"I Didn't Know the Rules!"

Photo by Claudio Calligaris

A TA is grading lab reports for a research supervisor and notes that much of the background material (methodology, instruments used, etc.) in one report is taken directly from a website. It turns out that you didn’t know that Web material of this type had to be referenced. You assume that this is not plagiarism since it was unintentional, and expect to receive a warning only. Are you correct in this assumption?



Why is this an issue?

Obtaining information from published sources is desirable and even inevitable, but it is important to know how and when to cite sources. Referencing your sources allows interested readers to look them up and learn from them, just as you have. Taking direct text passages from secondary sources that explain or comment on methods, concepts and ideas and presenting them as your own is a serious offence and considered plagiarism.

An interview with the disciplinary officer will be required. See the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures in the Handbook on Student Rights and Responsibilities for more details.

How can it be avoided?

Students need to learn how to use available materials effectively and how to reference properly, as it is not only ethical but required academically. If a student has not been referencing outside sources, the instance will be documented and brought to the instructor’s attention for forwarding to the disciplinary officer.

Quick Fact

Everyone knows that the instructor of a particular course recycles exam questions. Students have collected old exams to study from. Is it an academic offence to possess these old exam?

If questions from a previous exam are available on the exam archive website, or were returned to previous students by the instructor, they are considered to be publically available in a general sense. If the exam questions were obtained in another way - taken from the exam room without permission, for example - or if the exam was reconstructed without the instructor's consent, there may be a problem. When in doubt, ask the instructor for clarification.

Related Information

"It suxs that you can write an amazing A+ essay, however forget to reference and fail."
- Student comment on the consequences of unintentional plagiarism. de Lambert, K., Ellen, N., & Taylor, L. (2006). Chalkface challenges: A study of academic dishonesty amongst students in New Zealand tertiary institutions. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31, 485-503. doi:10.1080/02602930600679415
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