13/04/2016 07:33 BST | Updated 13/04/2017 06:12 BST

Credit Where It's Due - Why Are Half of UK Students Losing Marks for Plagiarism?


Photo by CollegeDegrees360 under a CC license

We are in the grips of a 'plagiarism epidemic' according to The Times. An investigation conducted by the paper earlier this year revealed that 50,000 university students have been caught over the last three years, leading to claims of a 'cheating crisis'.

Further research published this month by RefME, a digital reference management tool for students, has found that 50% of students surveyed say they have lost marks due to plagiarism arising from inaccurate citations.

But plagiarism falls on a spectrum and shouldn't be confused with cheating.

Whether APA or MLA, Harvard or Chicago, citation guides can vary widely depending on the institution, subject of study and even individual tutor preference. An abundance of digital resources can make accurate referencing pretty daunting: a quote from a textbook might seem straightforward enough, but how should a person properly cite a computer code or email?

Given their immediate access to vast quantities of information, students of the digital era will often work within multiple windows, expertly transitioning from one webpage to the next. Though an efficient way to research and gather ideas, information sources can become easily forgotten, leading to later difficulties in attributing the work of others.

Together with a greater focus on peer learning, shared note-taking and collaborative research, referencing is altogether more complex than when learning was largely confined to the lecture hall or library.

Confusion and misconceptions abound, with 7% of students surveyed failing to realise they must provide citations when copying and pasting directly from a website. Many expressed confusion over referencing conventions and were unaware of resources available to help them.

But regardless of whether plagiarism is deliberate (and often it is not), the stakes can be high. UK universities are leading the way in their adoption of plagiarism detection, with software such as Turnitin now used by the majority. Facing the risk of a damaged reputation, suspension, expulsion and potentially even legal action, over 70% of the students surveyed say that they worry about committing accidental plagiarism.

While a minor infringement is more likely to result in lost marks than permanent expulsion, accuracy is key. University faculties should establish the relevant citation system from the outset - for use even within draft submissions - encouraging students to check with a librarian or subject tutor if they're uncertain. "Nobody told me the rules" is an inadmissible defence if caught and institutions will usually offer referencing induction sessions at the beginning of term.

For those working within a collaborative Web 2.0 world of sharing and connectedness it can, in fairness, seem impossible to see where one person's ideas begin and another's end. In the Twittersphere, for instance, ideas are endlessly retweeted and recycled. But digital tools also exist to prevent plagiarism.

Using RefME, referencing can be as simple as scanning a barcode or webpage from a mobile device. In addition to traditional sources like journals, articles and textbooks, citations can include YouTube videos and artwork. This saves note-taking time and ensures a consistent format in accordance with the specified citation guide.

For their part, higher education providers can increase levels of student support, embedding academic writing skills more deeply into the curriculum and communicating expectations from the outset. But certainly, the majority of students do not intend to commit plagiarism. On the contrary, they're genuinely fearful of the consequences.