What is Mine and What is Not? What the Similarity Report Tells You and Your Teacher

Certainly a better kind of cheating. (Photo by Sander Dalhuisen on Unsplash)

Here comes the most painful time to writing teachers — grading essays at the end of the semester.

Again, the ones who refuse to ask questions and have missed important cues and tips to tackle their topics would lose marks considerably.

One specific type of students who suffer more significant downgrading because they fail to transform what they have read into their own ideas in their essays. I tend not to consider this “patchwriting” or “plagiarism” in the first place until there are clear evidences.

Nor do I enjoy playing detective, but teachers are forensic linguists by nature: a copied text would “look” different from the way students usually write. We just can tell; teachers who are linguists in the first place may be tell you exactly what the differences are.

And now, we have anti-plagiarism software so that we don’t have to check every single paper, sentence by sentence. What does this kind of software tell us?

Similarity. That means how much a student’s paper is similar to the original sources. Apart from sources such as all articles available on the Internet, anti-plagiarism software can also cross-check papers your classmates previously submitted.

Many students feel anxious about what percentage shown in the similarity report will be counted as “plagiarism”. All I would say is:

The similarity rate is actually for teachers’ reference instead of an indicator for students to “nudge” the figures.

Here I break this statement down into a few specific explanations:

Quotations done properly don’t count as plagiarism.

The #1 worry students express is, “if I put sentences from the source that I think is important,” it seems I can’t get away from being accused of plagiarising?

The most straightforward answer to this is: when you use a proper citation style (e.g. using quotation marks, incorporating the quotes grammatically into your writing, etc.), direct quotes are not plagiarism.

However, I recommend students don’t “over-quote”. Block quotes should be use sparingly, especially in short essays (those within 3,000 words). Quotes should be within 5-10% of the word count of the whole essay.

This means, when the similarity rate is high (probably over 20%), I’d start reading the essay closely, and see whether the matches are quotations, headings or reference lists.

A cautious teacher would ask students to submit their cover pages and reference lists separately in order to keep the overlaps among students to a minimum.

The best approach would be paraphrasing or summarising sources, of course, so that you can show how well you have digested the expert contents and are able to organise them to corroborate your purposes in the essay (mainly for supporting your arguments and claims).

Phrases such as technical terms also don’t.

In the process of paraphrasing, there are phrases that need remain as is, e.g. technical terms, discipline-specific vocab, survey figures, common names, citations with particular reporting verbs, etc. These matches usually scatter across the essay, and the software may indicate that they come from various external sources.

This is perfectly fine; you and I both know you are not “copying” ideas but only sharing the terms and phrases everyone will use in the subject area.

You don’t need to “nudge” that number if you didn’t “copy”.

If the causes contributing to the high similarity rate are not the two I have mentioned above, you have to be careful. I do not question your integrity in the first place, but there are possibly three reasons you aren’t doing your essay right:

You have included too many details from a source and thought you’re only “citing” it.

For example, some expert sources would give stats and figures from a survey or an analysis. Did you simply transfer them directly to your paper? (Solution: summarise these findings, and then cite the source.)

You thought you have “paraphrased” the source.

Simply changing a few words with synonyms DO NOT count as paraphrasing. (Solution: in an earlier post I mentioned about paraphrasing through changing the grammar/ sentence structure. Do the same.)

You thought it was okay to reword another essay as a paraphrase strategy.

This is a curious case indeed. In a recent alleged plagiarism case, a student didn’t “copy” from expert sources s/he cited and referenced. S/he reflected that s/he used “some internet sources” because s/he was bad in English, while claiming that s/he did incorporate those sources into her understanding of the topic.

Interestingly, the similarity report showed that the overlapping contents were arguments and insights from other assignments out there. In other words, are the comments and recommendations still his/her own? This case will be for the assessment panel to decide if it’s a plagiarism case, and I think readers will have their judgement too.

But the main point is: one doesn’t “try to lower” the percentage for its own sake; in the first place, if one makes an effort in rephrasing ideas, cite and properly, and use one’s own critical mind, one shouldn’t be worried about the similarity rate.

I have always emphasised the following to my students: even though it is a writing course, I don’t care too much about minor grammatical mistakes if one shows originality and criticality, and observes academic “conventions”.

Bad grammar is not much of an issue compared with bad ideas or the lack of them. Patching ideas together as if they were one’s own is bound to be a bad product.

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