Plagiarism involves passing someone else’s work off as your own. There are two kinds of plagiarism: there’s plagiarism done by the student when they don’t reference or credit a quotation or theory and are therefore effectively using someone else’s work without credit (which I’ve written about here). The second kind of plagiarism, which we’re talking about here, is where an editor has done so much work on a student text that they’re almost a second author, and the student is then at risk of passing the editor’s work off as their own.
I have written this series of articles for editors who are working with documents produced by students: an essay, thesis, dissertation or article, for example.
Let’s have a look at the levels of change an editor might make when working with student materials and how to tell when the editor is at risk of plagiarism from the level of work they’re doing on the text.
Usually when working on student essays, dissertations and theses, I will come across issues with the language and writing:
- Uses capitals and hyphens inconsistently
- Uses British and American spellings (or British s and (Oxford) z spellings) inconsistently
- Uses inverted commas for quotations and scare quotes inconsistently
- Uses the wrong tenses
- Uses the wrong agreements (he have, they has)
- Includes typos (form/from)
- Has a sentence structure which is confused BUT I can tell they understand what they’re writing about and have made a good attempt to write that in English (English is not the first language of most of my student clients)
There’s an accompanying issue with the reference list or bibliography, so a minor issue would be:
- Some mistakes and inconsistencies in the bibliography, where I’m not changing more than about one in ten entries in a major way (turning book titles into italics, etc.) or one in five in a minor way (full stops after initials, making spacing of initials consistent)
In these cases I will (with Track Changes turned on, of course!) and make it all consistent and amend the tense, agreement, typo or sentence.
And, if I find
- A theory or term which is not explained
- A sentence which can be taken in one of two ways, and it’s not clear what it means
- A sentence or paragraph which is jumbled or confused and I can’t make it out
I will leave the sentence and add a comment explaining that the term needs to be explained, what the ambiguous sentence could mean or that I can’t understand it and the student needs to rewrite it.
And if there’s
- A reference that’s missing publisher or place, journal volume, etc. information
I will add a note that the student needs to check and add the relevant information
It’s probably worth mentioning here that I offer to re-check up to 10% of the total word count after rewrites; this feels fair to my student clients and I’ve never had anyone ask me to re-check anything like that amount of text.
But what if it’s more major changes and the resulting risk of plagiarism?
More major issues would include
- Confused use of terms which clearly show a lack of understanding of the subject (this sounds nebulous but jumps out in real-life examples, none of which I can obviously show you!)
- Garbled results which don’t make sense
- Many sentences which aren’t at all clear or, if I can guess the meaning, would need a complete rewrite to make them at all clear – and I start having to do that
- A completely chaotic bibliography with no attempt to make it consistent or match it to the style guide which needs work on almost every entry
If any (or all) of these are present in the text, and I’m making a lot of comments on the text, plus a lot of the changes in the above sections, I will get to a certain point (usually 1,000-2,000 words in), have a look at what I’ve done, and make a judgement as to whether I’m risking changing too much.
It’s all done in Tracked Changes so surely I’m not writing it for them!
Yes, we do everything in Tracked Changes as standard, and I have standard text which asks the client to examine all changes and decide if they accept or reject them. However, there is an “Accept All Changes” button and with the best editor will in the world, some students will just press that. How much of the work then is theirs?
What do I do if I find I’m doing too much on a text?
I want to highlight here that this is often not the student’s intentional fault. This applies to referencing, too, and it’s often to do with the learning they’ve received in their home country, the pressures of having to write in their non-first language, and pressures from home around getting this UK or US degree and bringing that knowledge home. But I believe we have a duty to help the student not plagiarise. In the case of referencing, this will get caught by software used by the universities such as TurnItIn. In the case of our work, it might not be so detectable, although a supervisor presented with perfect English by a student who struggles to write in English may be suspicious. We want to help our clients and make sure they don’t get accused of something they didn’t intend to do.
Sending feedback to the student and their supervisor
It’s at this point that my articles on the two kinds of plagiarism coincide. if you’re following along with this series in real time, I’ve already written about what to feed back to the student and their supervisor and how to do it, so as to avoid making you wait for the punchline by doing it the other way round.
So to find out my good practice in contacting students and their supervisors over the risk of plagiarism, please see this article.