Plagiarism – the capital sin in academia?

"Artist's signature", crossed, replaced by "mine"

Second-year master’s students are now toiling over their theses, which is hard enough in this beautiful weather. Some of them may also be burdened by a nagging doubt: what if I were suspected of plagiarism? Plagiarism can have severe consequences for the culprit and even ruin political careers years later. Here is what you should know about plagiarism and how to avoid it.

Giving due credit

Citation is the cornerstone of academic writing. Research in the social sciences and humanities is based on the works of previous authors, and it is essential that the readers can distinguish between what ideas belong to you and what belongs to others. It is also an opportunity for them to understand your intellectual journey and discover new interesting sources.

Separating what is yours and what comes from others can seem simple, but it is more complicated in practice. While you are reading and pondering texts, it can be easy to mix up everything. Keeping your notes in order is necessary to avoid forgetting what belongs to whom. Using Zotero and its enhanced note-taking features can help with this.

Good citation practice includes verbatim citations using inverted commas, in which you do not alter the original text, and paraphrasing – the act of rewriting the authors’ thoughts in your own words, without misrepresenting their arguments or their attribution.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism occurs when you fail to appropriately cite the works you have used during your research, potentially misleading your readers and making them “think that you are trying to pass off as your own the work of another writer.” (Booth et al., p. 206). It can be conscious misconduct, or inadvertent; in both cases, it will be regarded as plagiarism.

All master’s and PhD theses of the Graduate Institute are checked for plagiarism using Turnitin, dedicated software that compares the text to many sources, websites, journal articles, e-books, and works submitted by students and researchers from many universities. This process can take place for other assignments at the request of a professor or a student. This service is provided by the library, and all questions can be sent to library@graduateinstitute.ch.

Self-plagiarism is also inadequate

Students who “recycle” works done for a previous assignment, researchers who are reusing parts of their previous works without self-citing properly, or who are recycling datasets built for previous works without indicating it, are self-plagiarising. It is as serious as the plagiarism of third-party works and can lead to severe consequences. It can even be an infringement of copyright when the rights of their previous works were transferred to a publisher.

Getting help

Plagiarism may cause anxiety to some students, but you can find helpful information in our guide on academic writing. If you are worried about accidental misattribution, you can also ask us to check their work before turning it in.

We have also recently extended our guide on Citing Sources, adding pages on plagiarism, the different types of citations and paraphrasing. All the best for our future graduates, the finish line is in sight!


Illustration (cut and resized): Ryan Minkoff (CC0)

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