Plagiarism in Academic Writing

“Students are often unsure of exactly what plagiarism is and how it affects them. Cutting and pasting from electronic resources has in recent years made it extremely easy to “lift” text and to present it as your own. Be aware that this is not acceptable academic practice under any circumstances and that there are sophisticated Web sites and techniques specifically aimed at tracking down this kind of plagiarism. Ignorance or carelessness is no excuse for plagiarism. Plagiarism essentially is the stealing of others’ words, thoughts and ideas and is treated like fraud. Accusation of plagiarism is therefore a serious charge and will be dealt with very severely.

Students who are relatively new to the rigours of academic work are often unsure of exactly what plagiarism implies. In the first place, English may not be your first language and you may find it very difficult to reproduce complex ideas, which you might not even understand very well, in your own words. And the academic discourse is itself a different language with foreign conventions that you are somehow meant to imbibe while at university, but which is very seldom spelled out clearly.

The following list has therefore been compiled to help you understand a little more of the implications of academic writing and how you can begin to safeguard yourself from any accusations of plagiarism.

Things that students don’t necessarily know automatically and are not always taught explicitly:

  • Academic writing requires that no claim should be made without being backed up – either by an argument, or by stating that you have found something empirically, or by citing a source.
  • You might not always understand when something may be regarded as common knowledge and therefore does not need to be referenced. The statement that “Dogs come in different breeds, sizes and colours” does not need a reference to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. If you are in doubt about whether something may be common knowledge or not, then say that it is ‘generally understood’ or ‘may be regarded as common knowledge’.
  • Some students express irritation at the constraints of referencing and claim for example that one cannot reference something that was read a year ago, but still wish to make use of vaguely remembered facts or statements in their written work. This is not acceptable academic practice; if you wish to mention a particular story or statement or fact, you have to find a reference source that backs it up. (The Internet is most helpful here!)
  • You might believe that it is sufficient to read a single review article and then cite other writers taken from there as if these sources were read as well. Many references in your text to authors that have been quoted by other authors significantly detract from your work. You should as far a possible go back to the original papers and not just cite the review article as the source. It is even worse to copy the references from the review article as if you have read the original; this is patently dishonest.
  • It is important to understand that citation enhances your writing and is not designed just to stifle your originality and imagination! The academic discourse depends on the foundation of your work on the work of other scholars before you.
  • Sophisticated academic writing integrates a number of viewpoints and texts with discussion by the author. Especially at post-graduate level, you are encouraged to develop your “own voice”, but remember, it must be an informed voice! This is not an easy skill to learn. It is not acceptable to merely paste together one quotation or paraphrase after the other in order to let cited sources talk to one another as it were. Lecturers do not only want to read what others have said on a topic, but essentially want to know how well you have understood a topic and whether you are able to formulate your own informedideas as a result of your engagement with the literature. One way of preventing this kind of stringing together of sources in your own written work, is to remember that whenever you quote or cite someone, you have to discuss or comment on that writer’s words after the citation, or give some example from your own experience illustrating the statement, before you quote someone else.
  • The importance of peer reviewed sources is not always understood. Peer review consists of a rigorous process of anonymous review of all papers that are offered for publication in academic journals. It is a lengthy, time consuming process which (even though not entirely immune to abuse) ensures accountability and reliability in the transfer of knowledge. Peer review produces articles that are essentially different from those in newspapers and journals like Newsweek, Cape Times, or New Scientist. While the journalistic press may or may not take reasonable measures to produce facts accurately, the constraints of time and the pressures of readability or popularity may seriously affect veracity.
  • You should always keep in mind that resources from the Internet and the Worldwide Web should be used with caution. Materials on the Web are generally not peer reviewed. There is some very good stuff available on the Web, but you should remember that anybody can mount anything on the Web and the responsibility is yours to make sure is comes from a reliable source. Web resources are still poorly archived and sites move or disappear all the time. This may affect the quality of your written work. If resources are not verified properly, or if web addresses are not properly recorded, or if they can no longer be found, sources cannot be checked and that detracts from your work.

Good reasons for academic referencing

The discussion above has emphasized that all academic writing requires you to reference all the sources that you have read and consulted in the preparation of your work. Referencing, also   now as citation, consists of quoting from other writers’ words and thoughts and the listing of their names, together with the titles and other details of their publications so that these can be tracked down independently. Citation is an important aspect of academic writing of all kinds. There are good reasons for this:

  • Citations tell the reader of your text that you understand the topic and have read about it. You give authority to your statements and add value to your writing by showing that other writers have supported your arguments.
  • Citations show how well you know the field. It is important to show that you know who the important writers are in a specific field and if you leave some of them out, or if you use the writings of those who are less highly regarded or who have been discredited, it may detract from your own work.
  • Citations show how up-to-date your reading has been. In certain subject fields it is very important to be aware of the most recent developments.
  • Writing is “intellectual property” and you have to give credit to persons who first expressed an idea.
  • Citations enable the reader of your work to check the accuracy of a quotation, or to find the source and the context of a quotation.
  •  Citations are most important in protecting you from being accused of plagiarism.


This article is taken from

Bak, N. (2003). Guide to academic writing (pp.48-49).University of the Western Cape. retrieved from link

1 Comment
  1. Adamu Garba Zango says

    Plagiarism is an academic fraud which takes many forms and styles.
    a) Self plagiarism is taking one’s own work without acknowledgement
    b) Ta text from somebody else’s work and present it as your own
    c) Stealing Scholars words, ideas or thoughts verbatim and presenting it as your own with or without acknowledgement.

    In all the three cases, a research student is well advised to be guided as he has committed an academic fraud and it is a very serious offence in academics.

Comments are closed.