Sessional Teaching Program: Resources: Research Writing

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Sessional Teaching Program: Resources: Research Writing

Research - Writing:

Learning a writing skill and thereby avoiding plagiarism.

There is a lot of talk about plagiarism and how to avoid it1. It has often been identified as a complex issue, especially now, in the age of the internet. It can be deliberate or unintentional, and universities have been tightening up their policies to assist them in ‘detecting, deterring and dealing with’ its occurrence (Carroll, 2002, O’Regan 2006).
My suggestion is that a new approach to helping students to avoid something, ie plagiarism, would be to re-focus them on something they can achieve, that is, academic writing (McGowan, 2008; McGowan & O’Regan, 2008). There may be a stronger incentive in the achievement a new skill than in the fear of falling into the trap of committing an offence!
The question is, what is academic writing, and how is it different from other writing? The requirements for an academic essay or other assignment is different from the writing students encounter, for example, in a blog, or a magazine, a newspaper, or a novel or a TV documentary. We may ask, why don’t we find any referencing in these items, when citation and referencing are considered to be essential at University? The answer lies in the basic purpose of the particular type of writing (or genre). Writing tasks at University are designed to help students learn. Their purpose is not only to gain new knowledge, but importantly, also to learn how to gain knowledge.
By doing assignments, students learn how to research a field of knowledge that is new to them, and how to write up the results of their researches.
In some areas research is mainly done by experimentation or investigations involving data collection by the use of surveys or other instruments. However, the step before that, the literature review, is also an aspect of their research. The researcher needs to know what has already been researched, theorised and written about in the field, in order to demonstrate how their own ideas fit in with what has gone before, to critique some aspects of their readings, and to build on, and form new ideas from others.
It would help students to understand the genre of research writing by discussing with them that the assignments they have to write at university are an early step in the research process. By doing their assignments, they have the opportunity of practising, and therefore learning, to write like a researcher.
In giving a student an assignment question or topic, lecturers want them to check the existing literature for information, including other writers’ research results or views on the subject. Students are then expected to synthesise this information and critically analyse the views of other writers in order to form their own opinions. However, this is where students need some guidance, because writing up their opinions in a research context is very different from opinions in everyday situation. What makes research writing important for certain contexts is that other people can check its reliability by retracing the information through which the writer has come to a particular view.
This, then, is the primary purpose of giving complete references in academic writing. It is to make it possible for the reader to check the original sources if need be, and to test the credibility of the specific report. In a sense, the writing up of the literature-based component of research projects is similar to the write-up of the experiment that might follow. The scientific method requires that the researcher performing an experiment takes careful notes of every step and includes this information in the report which then enables another researcher to follow the same steps and try to replicate the results. Similarly, in reading a writer’s views that are based on evidence that is easily checked (by good quotations and references) the reader can trace it and replicate the writer’s train of thought, and check its credibility.
While academic assignments are generally not expected to be published, students would benefit from understanding that their efforts are, in fact, designed to give them practice on the way towards becoming a good researchers of new information. They are learning to become persons who can search out relevant information, analyse, evaluate and synthesise it in a meaningful way for a specific purpose, and communicate the results in writing in a way that provides plenty of evidence for the reader.
To help with the development of their written communication skills, students also need to gain an awareness that there is a specific language that characterises research writing. In particular, students can be shown how to analyse the language of their assignment readings to find recurring phrases and sentence structures that are ‘common language’ and may be, in fact should be, re-used. For example there are standard word sequences for introducing a quotation (According to XX, ‘the current…’ etc), for taking one’s critical distance (YY alleges that ‘the current…’ etc) or for demonstrating agreement (As ZZ points out, ‘the current…’ etc). By carefully reading good models of academic writing, students can help themselves increase the stock of these expressions and gradually align their writing style to one that is appropriate for writing as a researcher.
The skills of a researcher are skills and attributes that University of Adelaide graduates are expected to have, and they are some of the skills that employers are looking for in graduates from a research-intensive university like the University of Adelaide. In this sense, the undergraduate years could be regarded as a period of research training.
So where does plagiarism come into the picture? When a student understands the ultimate purpose of the requirement to reference, accidental plagiarism eventually becomes redundant. If it then becomes a matter of improving the referencing skills to the point of making one’s views and the sources which led to them, as clear as possible, and if good efforts in this regard are explicitly rewarded against a system of criteria, students will begin to practise their research-writing by giving excellent quotes and easy to follow references. When this is in its developing stage the errors would not be seen as plagiarism, but as needing further guidance by the teacher and further work by the student.
A person who inserts copied or downloaded chunks from other sources, without giving an indication of the source, may be doing this for a variety of reasons, including taking a short cut, but also they have not understood the reasons for referencing in research writing, or they have not mastered the skill of re-using the appropriate ‘common language’ of the genre. Lecturers and other assessors can help students to understand the process of research writing by including some criteria related to using resources, critiquing and using them in the construction of their own point of view, and giving a clear reference, to allow the reader to check the writer’s credibility.
One such list of criteria, expanded into a rubric, is shown in the Assessment Module. This can serve as an initial guide to students. It can also become an instant feedback sheet to alert the students exactly what they still need to work on to become effective research writers. An example of using the boxes to give feedback to a student with some problems in referencing is shown below in the Appendix.
Deliberate plagiarism is another matter. A person who takes another person’s assignment and passes it off as their own, is not only dishonest but quite unethical, and such behaviour will attract a severe penalty in accordance with the plagiarism and cheating policies. However, as part of their research training, students need to come to understand that within a research article one of the essential criteria is that failure to give appropriate attribution will also be considered as ‘passing off’ the work of others as their own.

References and further reading

Carroll, J. (2002). A handbook for deterring plagiarism in higher education. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development: Oxford Brookes University. Barr Smith Library 378.195 C319h

Hunt, R. (2002). Four Reasons to be happy about internet plagiarism. Teaching Perspectives (St. Thomas University). Viewed 12/8/07,
McGowan, U. (2000) Can the writing of theses and research papers be taught generically? Supporting self-help in postgraduates. Making Ends meet. Quality in Postgraduate Research conference. Adelaide. April 13 & 14. Viewed 26/9/07,
McGowan, U. (2005a). Plagiarism detection and prevention. Are we putting the cart before the horse?. In A. Brew & C. Asmar (Eds.), Higher Education in a Changing World. Proceedings of the HERDSA Conference. Sydney. Viewed 25/7/07,
McGowan, U (2005b). Does educational integrity mean teaching students NOT to ‘use their own words’? International Journal for Educational Integrity,
1 (1). Viewed 7/8/07,
McGowan, U. (2008) International Students: A conceptual framework for dealing with unintentional plagiarism. In: Tim S. Roberts (ed.) Student Plagiarism in an Online World: Problems and Solutions. Information Science Reference, Hershey, New York, pp. 92-107
Barr Smith Library 378.195 R647s, also available as an e-resource.
McGowan, U. & O’Regan, K. (2008) Avoiding plagiarism: Achieving academic writing. The University of Adelaide. Viewed 23/07/2013,

An audio narrated resource for students and staff.

O’Regan, K. (2006). Policing - or, at least, Policying - Plagiarism at one Australian University. Journal for University Teaching and Learning Practice, 3 (2), 1-10. Viewed 20/7/07,


Assessment Rubric used as feedback sheet:

Aspects of performance
(or criteria)



Needs improvement

1. Addresses topic

Topic is explicitly addressed and developed

Topic is implicit – not clearly addressed

Information provided is irrelevant to the topic

2. Critiques sources

Quotations from readings are critically evaluated

Some readings are used uncritically (taken at face value)

Most readings are used uncritically

3. Provides a personal point of view (argument)

Writer’s view is clear; argument well developed

Writer’s view is not always clear; some development of argument

Writer relies on quotations to ‘speak for themselves’; no personal voice

4. Uses appropriate referencing conventions

References used as prescribed in course guide

A mixture of conventions used

References inadequate and/or missing altogether

Ursula McGowan, September 2008

© The University of Adelaide

1 Parts of this text have been used in the narrated powerpoint presentation: McGowan & O’Regan 2008)


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