This post is for editors who suspect that they might have come across deliberate or accidental plagiarism, or are concerned that they are doing “too much” and thus causing their client to unwittingly engage in plagiarism. By sharing how I approach this, and asking for comments, I hope I can gather together a resource of best practices for other editors / proofreaders.
What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is, at its most basic, the act of passing someone else’s work off as your own. It usually involves copying someone else’s work, text, content, however you want to describe it, without pointing out that you’ve copied it or referencing it back to the original work.
In my work, plagiarism is found most often in student work and business marketing content such as websites and blogs. This post is about student work, and I will be discussing business content in another post.
Plagiarism in academic work
Plagiarism is, unfortunately, rife in academic work. You can kind of understand it: students are under a lot of pressure, and overseas students in particular can have a lot of financial pressure from their funders to return home with a good degree and pick up a high-level job. With courses over-subscribed and A-levels often not preparing students for the rigours of academic work, the student may not understand that they are not supposed to use other people’s work unattributed, although universities do provide them with reams of paper and things to sign which are intended to explain and prevent plagiarism.
I tend to find two kinds of plagiarism, deliberate and accidental:
I’ve come across some pretty shocking examples of deliberate plagiarism in my work. This includes sections marked in a different colour, with a note in the covering email: “Can you please rewrite the sections I’ve highlighted”. More heartrending are the examples where the author says to me, “My English is not good enough to rewrite the parts from other authors, please help me to rewrite them”. But I can’t.
Deliberate or accidental plagiarism
I often come across direct quotations used as if they are the author’s own words. Unfortunately, to the experienced editor, it becomes all-too-clear when a direct quotation is being used without being referenced. Here are some markers of the unattributed block of text that I’ve found:
- The language changes subtly: more multi-syllable words, different kinds of linking words used
- The standard of the English becomes markedly higher, with no corrections needed to be made (even if you miss these as you go along, the island of white in a sea of coloured corrections and highlights stands out as you look at the page)
- The language changes from American to British English or vice versa (many students are inconsistent in their spellings, but a block of the opposite type of English is a real giveaway)
- The font, size or colour of the text, or the indentation, line spacing or justification changes – a classic case of copy and paste
Sometimes you can give the student the benefit of the doubt here. Maybe they meant to rewrite and reference and forgot. Maybe they didn’t realise that they couldn’t use blocks of text like this. But it doesn’t mean that it can go unmarked.
I would count accidental plagiarism as a case where a student who has clearly rewritten ideas taken from other texts and referenced direct quotations and such ideas misses off a reference after a piece of text that is clearly from someone else. Of course, the cases above may be accidental, too, but they do still need to be addresses, as does the odd missed reference.
Plagiarism by the editor
There’s another form of plagiarism which the editor must resist themselves: rewriting so much of the text that it’s the editor who has in effect written the text, and not the student. I talk about how I avoid that below.
What to do when you encounter plagiarism in student work
It’s our duty as decent and principled editors to flag up plagiarism when we find it and help our student customers to realise how they should be referencing and when they’ve made a mistake. It is not our job to rewrite text or make so many corrections and suggestions that we have in effect written the essay ourselves. There are plenty of dodgy proofreading companies out there that will do that (and essay writing companies that will sell students ready-written essays), but as a decent editor, you should not be involved in those sorts of practices.
If you don’t flag up these problems, it is likely that the essay will be run through the university’s plagiarism software and that will flag them up to serious effect (many students know this, and that’s why they might ask us to rewrite sections for them). If you’re concerned about returning work to a student with plagiarism noted and discussed, remember that you’re saving them from possible penalties or even expulsion from their course if they continue to plagiarise and attempt to pass others’ work off as their own, even if you’re not concerned about helping people to obtain qualifications fraudulently.
Here’s what I do to avoid helping the student to commit plagiarism by passing off my own words as their own:
- I always work with Track Changes turned on and instruct the student to check each change and accept or reject it themselves. Yes, I know they can press “Accept all changes”, but I send them instructions on how to work with Track Changes that don’t include this option.
- I will delete, add and rearrange only if either the words are all correct but the order is incorrect, or the order is correct but the tenses are incorrect. You soon get a feel for the light touch needed to bring writing up to a clear output without rewriting.
- If a sentence is obviously wrong in terms of content, I will insert a comment and advise the student to check the correctness of the content.
- If a sentence is so garbled as to not make sense, I will insert a comment and ask the student to rewrite it.
- If a sentence could mean one of two things, I will insert a comment to suggest the two opposite meanings and ask which they mean.
- I am clear in my terms and conditions on this website and in my initial text to the student that this is how I operate.
- When dealing with a bibliography, I will make small amendments to isolated errors in punctuation or order, usually up to about 10% of entries. If more than 10% of entries are not formatted according to the rules the student has sent me, or are completely chaotic, I stop editing the bibliography and insert a comment to remind the student that the bibliography is supposed to demonstrate their skill and knowledge, so they must work on it themselves.
Here’s what I do to stop the student plagiarising:
- If I find the odd missed reference for a direct quotation, I will highlight the offending quotation and insert a comment reading “Reference required”.
- If I find the odd obvious copy and paste which has not been referenced, I will highlight the offending sentences and insert a comment reading “Reference required”.
- If I find an isolated substantial section which has clearly or even possibly been lifted from another source, I usually copy a few sentences and pop it in a Google search to see whether I can find the original. Then I will highlight the section and insert a comment along the lines of “This appears to come from another source without being referenced. Mark as a direct quotation and reference, or rewrite in your own words and reference”.
- If I find several substantial sections like the above, I will stop editing and write to the student advising that much of the text has been lifted from other sources without being referenced, this is plagiarism and they need to address the issues.
- If I find anything more than the odd missed reference to a direct quotation, I will mention the referencing issue in my covering email when returning the work, to ensure that the student is reminded to reference all direct and indirect quotations (thanks to Liam for his comment below reminding me that I do this).
What if the student says it’s OK to rewrite their work?
Sometimes when I return work to a student advising that it’s risking plagiarism to have me continue working on their text (usually because of the level of changes I’m having to make to the text rather than lifting work from other writers), they will come back to me to say that their supervisor / tutor says that it’s OK to do this amount of rewriting.
If they do this, I request that their tutor writes to me telling me it is OK to engage in this level of correction. I require this letter to be on headed paper, signed by the supervisor and scanned in and emailed to me. This hasn’t happened very often; when it has, I have contacted the supervisor to check, and continued with the work. I have saved the scanned letter alongside my copy of the student’s work in case of any comeback.
This article has outlined what I do when I encounter plagiarism in student work. I have resources on this website about plagiarism (listed below) which I am happy for you to reference if you need to (but not copy!). If you have other ways of overcoming this issue, please do submit a comment!
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