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Plagiarism policy

Information on plagiarism and responsibilities

Brian Martin

(from Brian Martin, Journal of Tertiary Education Administration, 6:2, 1984)

Plagiarism is not uncommon in academia, but its occurrence has received scant attention in public forums and hardly any in the scholarly literature. In this article I first describe the nature and extent of plagiarism in academia, and then use two Australian examples to illustrate the potential problems this poses for administrators.

The Nature of Plagiarism

Plagiarism has been defined as “the taking and using as one’s own of the thoughts, writings, or inventions of another”.1 There are many varieties and degrees of plagiarism. I will deal here with plagiarism of written work in academia and science, although the problem is not limited to these areas.2

The most obvious and serious form of plagiarism is the direct stealing, without significant alteration, of another’s work. This can be called word-for-word plagiarism. For example:

An earlier version of the first five chapters, which I had sent to several professional colleagues for their critical comments some years ago, was published without my knowledge or consent by one of them in a book of his own.3
Although there have been a number of spectacular examples of word-for-word plagiarism in recent years,4 it is not very common simply because exposure is so easy. For academics, the possibility of such exposure — even if exposure does not always occur — is a strong deterrent because of the likely damage to scholarly reputations.

Paraphrasing from unacknowledged sources is the more frequent and hard-to-detect form of plagiarism of writing. This can be called paraphrasing plagiarism. Let me consider a particular example. The following sentence is from The Broken Connection by Robert Jay Lifton.5

Ruth Benedict suggested that whole cultures could be classified according to the Nietzschean duality of Apollonian stress upon measure, control and moderation; the Dionysian embrace of excess, of ‘annihilation of ordinary bonds and limits of existence’ in the struggle to ‘break through into another order of existence’.*
Lifton’s footnote* is to “Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (New York: New American Library, 1946)”. Suppose I were writing an essay. The quotation of the original sentence directly from Lifton naturally would be acceptable, citing Benedict’s book as being cited in Lifton’s book. But if the sentence is paraphrased, there are various styles and degrees of plagiarism which are possible. Suppose I included this sentence:

I propose here that whole cultures can be classified according to this distinction: a stress on measure, moderation and control as made by the Apollonians, or a stress on annihilation of ordinary bonds and limits of existence in the struggle to break through into another order of experience as made by the Dionysians.
This would constitute a blatant form of paraphrasing plagiarism: no credit is given to either Lifton, Benedict or Nietzsche. Next consider a more subtle paraphrasing plagiarism: suppose instead that I included this sentence:

Ruth Benedict, the anthropologist, has proposed that whole cultures can be classified according to a distinction made by Nietzsche: a stress on measure, moderation and control as made by the Apollonians, or a stress on ‘annihilation of ordinary bonds and limits of existence’ in the struggle to ‘break through into another order of experience’ as made by the Dionysians.*
Such a paraphrase from Lifton is acceptable, so long as the Lifton source is cited, though many would prefer the paraphrase to be rather less imitative of the original. Plagiarism arises when Lifton’s understanding of Ruth Benedict’s work, and the manner of expressing that understanding, is used without giving credit to Lifton. Then if I were to include the same footnote* as above, namely to Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, without consulting that book, and did not cite Lifton, then I would be guilty of plagiarism.

A type of unconscious plagiarism could arise if I were to consult Patterns of Culture, use the same quotes from it as Lifton does and reproduce in my essay a sentence similar to Lifton’s without remembering that I had originally read the sentence in Lifton’s book. This can happen quite inadvertently, especially to a person with a good memory for words and phrases.6

It is generally considered good scholarship to consult original sources. Thus if I note Lifton’s reference to Benedict and as a result then study Benedict (or Nietzsche, etc.), this is commendable. If I develop my own understanding of Benedict’s work, there is no need to cite Lifton. Even if my own understanding of Benedict is similar to Lifton’s, it is not obligatory to cite Lifton, especially if his comments on Benedict are brief or obvious. On the other hand, if Lifton’s analysis of Benedict is extensive and penetrating, then it is usually preferable to cite Lifton. Finally — and this is the crux — if I paraphrase Lifton, or use substantive interpretative ideas of his not found in Benedict, then I must cite Lifton — or be guilty of plagiarism.

It is important to separate out the elements involved here. Paraphrasing is a widespread practice, and is generally considered acceptable so long as the similarity is not too close. A direct quotation is considered preferable to a very close paraphrase. The assessment of what is “too close” is a matter of judgement and taste. As a rule of thumb, Brigid Ballard advises students at the Australian National University that if they have to re-read or look at the original source when summarising or paraphrasing an argument, then it is a close paraphrase and must be referenced.

Citation of unsighted primary sources (Benedict) is also considered acceptable and indeed is often quite useful. What is not acceptable is lack of citation of the secondary source (Lifton) when the primary source has not been consulted. (Such citation should be done for both the paraphrase and as the source of the citation to the primary source, if the primary source has not been consulted directly.7) This sort of plagiarism is well described as use of unacknowledged secondary sources, and can be referred to as secondary source plagiarism.

It is not always clear cut whether unacknowledged sources have been used in a given bit of suspected plagiarism, especially when the paraphrasing is dissimilar to the text of the secondary source. One of the ways used to highlight the alleged plagiarism is to set passages from a work next to passages from the unacknowledged original source which the work has allegedly plagiarised.8

When sources are given but it is suspected that unacknowledged secondary sources were used, two bits of evidence may strengthen the suspicion of plagiarism. One is the citation of obscure or inaccessible primary sources which could not reasonably have been consulted. For example, if I were to cite a Russian language source and you knew I did not read Russian, you might reasonably suspect me of using an unattributed secondary source (written or spoken). Another indication of secondary source plagiarism is the copied mistake. If the secondary source makes an incorrect quotation from the original source, and I were to make the identical mistake, you might reasonably suspect that I had not consulted the original. An apparent example of this sort of copied mistake made by Sir Ernest Titterton, a leading Australian proponent of nuclear power, has been documented in detail.9

So far as may be judged from available evidence,10 plagiarism is much more widespread than commonly acknowledged. To be fair, much plagiarism at the undergraduate level is not intended as cheating. Many students simply are not aware of the necessity to give credit for ideas and for passages paraphrased or quoted. Unfortunately, many academic teachers do little to explain scholarly practices in this area. But there is also a minority of students who consciously cheat, and it would be surprising if some of this did not persist into higher levels of the academic community.


1 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1973.

2 For example, government departments might plagiarise published work. For an allegation of this, see Baldwin, F.W., letter, The Australian, 14 March 1983, 8.

3 Parenti, M. Power and the Powerless. New York, St. Martins Press, 1978, x.

4 Broad, W. & Wade, N. Betrayers of the Truth. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1982.

5 Lifton, R.J. The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1979, 24. I have changed Lifton’s footnote number 1 to * to avoid confusion with the footnotes to this article.

6 On “cryptamnesia” see Merton, R.K. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1973, 402-412.

7 On the etiquette of citations, see Ravetz, J.R. Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971, 256-257.

8 See, for example, Willey, M.M. “Review Essay”, American Sociological Review 35.3 (1970) 531-539; Pine, V.R. “Review Essay”, Contemporary Sociology 1.4 (1972) 299-305.

9 Martin, B. Nuclear Knights, Canberra, Rupert Public Interest Movement, 1980, 66-68.

10 Broad & Wade, op. cit. (supra note 4); Manwell, C. & Baker, C.M.A. “Honesty in Science: A Partial Test of a Sociobiological Model of the Social Structure of Science”, Search 12.6 (June 1981) 151-160; Mahoney, M.J. Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ballinger, 1976; Mahoney, M.J. “Psychology of the Scientist: An Evaluative Review”, Social Studies of Science 9 (1979) 349-375; Garfield, E. “From Citation Amnesia to Bibliographic Plagiarism”, Current Contents 12.23 (9 June 1980) 5-9; St James-Roberts, I. “Cheating in Science”, New Scientist 72 (25 November 1976) 466-469. The journal Science in recent years has featured a number of news reports of plagiarism cases. For example: Norman, C. “Stanford Investigates Plagiarism Charge” Science 324 (6 April 1984) 35-36.