Avoiding plagiarism - Guidelines for students in the Biology Department at the University of Regina

—- Updated July 2015

Partially adapted with permission from a document by Dr. Andrew McKechnie (Department of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa).

Introduction

Plagiarism is an increasing problem, not only within the University but also in the greater scientific community and the public sphere. The fact that this document is adapted from one in use in South Africa speaks to the global nature of the problem. These guidelines are intended to ensure that you understand exactly what constitutes plagiarism, and why it is wrong to plagiarize. Often students inadvertently plagiarise due to incomplete knowledge of the issue.

As a scientist (or anyone else for that matter), it is unethical for you to pass off someone else’s data, findings or ideas as your own. The Department of Biology and the University will take disciplinary action against anyone guilty of plagiarism (see the University Calendar for the formal rules and regulations). Your instructors care about plagiarism because we want to train students to become good scientists and thinkers. As well, we want degrees awarded by our department to be respected by other scientists, potential employers, and members of the community.

Why you shouldn’t plagiarise

The process of scientific investigation and discovery builds on the work of others. Our questions and hypotheses are built on what we already know to be true because others have published the results of their investigations. Similarly, to find meaning in our results, we compare and contrast them with what other scientists have already discovered. It is crucial to acknowledge how we have used the work of others, both to give our work credibility and to give credit to the scientists upon whose work we are building. Failure to properly acknowledge previous work undermines the very nature of science, which is a collective enterprise.

Our goal is to train you to generate and assess biological knowledge; this includes developing the ability to use other scientists' findings to provide support and rationale for your work, to answer questions, and to generate new questions and ideas. At the same time, you need to learn how to use and acknowledge your sources properly. Correctly presenting and citing work is not easy; it is a skill that requires practice. During your undergraduate education, you have the perfect opportunity to learn and practice this skill, with access to expert advice and feedback.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is a word that invokes much anxiety among students, partly because students do not fully understand what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. A Google search will uncover many definitions with varying amounts of clarity. The Cambridge Dictionary formally defines it as “using another person's idea or a part of their work and pretending that it is your own”. “Pretending it is your own” means you have used someone else’s ideas without properly acknowledging them; i.e. without properly citing the original work. Plagiarism may include the intent to deceive, but it can also happen due to lack of understanding or carelessness.

Examples

Copying text

The most obvious plagiarism is submitting someone else’s work as your own. Examples include buying a term paper, using a term paper or lab report written by someone else and copying material from public sources directly into your submitted work (“cut-and-paste”). A less obvious example is using someone else's words with only minor changes such as changing or rearranging a few words or reordering phrases.

For example, the following text is a direct quote from a paper by Williams and Tieleman (2002; Int. Comp. Biol. 42: 68-75):

“Two evolutionary events that shaped current vertebrate life were the transition from water to land, and the development of endothermy (Freeman and Herron 1998, Williams and Tieleman 2001). When they invaded land, vertebrates were exposed to new ecological opportunities, while at the same time they faced the challenge of maintaining an aqueous internal milieu in a desiccating environment. With the development of endothermy, energy and water requirements of land animals escalated above ectothermic relatives, and problems of water loss were exacerbated because higher rates of metabolism are associated with increased evaporative and excretory water loss.”

The passage below is blatant plagiarism; the writer altered a few words and sentences so that the passage is no longer exactly identical to the original.

Current vertebrate life was shaped by two evolutionary events, namely the transition from water to land and the development of endothermy. When vertebrates invaded land, they were exposed to new ecological opportunities but faced the challenge of maintaining an aqueous internal milieu in a desiccating environment. When endothermy developed, energy and water requirements of land animals escalated above those of ectotherms. At the same time, problems of water loss were exacerbated because higher rates of metabolism are associated with increased evaporative and excretory water loss (Williams and Tieleman, 2002).

Note that even though the original work is cited, this is still plagiarism because the writer has only changed a few words but retained the author’s sentence or paragraph structure. If it is necessary to use the exact words of another author (and it rarely is!), you must use “quotation marks” to indicate that you are quoting someone else.

Note that while adding quotation marks would solve the plagiarism issue, quoting is generally not acceptable in science. Part of your job in writing a paper or lab report is to synthesize the relevant literature so that you can paraphrase the ideas to make your own points.

Using someone else’s findings or ideas without acknowledging the source

Attempting to pass off someone else’s ideas or results as your own is just as problematic as using their exact words.

This more subtle form of plagiarism is illustrated in the following examples:
This is a paragraph from a fictitious paper by Smith and Jones (2005):

“The metabolic rates of desert birds are, on average, 20% lower than those of non-desert birds. Desert birds also exhibit evaporative water loss rates approximately 30% lower than those of non-desert birds. We suggest that desert birds have evolved lower metabolic rates and water loss rates in response to the unpredictability of their environment.”

Here are some examples of how to inappropriately (Examples 1 and 2) and then correctly (Example 3) make use of this information in your writing:

Example 1

Desert birds have metabolic rates and evaporative water loss rates that are reduced in comparison to their mesic counterparts. These lower metabolic and evaporative water loss rates are thought to have evolved in response to the unpredictable nature of desert environments.

This passage constitutes plagiarism since the writer is implying that he/she did the research and found that desert birds differ physiologically from mesic birds, and believes that these differences reflect adaptations to unpredictable environments.

Example 2

Compared to non-desert birds, birds that live in deserts have metabolic rates that are 20% lower, and evaporative water loss rates that are 30% lower (Smith and Jones 2005). These differences reflect adaptation to unpredictable desert habitats.

Although the first sentence has been correctly referenced, the second sentence still constitutes plagiarism, since this was the authors’ original idea, not the writer’s.

Example 3a

Desert birds have metabolic rates and evaporative water loss rates that are reduced in comparison to their mesic counterparts (Smith and Jones 2005). These lower metabolic and evaporative water loss rates are thought to have evolved in response to the unpredictable nature of desert environments (Smith and Jones 2005).

or…..
Example 3b

Desert birds have metabolic rates and evaporative water loss rates that are reduced in comparison to their mesic counterparts (Smith and Jones 2005). These authors argued that the lower metabolic and evaporative water loss rates of desert birds evolved in response to the unpredictable nature of their desert habitat.

Both these examples adequately acknowledge the source of data and ideas concerning their interpretation. The writer has not plagiarise Smith and Jones’ work but instead given full credit to it.

Other notes

Common knowledge statements

Statements that are common knowledge don’t need citing. For instance, the fact that birds have feathers is common knowledge; the fact that feathers likely evolved from reptilian scales is not. The fact that some snakes are venomous is common knowledge; the facts that mambas are neurotoxic but puff adders are cytotoxic are not. However, be careful about assuming that something is common knowledge. If in doubt, cite a reference.

Resubmitting your work

For students, resubmitting work that you submitted in a previous attempt in a course or another course, may or may not be considered plagiarism. Either way, resubmitting your work is academic misconduct and is not allowed in our department.

What will happen if you are caught plagiarizing?

Plagiarism is one type of academic misconduct. The University of Regina has a comprehensive Academic Integrity policy that includes a description of what constitutes plagiarism. The policy is available in the Academic Calendar in section 5.13.2, and on the University of Regina website at Student Behaviour. The policy is also on the Graduate Studies website; note that the policy is the same for undergraduate and graduate students.

If you are guilty of plagiarism, you can expect the Department and the University to take disciplinary action. The penalty will depend on whether or not this is your first offence and how severe the plagiarism is deemed to be. Penalties range from a warning and a mark deduction to a grade of zero in the course and expulsion from the University.

It is your responsibility to read and understand this document and the University of Regina’s policies regarding Academic Integrity. While this document does not supersede the University’s policy, it is intended to help you understand what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it in your work.

If after reading this document you need more clarification, please see your course or lab instructor ASAP. We’d rather help you avoid plagiarism than see your career and our Department tarnished.


Updated July 2015


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