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Cheating and plagiarism at university

What counts as cheating or plagiarism? What are the penalties and consequences for you and your university career?

Young girl preparing for university exams, writing coursework or essay

How and why do students cheat?

Cheating is a deliberate and dishonest act. In relation to university, this could mean copying someone else’s work, having someone write an essay for you or taking notes into an exam.

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as your own without their permission, either deliberately or accidentally.

The most common form of cheating is the use of essay mills. These companies allow students to pay someone to write their essay and then submit it as their own. Essay mills target stressed students who are overwhelmed with work by presenting cheating as an acceptable alternative to working hard. There are ongoing attempts by ministers to make these companies illegal.

Students who don’t revise enough, or leave their essay until the last minute, may think using an essay mill is easier than doing more work in a short space of time – extenuating circumstances can put students in a situation where cheating feels like their only option. Despite what essay mills want you to believe, cheating is never acceptable or worth the risk. 

Why is cheating a bad idea?

Essay mills are deceitful companies who lie and take advantage of students. By using these companies, you only encourage what they do.

If you're caught cheating, you may fail the assignment, an entire module or even the whole degree. Failing a year or being expelled due to cheating is a costly mistake to make – on top of the hundreds or thousands of pounds charged by essay mills to produce a single piece of work.

By cheating, you're missing out on the opportunity to push yourself and find out what you're capable of. If you cheat and aren't caught, you're lessening the achievements of your fellow students who have worked hard and honestly.

There is no need to cheat. If you're struggling, talk to someone. Universities have services to help students who are struggling with their workload. If you have extenuating circumstances you can apply to extend submission deadlines. 

Read university profiles to see what support services are available to students.

What is accidental plagiarism?

Cheating is not always deliberate, as students can unknowingly submit work that plagiarises the work of others. Unfortunately, claiming plagiarism in a university essay was unintentional does not protect you from being penalised for it.

There are ways you can avoid it:

  • Read your university’s guidelines on plagiarism – especially if you're unsure whether your work could be penalised
  • Reference as you write – each time you use someone else’s work you should make a note of who wrote/said it and where you found it. This way, when you come to fully referencing your essay it'll be much easier and you’ll be less likely to plagiarise
  • Consult a style guide – the style of referencing varies across subjects and individual lecturers will have their own preferences. Establish which one you need to use and have the style guide easily accessible while you’re referencing. This will make the whole process much quicker and make you less likely to leave out a reference by mistake
  • Universities use plagiarism checkers – they use software to check essays for plagiarism. If your marker suspects plagiarism, they're very likely to find it
  • Talk to your lecturer – they don’t want to penalise you for plagiarism, so they should be more than happy to ensure your work is not breaking any rules

Cheating and plagiarism, either deliberate or accidental, are both avoidable. With good time management, hard work and using the resources available to you, you should never find yourself in a situation where you feel the need to break the rules. If you do feel overwhelmed, do not take the easy way out. Use your experience as a lesson and try not to get into the same situation again.

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