources of your material;
  • Compile your reference list as you do your research;
  • Reflect on the authorial decisions you made in your writing (see above)
  • Put yourself in the role of the author.

How to use quotations without plagiarising

  • Think about what point you are making with the quote;
  • Use the quotation to make a point of your own;
  • Keep the quotation as short as possible;
  • Make sure the other person’s words are in quotation marks;
  • Make sure you indicate the source.

Checklist for students to ask themselves when they think they have finished a written assignment

These are:

  • What decisions did I take?
  • How many of the sentences did I compose myself?
  • Can I take responsibility for this writing?
  • Can I really take the credit for it?

If the answers to these questions are not clear, this version is not yet your final draft.

To read James Elander, Kevin Cheung and Ed Stupple’s research paper, ‘Development and validation of the Student Attitudes and Beliefs about Authorship Scale (SABAS): A psychometrically robust measure of authorial identity’, click here.

To read their paper, ‘Academics’ understandings of the authorial academic writer: A qualitative analysis of authorial identity’, click here.

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