Plagiarism is a word that is thrown around a lot at universities. First-year students are warned about the consequences and professors reiterate its seriousness on almost every course outline. But is plagiarism, and what it consists of, fully understood?
“People ask a lot of questions about citations,” says Luigina Vileno, head of the Vanier Library. “Oftentimes, they don’t know how to prepare their reference page. Most students are very confused about citing.”
In fact, “plagiarism” is one of the top search words on Concordia’s website and at its libraries. So what are the most common causes and conditions?
“A lot of the time it is the three-o’clock-in-the-morning bad choices,” says Catherine Bolton, vice-provost of Teaching and Learning. “Students know what they have to do, but make decisions too fast or forget to do a last read-through.”
Acts of plagiarism vary between faculties and departments, but more often than not they happen when a student copies and pastes information from a source and then forgets to cite where it came from.
In departments with lab reports or assignments, like Engineering and Computer Science, or at the John Molson School of Business, a common issue is that students borrow reports from someone who has previously taken the course and are tempted to copy from it.
This is plagiarism — not only by the student who copies, but also by the person lending the work.
“The reason for that is that in the Academic Code of Conduct, if you lend your material and there’s a reasonable chance that the student you’re lending it to will copy it, you have violated the code,” says Christopher Trueman, the associate dean of academic affairs for the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science.
Ask questions, seek clarification
Plagiarism is taken seriously at the university and has a range of consequences, including a written reprimand, a statement on a student’s academic record, a reduced mark or failing mark on an assignment or a course.
It’s a lengthy and stressful process — but it can be easily avoided.
Each department teaches proper referencing and citation, and students are encouraged to ask questions and seek clarification. For example, Trueman says a common query relates to how many changed words constitute proper paraphrasing.
“You have to restate it in your own words, and usually it looks quite different,” he says. “And you need to cite where it came from.”
The best place for information is Concordia's libraries, which offer short, printable guides online that show how to correctly reference in various styles.
Vileno says the guides answer the most commonly asked questions. For more detailed information, copies of the style manuals are also available at both libraries.
The key is not to rely on memory. “I think people expect to know it, but it’s not something you know; it’s something you look up,” she says.
The librarians themselves are a wealth of information. Through their databases, they can help search for missing information to complete reference pages, and if the original source cannot be found, they can help the researcher find a new source containing the same information.
Since the majority of plagiarism cases come from copying and pasting or a forgotten source, Bolton’s advice is simple: slow down; leave ample time for assignments; and stay organized.
She suggests highlighting citations and references, or changing their font colour immediately after pasting them into the assignment so they stand out at the editing stage.
When it comes to plagiarism, professors also have a role to play.
Course outlines should contain guidelines that lay out what constitutes plagiarism, along with its consequences. Professors can also help by changing their assignments and essay questions from year to year.
“It’s not just students who need to think about plagiarism,” Bolton says. “It’s faculty and staff, as well. We all need to be thinking about it, talking about it and supporting each other.”