Writing with authority and avoiding plagiarism


The world is a noisy place, to be heard we have to speak with authority and be respected for our own opinions.

Worried about plagiarism? Use our handy guide here to learn more about it:


A degree is more than simply a box to contain a collection of facts, and yet students often mistake it for one. While gathering information is certainly part of any educational experience, it is only one part of the process of gaining a graduate level education. Understanding where to find relevant and reliable information and then being able to do something useful with it is all part of the graduate toolkit. If becoming a graduate were merely a matter of gathering interesting facts then you could have saved yourself the money and effort and simply Googled the information from the comfort of your bed.


Being a graduate identifies you as someone with a particular kind of training and a very particular set of skills - skills you will have acquired over your long academic journey. Being a graduate, in any subject, marks you out as:
  • An expert - someone with specialist knowledge and insight.
  • A person with skills - someone who is comfortable analysing information, evaluating its reliability and significance and communicating it effectively.
  • A person with credibility - someone whose point of view can be respected as being based on relevant research and understanding.
  • A person to be taken seriously - someone who it is difficult to marginalise, dismiss or ignore.

In other words, a person with authority.

As a result of this a graduate is expected to have learned how to:

  • Ask the right questions.
  • Gather the most appropriate data.
  • Select and make use of reliable data.
  • Structure a thoughtful argument.
  • Express themselves clearly and with confidence.

If for a moment an employer, for example, suspects that you do not possess these core graduate attributes then they will begin to lose confidence in your abilities and your credibility will become compromised. A lawyer who loses all their cases or a businessperson who is constantly bankrupt will soon gain a reputation for being unreliable and unprofessional and will quickly find it difficult to attract new clients as word spreads. Most jobs today have a probationary period where a new employee's skills and abilities are put to the test before a permanent position is offered; during this time it is very difficult to hide any weaknesses in one's professional skill set. It is only possible to bluff for so long.

A large part of a university education is designed to equip you with the abilities you will need to operate successfully in your chosen profession. For this reason it is vital that you don't try and sidestep or avoid any of your graduate training. You need to think carefully about the skills as well as the knowledge you are acquiring through all of the course activities you are set. For instance:

  • Why should I take notes? - to help you keep an accurate record of mission critical information.
  • Why do I need to show up to lectures? - to help train you in time management and data gathering skills.
  • Why should I go to seminars? - to practice sharing your opinion with others in a mature way.
  • Why should I read and conduct research? - to enhance your ability to gather and evaluate relevant information.
  • Why should I bother referencing my work? - to demonstrate that your opinion is based on valid evidence and not simply opinion or taste.
  • Why should I complete assignments? - to train yourself to be able to get information out of the private space in your head and into the public space where its value can be recognised.

Building up authority and credibility can take a long time, respect has to be earned and your university qualification will go a long way towards earning you that respect. However, while gaining respect and credibility may take time to achieve, they can be lost very quickly indeed. One of the issues that confronts students and universities alike is the issue of plagiarism, the deliberate or accidental instance of a student trying to take a short-cut through developing these skills by taking somebody else's material and presenting it as if it is their own.

For the most part students who end up plagiarising do so out of panic or confusion. Students who are genuinely worried about plagiarism are the ones least likely to fall into its trap.

So, what is plagiarism? It could be defined in this way:

Using other peoples work as your own, either published in print or on the Internet, without referencing, is plagiarism.

The government, universities, the Students Union and employers take a very hardline on plagiarism and any organisation that encourages or supports it.

Here are a few key things to watch out for.

  • Make sure all the words in your written work are your own - your tutors are far more interested in your own, possibly stumbling, words than the words of some expert they could read for themselves. Read the experts, do the research then try your best to explain what you have found in your own words.
  • Always reference your sources - the best way to avoid any suggestion of plagiarism is to clearly show your tutor exactly where all of your information has come from. Your tutors are not just interested in the information you have discovered, they want to see what you read to find it. Leave a research 'paper trail' using the Harvard Referencing system, or your department's own version of this, to show exactly which books, articles and digital sources you have used to come to your opinions.
  • If you do use a quote (an exact word for word copy of something you have read) make sure to place it between quotation marks like this: "This is a quote that shows the reader that these are not my words but the exact words of some-other writer". Some tutors prefer longer quotations to be indented.

If you are still concerned that you might have fallen into the plagiarism trap run your work through Turnitin and/or show it to your tutor.

Some Forms of Plagiarism:

Word for word - copying someone's work exactly without referencing it or using quotation marks.

Cutting and pasting from the net - students often fall into this trap when they run out of time for an essay and panic.

Weak paraphrasing - putting something you have read into your own words is generally considered a good thing but when all this amounts to is the changing of a few words then it is still seen as plagiarism. Rewrite the entire source from scratch, don't just edit the original text - and remember, you still need to refer to your source when you are paraphrasing.

Collusion - working with others is a valuable academic activity and is generally seen as a good thing. However, make sure that you don't end up using the work of other students and presenting it as your own. Even in joint projects it is important to indicate clearly who has done what.

Using essay writing services - This is sometimes referred to as 'contract cheating'. it should go without saying that getting any one person or organisation to write an essay for you is not only academically dishonest but entirely compromises your credibility. All cases of this sort of plagiarism are considered to violate university regulations and are likely to be dealt with harshly.

Final Comments

Plagiarism is taken very seriously by every university for a number of reasons. 

  • For one, it undermines your authority and ultimately weakens your ability to survive successfully in your career of choice.
  • Secondly, and equally importantly, it impacts on the university's reputation.

Imagine the following scenario:

  • You copy work rather than speaking with your own voice and developing your graduate skills.
  • You get away with it and are awarded your degree.
  • You get a job that requires a graduate skill-set.
  • You do badly because you lack the skills your employer expects of a graduate.

What will be the employers reaction?

How will the university's reputation be affected?

What will your degree be worth?

How will the university's reputation impact on its recruitment and the value of its graduates?

It is hardly necessary to give answers to these questions here, anyone with a developing graduate skill set should be able to see clearly the worrying picture this paints and why universities the world over react so strongly to plagiarism.

For further information:

What is plagiarism?

More useful information on plagiarism can be found on the university's iProgress site:

Avoiding plagiarism

University regulations

Universities cracking down on cheats!

New penalties for plagiarism?