Avoiding Plagiarism

Guidelines for students in the Biology Department

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).


Plagiarism is becoming an increasingly serious problem within the University. 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 primarily intended to ensure that you understand exactly what constitutes plagiarism and why it is wrong to plagiarize. It is probable that many students plagiarize inadvertently due to incomplete knowledge of the issue.

As a scientist (or any other academic for that matter), it is blatantly unethical for you to pass off someone else’s data, findings or ideas as your own. This is exactly what you are doing when you plagiarize someone else’s work. The Department of Biology and the University view plagiarism dimly and will take disciplinary action against anyone guilty of plagiarism (see the University Calendar for the formal rules and regulations). Staff in Biology care about plagiarism because we want to train students to become good scientists and thinkers, not because we want to catch offenders and punish students. As well, we want degrees awarded by our department to be respected by other scientists, potential employers, and members of the community. Our intent is not to focus on punitive measures but to educate.

Why not plagiarize?

Learning when and how to acknowledge someone else’s contribution to your work is a skill that all scientists (and thinkers/writers) must develop. This is because scientists are constantly building on the work of other scientists; formulating and testing new hypotheses after reviewing the literature to find out what is already known. Failure to properly acknowledge previous work undermines the very nature of science, which is a collective enterprise.

Furthermore, plagiarism robs you of a chance to practice and receive valuable feedback on a skill you will use the rest of your professional life. As a biology department, our goal is to train you to generate and assess biological knowledge. An important part of your education is the development of the ability to use the findings of other scientists to provide support and rationale for your work, to answer questions, and to generate your own new questions and ideas.

Every time that you write a paper or lab report you will make use of the work of other scientists published in scientific papers, or summarized in textbooks. Because the process of scientific investigation builds on previous work, it is an absolute necessity that scientists acknowledge the sources of information that they use.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the act of passing off someone else’s work as your own, whether with intent to deceive, lack of understanding, or carelessness. 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”. Whereas this definition is straightforward, the reality is that there are different forms of plagiarism, particularly in Science.

There are three different types of plagiarism and we provide examples of the second two.

Copying the whole text

The most obvious plagiarism is submitting someone else’s work as your own. Buying a term paper, or using a term paper or lab report written by someone else is plagiarism.

Copying material from sources directly and incorporating into your submitted work (“cut-and-paste”)

This is a blatant form of plagiarism, and has become more of a problem with the increasing amount of information available in the Internet. Included in this category is copying sentences/paragraphs out of books, articles or from websites. Rearranging words or changing the sentence order does not make this practice acceptable; it’s still plagiarism. And it is certainly not acceptable to string together paragraphs taken from various websites into a term paper.

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 would be considered blatant plagiarism; all that has been done is alter words and sentences so slightly 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.

Simple “cut-and-paste” plagiarism is easy to detect. If it is suspected that a few paragraphs in a student’s essay are not their own, it typically takes less than a minute to find the source. Faculty and Lab Instructors are by definition familiar with books and papers written in their fields of research, and can easily tell when sources have been plagiarized. Furthermore they have been reading student papers long enough to recognize the difference between student writing and writing by professionals in the field. If you cut and paste, you will be caught.

If it is absolutely 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. Bear in mind, that it is not acceptable to extensively quote other people in biological papers and projects.

Simply adding quotation marks and a citation would solve the plagiarism issue but it is much better to restate the passage in your own words: your job in writing a paper is to synthesize the relevant literature and restate your findings in your own words. This requires an understanding of how to restate another person’s ideas in your own words, a technique called paraphrasing. When you paraphrase you convey the sources’ meaning but in your own words. You are guilty of plagiarism if you simply change a few words but retain the author’s sentence or paragraph structure. In other words, substituting synonyms is not enough!

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

Attempting to pass off someone else’s ideas or findings as your own is just as problematic as using their exact words. That is why scientists always cite sources when writing papers, book chapters etc. Your instructor will provide information on the format for citing sources.

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

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 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 3

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).

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 plagiarized Smith and Jones’ work but instead given full credit to it.

In some situations, statements that are common knowledge are needed. For these, you don’t need to cite a specific source. 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 common knowledge and references must therefore be provided. However, be careful about assuming that something is common knowledge – if in doubt, cite a reference.

If you have questions about what constitutes plagiarism, speak to the staff member who assigned the paper. We’d rather help you avoid plagiarism than see your career and our Department tarnished.

What will happen if you are caught plagiarizing someone else’s work?

Full details of the University’s policy on plagiarism are available in the calendar and on the University of Regina website: http://www.uregina.ca/.

In short, if you are guilty of plagiarism, you can expect the Department and the University to take disciplinary action. The penalty will depend on the severity of the offence. In the case of plagiarism arising from incomplete referencing, you will likely receive a warning and marks will be deducted from the piece of work in question. In the case of deliberate dishonesty (e.g., cut-and-paste plagiarism or copying a fellow students’ work), you will be given a zero and potentially summoned to a meeting of the Discipline Committee. This could potentially lead to your expulsion from the University.

It is your responsibility to read this document, understand what constitutes plagiarism, and avoid it in your work.

At the beginning of each course, we require that you sign a form stating that work submitted is your own. Be aware that a) your work will not be marked unless you have submitted a completed and signed copy of the form, and b) the form is a legally binding contract between you and the University.

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