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Understanding Plagiarism

Few students set out to deliberately plagiarise. Misunderstandings over the nature of what constitutes plagiarism, lack of care and attention to detail, an unrealistic sense of the time required to do justice to our assignments and poor consideration of the expectations of thinking academically when engaging with our studies, can all contribute to risks of committing plagiarism unintentionally.


When it comes to the issue of plagiarism and how to avoid it, it isn’t just a case of forgetting to insert references to evidence used (though this can be a major factor). Here we explore the complexities surrounding what education, and how we can – through enhanced awarenessand better understandings of ‘being academic’ -   reduce the risk of it in our work.



, in essence, is the passing-off of others’ ideas as our own.
What that means is using someone else’s ideas – thought, argument, theory, summary, evidence or words – without giving them credit.

comic strip

A growing problem?

There’s no doubt that concerns about plagiarism in higher education have greatly increased in recent years and Johnston notes that there is a substantial increase of plagiarism in student work, although precise figures of this increase are hard to come by (Johnston, 2003).

The internet age, with information readily available at our fingertips, and the ease with which information can be acquired via ‘copy and paste’, the proliferation of ‘copy and paste’ across the internet (where information can be found replicated across the web, often with no attempt to cite the origin of the source), have been seen to contribute to the far greater capacity to commit plagiarism if one wishes. In more than one sense, therefore, the internet can be seen as a poor role model.

Recent studies examining staff and student attitudes to plagiarism, saw shared views among staff and students that plagiarism was wrong, and merited penalties, yet there’s a split between what staff feel is appropriate penalty for this and what  students feel is appropriate.

So why are academic institutions so obsessed?
Naturally, there is concern. Qualifications are an intangible thing, dependent on perception of their value in the wider world. The maintenance of standards is of paramount importance and at stake is nothing less than an institution’s reputation: ‘ultimately the value of the awards that an institution gives ... is dependent on those awards being seen to have been gained by honest and fair means.’ (Johnston, 2003)


The Assimilator
"I love using everyone else's work... and not accrediting at all".
The best villain there is ha ha!

Deliberate verses unintended Plagiarism

The following diagram will be familiar to those that have already checked out the section on Cheating. It’s been modified slightly here to focus more specifically on the relationship of plagiarism to cheating. As established in the section on Cheating, not all forms of plagiarism are cheating – only deliberate plagiarism is cheating, though unintended plagiarism still constitutes poor academic practice that will need urgently to be addressed. This version of the diagram also highlights the ‘grey area’ between unintentional and intentional plagiarism.

Plagiarism diagram

(Source: adapted from Johnston, 2003, & London Met University Academic Framework, 2012)

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What do we mean by this grey area? There are three reasons for identifying a ‘blur’ between intentional and unintentional forms of plagiarism. 

  • One, for academics assessing written work, it may sometimes be difficult to determine whether an act of plagiarism was deliberate or stemmed from incomplete understandings of what constitutes plagiarism.

  • Two, because students who have incomplete understandings of plagiarism (and expectations of ‘being academic’) are more vulnerable to ‘taking risks’ – for example, as the deadline draws closer – that may lead to their work containing elements of both unintended and knowingly plagiarised elements.

  • Three, the grey area is intended also to emphasise the shifting nature of the line between unintended and intentional plagiarism. One may be able to claim lack of understanding of certain aspects of plagiarism once, but if these poor academic practices are not subsequently addressed and instead are repeated, we can hardly continue to claim lack of understanding. 

It would seem that few of us students set out purposefully to plagiarise. However, some of us end up doing so through, for example:

  • having an incomplete / unclear understanding of what actually constitutes plagiarism,

  • not being clear about  the specific conventions, understandings and expectations of UK higher education (particularly if we previously studied in other settings where different cultural values and conventions influence our academic practice),

  • a failure to conceptualise the clear differences in expectation between academic study and prior levels of study (e.g., at secondary school or FE college),

  • issues of work-study-life balance compromising the time needed to do justice to our studies, e.g. pressures of work commitments, raising children,

  • having only a partial commitment to and interest in, the course,

  • feeling under extreme pressure to succeed, e.g., juggling multiple assignments, financial, family and/or cultural pressures,

Comic image

(Source: panel from Mark Waid & Chris Samnee, Here Comes ... Daredevil #12 (New York: Marvel Comics, March 2012), p.8. Copyright © Marvel Worldwide, Inc./Marvel Characters Inc., 2012 & 2014).

  • being unrealistic about just how long it takes to undertake academic work effectively, and so having to take risks – compromises and short cuts – in order to submit work on time,

  • having poor / disorganised note-making (information-gathering and -evaluating) strategies, that impedes our ability to accurately articulate and evaluate the ideas of others and accurately reference evidence,

  • exercising insufficient care and attention with regard to referencing of source evidence and/or the placing of quotation marks,

  • being unclear about the specific requirements of a particular assessment task,

There are so many and others too!

All of the above either can or will impact on the quality of our assignment submissions and our successful engagement with our studies.
Crucially, if unaddressed, they can greatly enhance the risk of committing plagiarism, unintentionally or otherwise.
It is important to know that none of the above would be considered as an excuse for plagiarising. No matter how inadvertent, in the eyes of the University authorities, there is no excuse: plagiarism is either cheating or poor academic practice, or both.

Just as important then is identifying any as issues that potentially compromise the integrity of our studies. That way we can begin to address them – consider it to be the first stage of marginalising the threat.

Conceptually, it may be helpful to categorise all of the above into three areas:

  1. conceptual understandings that need to underpin our entire approach to our study and our assignments,

  2. the practical aspects to understand and get right, and

  3. external pressures.

Of these three core categories, in this website we are primarily concerned with addressing the CONCEPTUAL and PRACTICAL areas as identified above.
These are covered more extensively in the sections on Building YOUR argument: key concepts to ‘being academic’ and Allowing sufficient time to do justice to your assignments & revision.

So what about external pressures?
These could include, for example:

... ‘financial, family and/or cultural pressures’ ...
            ... ‘pressure to succeed’ ...       
                        ... ‘Issues of work-study-life balance’ ...
                                    ...‘pressures of work’ ...
                                                ... ‘raising children’ ...
                                                            The list goes on ...

These should not be ignored and often impact on our studies more than we realise. Above are just some of the more obvious external factors that can impede our ability to engage fully and appropriately with our studies but it is definitely not all. Can you think of any that you should consider? Perhaps write them down and make sure to take them into account when you next sit down to do some coursework.

We can develop our understanding of the concepts of ‘being academic’, and we can master the practical aspects of effective assignment-writing (such as referencing and quoting accurately) but if we fail to address real and pertinent external pressures, it may be to no avail. If we risk taking short cuts and making compromises when it comes to the time we devote to our studies and assignments, no amount of being academic will help.

Be aware that there are support structures within the University that you can access, free and in confidence, to discuss the impact, or potential impact, of external pressures, and explore ways to minimise the threat(s).


University support structures - Click to reveal comment
Service   Area of expertise   Contact
Counselling & Wellbeing, Student Services  

Counselling provides an opportunity for you to think and talk about any personal or emotional difficulties that may be concerning you. 

  Learning Centre (Holloway Road)
Tel: 020 7133 2094
Calcutta House (Aldgate)
Tel: 020 7320 2370

Please visit our counselling pages or email the Counselling Service for further details.
Advice, Information & Funding Service (AIFS), Student Services   The Advice, Information and Funding Service (AIFS) provide advice and guidance on a range of issues, including funding, money management, and debt.   Learning Centre (Holloway Road)
Tel: 020 7133 2094

Calcutta House (Aldgate)
Tel: 020 7320 2370
Email : 

Web: Advice Information and Funding
Accommodation, Student Services   information and advice on:
- finding accommodation in external student halls of residence and hostels
-searching for private rented accommodation 
- rental contracts and flat sharing with other students
summer accommodation
  Tel:    +44 (0) 020 7133 3998
Fax:   +44 (0) 020 7133 3997
Email:  accommodation@londonmet.ac.uk
Web:   www.londonmet.ac.uk/accommodation


Disabilities & Dyslexia Service, Student Services   offers advice, information and support for students with a disability, a Specific Learning differences (SpLD: such as Dyslexia or Dyspraxia), students who are Deaf or hard of hearing, blind or partially sighted students, students with chronic long-term health conditions and students with mental health difficulties   Learning Centre (Holloway Road)
Tel: 020 7133 2188
Calcutta House (Aldgate)
Tel: 020 7320 2370
Email: dds.studentservices@londonmet.ac.uk
Web: londonmet/dyslexia-disabilities
Students’ Union (MetSU)   To assist you with academic and course based issues and difficulties you may have while at university. This includes dealing with an allegation of academic misconduct, suspensions and/or termination, complaints, mitigating circumstances applications and other appeals.   Email: advocacy.su@londonmet.ac.uk 

Tel: (020) 7133 4171 Web: londonmetsu.org.uk/advice/
CELT (Centre for the Enhancement of Learning & Teaching) study support & advice   Primarily specialising in the conceptual and practical aspects of engaging effectively with our studies, but may be able to offer advice in managing time effectively   See study advice courses, workshops & drop-in writing clinics & a wealth of other advice, at: 
Your PAT (Personal Academic Tutor)[undergraduates] OR Course Leader[postgraduates]   Pastoral advice on all aspects of study and related issues   If you do not know who is your PAT or Course Leader, please consult your Hub
Your Undergraduate/
Postgraduate Office (Hubs)
  Our services include course planning, advice and information, coursework and exams and the annual student awards ceremonies.   Aldgate Hub: Telephone: 020 7320 4807; Email: AldgateHub@londonmet.ac.uk 
(the Aldgate Hub is managed by the Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design (the CASS)and is the home hub for students studying in this faculty)
Holloway Hub: Telephone: 020 7133 4509; Email: HollowayHub@londonmet.ac.uk 
(The Holloway Hub is jointly managed by the Faculty of Life Sciences and Computing and the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities and is the home hub for students studying in these faculties)
Moorgate Hub: Telephone: 0207 320 1500; Email: MoorgateHub@londonmet.ac.uk 
(the Moorgate Hub is managed by the Faculty of Business and Law and is the home hub for students studying in this faculty)

Plagiarism can occur in any of the following scenarios:

  1. Using the words of others without placing these in quotation marks to highlight that these are the words of someone else [word plagiarism; sometimes referred to as: ‘copy-and-paste plagiarism’]

  2. A general sloppiness (inaccuracy) with regard to placing our use of the words of others within quotation marks [word plagiarism]

  3. When our writing is too close to the original text to be paraphrasing in our own words: that is, when we make only minor word changes to the original text wording. In effect, we fall into a grey area between direct quotation and paraphrasing/summarising in our own words. [word plagiarism: sometimes referred to as ‘word-switch’ plagiarism or ‘substitution plagiarism’]

    Click to reveal information

    While this is sometimes a dishonest means to try to cover-up over-dependence on direct quotation, more frequently it stems from students genuinely struggling to find their own words to summarise/paraphrase a point.

    See the detailed advice on how to effectively articulate the ideas of others in your own words in the Building YOUR Argument section.

  4. Using the words of others but not referencing the source at each point of our use in-text [word/ideas plagiarism]

  5. Failing to reference sources, at point of use, where we are using our own words to describe information or ideas we have found during our research (many students mistakenly believe that we only need to reference when directly quoting) [ideas plagiarism]

  6. Using the words of others but not referencing the source at each point of our use in-text [word/ideas plagiarism]

  7. Failing to reference sources, at point of use, where we are using our own words to describe information or ideas we have found during our research (many students mistakenly believe that we only need to reference when directly quoting) [ideas plagiarism]

  8. Incomplete or inadequate referencing and/or bibliography information that effectively prevents the assessor from accessing the source material when marking our work.

    Click to reveal information

    Incomplete referencing, when combined with a lack of signposting of authorship or clear signposting of the connection between points being introduced and discussed, can result in lack of clarity as to where any particular author’s point ends and another’s begins, and, indeed, as to where we are introducing points that are genuinely our own.

    The section Building YOUR Argumen examines in detail how we can employ effective in-text signposting of authorship to ensure both maximum clarity of communication and leave no doubts as to where we are drawing upon the evidence of others to build our argument.

  9. Where there is a disconnect between our in-text references and the information in our bibliography that prevents the assessor from identifying the source actually examined (i.e. from where any information used was actually obtained), and from accessing the source material when marking our work.

    Click to reveal information

    This tends to be an issue in Harvard referencing, where the limited information in our references (typically: author surname, date, page) has to be cross-referenced against the full source information in our bibliography.

    For more information, see the ‘Logic of referencing’ in the Building YOUR Argument section.

    Yet it can also be:

  10. Excessive use of large chunks of content from sources, with minimal or no analysis and evaluation of this content by us - even where we may be referencing and using quotation marks correctly. It’s important to remember that in all academic work we are seeking to Build OUR argument (see below), utilising the (fully acknowledged) ideas of others to do so.

FIVE common mistakes and excuses



1. “I put all the information about my sources in the bibliography at the back of my work ... I didn’t know we had to include everything twice!”

Let’s see what Pilgrim has to say about that! - Click to reveal information

Aww, noooo !!!
You gotta remember you need both your referencing and a bibliography !
Of course, there is some repetition of information between the two, but they each serve very different purposes: your bibliography is a one-stop list of all sources examined (listed alphabetically by author surname); the referencing takes place in-text, at the point where we someone else’s information from any source ... to demonstrate exactly where each and every piece of information is coming from!



2. “That isn’t how we were expected to do it in ... [insert country, or insert college, or insert other subject area]”

Let’s see what Illuminator has to say about that! - Click to reveal information


Hey there, I’d like give you
some important advice !  Unfamiliarity with UK
University expectations, or with requirements specific to
your course and/or individual modules, is no excuse!
Maybe you need to go back and examine your course guidelines? Maybe refer more frequently to the specific expectations outlined in your assignment guidelines for current modules?
Definitely you should read the section on this website about Building YOUR argument!
Also check out the CELT study advice at
www.londonmet.ac.uk/studyhub !


3. “I thought it was OK not to use ‘quote marks’ if I changed some of the words”

Let’s see what Pilgrim has to say about that! - Click to reveal information

Get real, dude! This is one of the majorareas where slip-ups occur!
We either quote exactly what the evidence is saying, in ‘quote marks’, orwe use our own words to paraphrase (or summarise) the point. It’s when we confuse and mix these up that we risk plagiarising! What we cant do is make token changes to the originalsource text and claim the writing is our own.

It’s not always easy to find alternative ways of stating a point but  we don’t want to be over-reliant on direct quotes. There’s stuff on this as well as tips in
Building YOUR argument.



4. "I didn’t realise I had to reference information I found on the internet.”

Let’s see what Illuminator has to say about that! - Click to reveal information


It’s not just about referencing conventional academic sources, such as books, journal articles, and so forth ...
We have to reference every source we draw upon.
That includes all web-based evidence. It may also include: TV documentaries, government publications, legislation, industry/professional association guidelines, magazine articles, blogs ... you name it, if we draw on its evidence, we get in the reference ... !

The only exception is ‘common knowledge’ ...
See the Building YOUR argument section
for more information


5. “I made so many notes for the assignment I lost track of where the information came from.”

“I ran out of time! If I’d had the time, I’d have been able to refer back to my sources and insert all the references.’

Let’s see what Pilgrim and Illuminator have to say about that! - Click to reveal information

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Quoting directly, paraphrasing and summarising in our own words

Basically, there are three ways in which we can present the ideas of others in our work, namely:

  1. quoting the source directly (verbatim), using their words, in quotation-marks to demonstrate it is their words, not ours;

  2. paraphrasing, using our own words (mainly);

  3. summarising, using our own words (mainly).

How to do all these effectively will be explored in the section Building YOUR argument: key concepts to ‘being academic’
The important point to mention here is that in all of the above scenarios, whether it is our words or theirs, we always need to get in a reference to the source we are using!

Self- (or Auto-) plagiarism: ‘recycling’ our own work

Auto-Plagiarism (Self-Plagiarism) is a term used to describe where the person we are stealing ideas from is ourselves. This may seem impossible: after all, how can we steal from ourselves?
It occurs when we re-use a previous assignment, or elements submitted in a previous assignment, without authorisation.

  • At an extreme, this might involve resubmitting the entirety of an essay with, say, minor modifications to the introduction so that it appears to address the specific question of the new module.

  • It might, however, also involve pasting in selected ‘chunks’ of writing from an earlier assignment.

Both these scenarios are also known as recycling and would constitute academic misconduct.

With regard to the second point, the chunks scenario, one might ask, ‘What if I reference this use of my earlier work; is it acceptable then?

As the section on building argument discusses, it’s generally not a good idea to overdo large quotations in our work, because pasting in large chunks of others’ writing stifles our own writing, making it very difficult for us to develop our argument and establish our ‘voice’.

So, while getting in a reference to any chunk of material dropped in from an earlier assignment might avoid a charge of academic misconduct, it would still be considered poor practice and be highly likely to impair the assignment’s overall grade.  

So, is self-referencing ever acceptable? It may be possible to draw on content from an earlier assignment, provided this is done sparingly, selectively and intelligently and it MUST be properly referenced. It is always helpful to ask ourselves:

Is there a justification for incorporating this?
‘Did I contribute an original idea or argument that cannot be found anywhere else in the literature?
Would it benefit from rewriting so I can make the information flow better in the context of the new assignment topic?

There’s an additional, personal logic to avoiding any unauthorised resubmitting of content from earlier submissions, beyond the risk of being charged with academic misconduct if caught:

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In other words, not only is it dishonest, it seriously compromises the development and progression of our learning.
If in doubt about the amount of information you can legitimately include from a previous assignment, appropriately cited, consult your module leader for advice.


  • allowing sufficient time to plan, research, draft and complete your work to a high standard, on time.

  • remembering that effective academic writing is about drawing upon the ideas of others, fully credited, to Build YOUR argument in your writing.

  • thoroughly and accurately recording referencing information – including page numbers – at the note-making/information-gathering stage.

  • correctly and thoroughly referencing all your sources at point of use.

  • using quotation marks correctly and accurately, at both the information-gathering/note-making stage AND when inserting into your draft writing.

  • submitting your FINAL work (not a draft by mistake!).

  • including ALL your references in your bibliography [list of all sources examined, alphabetical by author surname].

Many of these points are explored more fully below.


When it comes to the issue of plagiarism, and how to avoid it, it isn’t just a case of forgetting to insert references to evidence used (though this can be a major factor).
In The PDF below, we’ll look at four key considerations (3 ‘stages’ [#1-3] plus 1 ‘overarching concept’ [#4], in the diagram below) that will help to minimise any unintended plagiarising while simultaneously substantially improve the quality of our work.


  When it comes to the issue of plagiarism, and how to avoid it, it isn’t just a case of forgetting to insert references to evidence used (though this can be a major factor).

In The PDF on the right, we’ll look at four key considerations (3 ‘stages’ [#1-3] plus 1 ‘overarching concept’ [#4], in the diagram below) that will help to minimise any unintended plagiarising while simultaneously substantially improve the quality of our work.
  Please access the PDF on the right for a ‘HEROES & VILLAINS’ handout:

  pdf icon  





Further Essential Resources, Support and Advice



And why not take our on-line Preventing Plagiarism course:
(click on the icon on the right)



link to plagiarism



Links to other university resources

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The StudyHub - The one stop shop for all your learning support material.   Library Matters is an open resource that will help you learn how to find and use information you need for your studies and assessments. (You need to be logged into Weblearn to access)   Clued Up! Digital skills for the 21st Century Student, are you clued up?   Heroes &Villains - An Academic Honesty and Integrity website - This is where you are!