A few years ago a student I knew was accused of an academic offence. She knew what the topic of an exam was going to be and she prepared for the exam by searching on the Internet for an essay on that topic. She found an essay and learnt it off by heart and then reproduced the essay in the exam. The essay didn’t exactly fit the question – as you can imagine, she couldn’t predict the exact question that would be asked so the essay was a bit off topic. The exam marker noticed immediately that the essay couldn’t have been written by a student like this in exam conditions. He searched on the Internet and eventually found the essay which the student had memorised. This was produced as evidence and the student had to resit the exam. The student told me later that she thought what she had done was OK. I tried to explain that in our Western academic culture it is very important to show our understanding of what we have learnt by reworking things into our own words. Using other people’s words doesn’t show that you understand what you are saying!
I think most people involved in university education agree that most plagiarism is accidental. What I realise more and more is that understanding plagiarism is not something that can be done in one lecture! Understanding plagiarism means understanding culture – and you can’t understand a new culture overnight! It is a gradual process that takes a long time. Students can try and speed up this process by working through well-designed materials aimed to help them understand the issue. My advice is to look at these materials on preventing plagiarism on the Learn Higher website. Don’t cheat yourself!