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Towards Consistency and Transparency in Academic Integrity

Edited By Salim Razı, Irene Glendinning and Tomáš Foltýnek

This book is an outcome of the 4th International Conference «Plagiarism across Europe and Beyond» organized by Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Mendel University in Brno, and the European Network for Academic Integrity. The conference is co-funded by the Erasmus+ Strategic Partnerships Programme of the European Union. It aims to be a forum for sharing best practices and experiences by addressing issues of academic integrity from a wide-scope global perspective. With regards to the crucial role of ethics and honesty in academic work, universities are in need of more effective policies against infringements of academic standards. The papers in this book therefore aim to contribute to the standardization of consistent and transparent approaches to issues of academic integrity from several perspectives.

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Plagiarism in the South African Higher Education System: Discarding a Common-Sense Understanding (Amanda Martha Matee Mphahlele / Sioux McKenna)

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Amanda Martha Matee Mphahlele1 & Sioux McKenna2

University of Johannesburg, South Africa & Rhodes University, South Africa

Plagiarism in the South African Higher Education System: Discarding a Common-Sense Understanding

Abstract: Many universities around the world grapple with ways to manage plagiarism successfully. The approach taken depends on the understanding of plagiarism within institutions. This emerges from a study on the conceptualisations of and responses to plagiarism in the South African Higher Education system. Data was collected from 25 South African public universities primarily in the form of what are known as ‘plagiarism policies’ and other related documents, supplemented by interviews with plagiarism committee members. Data suggest that the approach to plagiarism signifies a common-sense understanding of teaching and learning, and in particular, the acquisition of disciplinary writing practices. These understandings are centred on personal experiences and dominant discourses rather than on theoretically interrogated positions.

Keywords: academic integrity, academic misconduct, common-sense, plagiarism, teaching and learning


Global changes including internationalisation, massification, and the rise of the ‘knowledge economy’, have had an enormous impact on higher education (Barnett, 2005; Lee, 2016). These shifts have brought about a highly diversified staff and student body and assumptions about shared literacy practices have been challenged (Angélil-Carter, 2000). Alongside these pressures has emerged a growing concern with incidents of plagiarism (Chauhan, 2018). While plagiarism is indeed a real problem that threatens the credibility of our universities and the knowledge produced within them (Kharat, Chavan, Jadhav, & Rakibe, 2013), there are concerns that our conception of plagiarism is often un-theorised and not particularly helpful (Elander, 2015). ← 31 | 32 →

This article traces the relationship between common-sense understandings of plagiarism within teaching and learning. It argues that these un-theorised common-sense understandings are mutually sustaining in ways that fail to address the core concern about appropriate academic citation specifically and academic integrity more generally.

‘Common-sense’ here is understood as an “uncritical and largely unconscious way of perceiving and understanding the world that has become common in any given epoch” (Gramsci 1971, p. 322). While Gramsci was primarily concerned with the construction of broad social systems through a set of unquestioned assumptions, he points out that these manifest in multiple contexts, including in education. Common-sense approaches in education are understood to sustain the idea that knowledge is natural and obvious rather than cultural and political (Boughey & McKenna, 2016). In this regard, common sense approaches to teaching and learning focus on instrumental acquisition of the canon, which is largely seen to be beyond critique. Gooding-Brown (2000, p. 36) calls for a disruption of such ideas through “a critical dismantling of the concept of structures” which inform social and cultural practices. Disruption brings “a sense of uncovering and dismantling, in order to question the structures and systems through which people are constructed” (Belluigi, 2012, p. 122).

Common-sense beliefs about language are hugely powerful in academia. There is a dominant belief that language is merely a conduit for meaning (Christie, 1993) and as far back as 1916, Dewey was raising the issue that language is understood as if it is unrelated to the norms of the discipline (Dewey, 1916). In such understandings, language is seen to be a unitary phenomenon centred around proficiency and the perfection of grammar. This common-sense understanding of language fails to create a link between the formal literacies of educational institutions and the power structures within institutions (McKenna, 2004).

In contrast to this, a large body of research shows that teaching and learning are political, and that the social and cultural writing practices in academia are complex. In contrast to an autonomous understanding of texts as separate from their contexts, an ideological understanding perceives literacies as a set of social practices, which cannot be made sense of separately from the people who use them (Street, 1996). Sutherland-Smith calls for a transformational approach to teaching that foregrounds how the student comes to construct knowledge within the discipline. Language here is understood to be political and social, and its use in different disciplines is seen to emerge from the values and norms of that field (Angelil-Carter, 2000; Sutherland–Smith, 2008). Such social understandings of teaching and learning entail a move away from common-sense generic skills approaches and understand the significance of inducting students into the particular practices of academia. ← 32 | 33 →

The concept of academic literacies is defined as the “academic writing conventions and practices with which students are expected to engage” (Lillis & Scott, 2007, p. 14). It not only refers to literacies within different subjects and disciplines but incorporates genres and conventions of the academic discourse as a whole. It also includes issues of identity, institutional relationships and power, authority and the diverse writing practices students bring into academia (Lea & Street, 1998, 2006).

These social understandings of academic literacy have implications both for how teaching and learning are understood and how the issue of plagiarism is engaged with in the curriculum. Referencing is understood as entailing a host of issues pertaining to identity and how knowledge is produced, rather than simply the acquisition of technical referencing skills (Hendricks & Quinn, 2000). If the very notion of referencing is understood as a means of knowledge production and as entwined with developing a voice, then the understanding of and approaches to plagiarism will be very different.

The aim of the study reported on here is to interrogate the understandings being brought to bear on the concept of plagiarism across the higher education sector of South Africa.


Twenty-six public universities in South Africa formed the population of this study, but only 25 were sampled and their data is included in this paper. One newly-established university was excluded because no information related to plagiarism could be located on its website or obtained from the university itself. The primary data used in this study were institutional policies related to incidents of plagiarism (see Table 1), and supplemental data in the form of interviews with seven participants from six universities, who were numbered Participant 1 to 7. These participants were members of committees managing plagiarism issues in universities. The universities are numbered ‘University 1 … 25’.

Table 1: Different Policies Used in Universities

Policy NumberPolicy Name
Policy 1Plagiarism policies
Policy 2Teaching and learning policies
Policy 3Student assessment policies
Policy 4Research/Higher degree policies
Policy 5Student manuals on plagiarism and/referencing ← 33 | 34 →

Ethical clearance was obtained from the relevant institutions, and interviews were conducted with the consent of participants. The participants represented the three institutional types found in the public higher education sector in South Africa: traditional universities, comprehensive universities, and universities of technology. Some interviews were conducted face-to face while others were done via Skype, and all were recorded with the permission of participants.

This study has Critical Realism as its underpinning whereby events and experiences in the world are understood to be partial and relative, requiring the researcher to look beyond, using methods such as abduction and retroduction to identify the causal mechanisms from which the events and experiences emerge (Bhaskar, 1998). Data were thus analysed using the notion of depth ontology (Bhaskar, 1998) where causal mechanisms were identified through methods such as abduction and retroduction (Danermark, Ekström, Jakobsen, & Karlsson, 2002). The idea of causal mechanisms requires an understanding that what we come to know of the world is not all that there is. In particular, Archer’s social realism (1995) was useful in identifying the structural, cultural and agential mechanisms at play. While agents (students, academics, members of disciplinary committees, and so on) have the ability to act, they are constrained or enabled by structures (the university, plagiarism policy, assessment requirements, etc.) and cultures (beliefs, ideologies and discourses related to students, assessment, plagiarism and suchlike). Using Archer’s notions of structural, cultural and agential mechanisms allowed us to make sense of how the particular conceptions of and responses to plagiarism found in the data emerged. In this paper, the focus is on the relationship between notions of plagiarism in the data and the conceptions of teaching.

Results and Discussion

Sutherland-Smith (2008) argues that plagiarism arises along a spectrum from intentional to unintentional. It is important, she argues, that attempts to raise awareness about plagiarism and respond to it take this into account. While researchers of plagiarism agree that it is a pernicious problem that needs to be rigorously attended to (Bretag, 2016), they also agree that not all incidents of plagiarism can be characterised as a moral sin warranting punitive responses (Bretag et al., 2011). Novice writers often plagiarise because they are not yet aware of disciplinary norms (Angelil-Carter, 2000). The research reported here, however, found limited evidence of an understanding of unintentional plagiarism, with its various implications for teaching and learning.

Almost all references to plagiarism in the policies analysed indicated an understanding that it was always intentional and required clear punishment. While ← 34 | 35 → there was some reference to educational rather than punitive responses to plagiarism, these generally took the form of awareness raising and warnings to students, rather than developmental interventions. There was ample reference to the availability of warnings in regards to plagiarism. Documents about plagiarism are publicised on departments’ websites and study guides and other public areas such as in the library or through pamphlets (Policy 1, University 22). There was a recommendation by some universities that “reference to plagiarism and the consequences of plagiarism appear on all relevant assessment criteria/rubrics/marking guides” (Policy 1, University 7).

The Student Handbook and the General Rules Book should in future include general information about the nature of plagiarism and about the University’s policy with respect to plagiarism and should indicate that plagiarism is considered a serious offence (Policy 1, University 15).

All module outlines must carry a reminder clause on plagiarism, cheating, academic dishonesty or misconduct and copyright protection. (Policy 1, University 3)

A pop-up message with links to the [university] webpage on plagiarism that warns against plagiarism appear whenever a student visits the [university] website. An online tutorial including guidelines on plagiarism in [university] webpage. Universities 10 & 19: identical wording. (Some universities have similarly-worded policies, whilst others have chunks of text copied from each other without attribution.)

In interviews, there was reference to such measures being educational in nature but in essence, all these measures approach plagiarism from the common-sense perspective; that it is always an intentional act perpetrated by not implementing technical referencing rules. Students are left to infer what might be required in order to make claims in academia based on prior research. When students are left to figure out on their own how to deal with learning issues related to academic writing, they are likely to approach it using their own experiences and theories due to lack of sufficient guidance or what Vosniadou (2007) calls instruction-induced conceptual knowledge. Acquiring the knowledge production processes of academia normally takes many years (Angelil-Carter, 2000). Policies, study guides, flyers and other forms of communication media alone may not be enough to help students sufficiently, especially as they warn against plagiarizing without engaging with why and when we reference. These initiatives may help to address technical issues related to writing, but they neglect the students’ need to acquire academic norms of writing to produce knowledge. However, it was evident from our research that universities assume that this kind of exposure is adequate, and therefore claims of ignorance about the issue of plagiarism are not accepted. Such references cautioning against plagiarism are then used to build a case against those ← 35 | 36 → students caught in acts of plagiarism. It is assumed that the information alone should prevent unintentional plagiarism, making any incidents of plagiarism intentional, and thereby requiring punitive responses.

Thirteen of the universities in this study require that students sign a declaration form at the beginning of the year indicating that they have now been informed what plagiarism is and that it will not be tolerated. In many of the universities there was also the requirement that all assessments had to be accompanied by a statement that the work is the student’s own, though it was not clear whether this was consistently applied across departments.

There was some mention in documents from eighteen of the twenty-five universities in the study that the institution offers some form of training related to plagiarism, which thus goes a step beyond simple awareness-raising and cautioning about plagiarism. However, in six of the seven interviews it was clear that there was a common-sense understanding of referencing as a generic technical skill, rather than a discipline-specific social practice emerging from knowledge-making norms.

I would copy bits of their work onto a PowerPoint display and as a class, I would say, “Okay, where’s the incorrect referencing here? Where is the incorrect punctuation?” So, the students have absolutely no excuse because I show them exactly what plagiarism is (Participant 3).

In essence, many of the interventions served to equip students with some technical procedural skills. It is necessary that students understand and acquire referencing, summarizing and paraphrasing skills, but if they miss the relationship between these technical concepts and the norms of knowledge construction, they are likely to continue engaging in plagiarism. This is particularly the case because lack of authorial identity in itself is regarded as another form of plagiarism (Robert, 2009). Developing students’ sense of authorial identity alongside teaching the students academic writing practices is considered to be the key to reducing plagiarism (Elander, 2015; Elander, Pittam, Lusher, Fox, & Payne, 2010; Owens & White, 2013). Until students are in a position to understand the ways in which prior texts are used in their discipline – from mapping a field, to positioning their contribution, to substantiating their writing, and so on – they will be unlikely to successfully implement the technical requirements of a referencing style (Boughey, 2014). Such processes are acquired over time and entail regular opportunities for practice and feedback (Angelil-Carter, 2000).

Unfortunately, where there were examples of ‘training’ regarding plagiarism, this was offered over a very short period (often a single seminar) and it was undertaken in a generic form externally from the curriculum and the discipline in which students would need to engage with referencing practices. ← 36 | 37 →

… We have an Orientation week at the beginning of the year. During this, we talk about the Plagiarism Policy (Participant 5).

…Creation of awareness of the intolerability of plagiarism at [university] during orientation and induction of new students and staff (Policy 1, University 10 & 19: identical wording).

The notion of plagiarism training as a short exposure to generic referencing skills shows a lack of understanding of how students achieve access to the practices of the discipline. Literacy is context specific, it cannot be “considered a unitary skill that can be transferred with ease from context to context” (Lea, 2017, p. 147). Furthermore, writing in the discipline, as with any other academic practice, requires an extensive period of induction, practice, and mentoring to develop the practices (Angelil-Carter, 2000). Thus, where training interventions are provided once and to first year students only, it might not be enough. Furthermore, because students enter and exit the university at various levels, it cannot be taken for granted that such students will have received the equivalent training from their previous institutions.

In most universities, such training courses are developed and taught by the support units within universities outside of formal academic programs.

…all first-year students go through information literacy training that includes plagiarism, referencing and referencing techniques, and copyright, offered by [this university’s Library Information Services] staff (Policy 1, Universities 10 and 19: identical wording).

The Centre for Teaching and Learning can assist you with training where required. The University’s Library and Information Service also provides information literacy sessions that address plagiarism (Policy 1, University 5).

The plagiarism module should ideally be presented by experts from Legal Services and/or the Directorate of Teaching and Learning with Technology. Course content should include the principles, identification, avoidance and consequences of plagiarism, as well as training in plagiarism-detection software (e.g. Turnitin). (Policy 1, University 6)

Most of the people offering the training are thus not engaged in academic knowledge-making themselves. This was commented on by one of the participants in relation to the proliferation of courses that have come to be known as ‘Academic Literacy courses’, focused on generic skills such as information literacy, time management and plagiarism:

Academic Literacy Courses [are perceived to be] the easiest thing to do in the world and I believe that academics and universities shirk their responsibilities by putting those courses in. It’s a quick fix. It doesn’t work but look across the country, it’s everywhere. And people teaching those courses plagiarise… please, they plagiarise me. I review the journal articles, I’ve been plagiarised, and I think, ‘Oh my goodness, and this person is setting themselves up as the expert on Academic Literacy?’ (Participant 6) ← 37 | 38 →

A study in South Africa that looked at academic staff development initiatives in eight universities revealed that academics are rarely inducted into “knowledge of the field of higher education, in order to enable them to design courses and pedagogical processes that will provide epistemological access for a diverse student body” (CHE, 2017, p. 83). The study suggested that there is a need for collaboration between academics and those offering various staff and student development interventions. Failing which, such initiatives, like so many add-on generic teaching and learning initiatives, may provide evidence that institutions are addressing the problem while, in fact, they are unlikely to have any effect (Quinn, 2012).

It would seem that three universities copied significant portions of their plagiarism policy text from a traditional university that holds a reputation as a research-intensive institution, and two other universities had policies with almost identical text. In other cases, huge chunks of text had been taken verbatim without proper attribution. That most of this policy plagiarism is found within the document known as the ‘Plagiarism Policy’ is not without its humour, but it does suggest that the vehemence with which plagiarism is referred to in both documentation and interviews is not being met with a reduction in plagiarism itself. References to plagiarism by staff were found in various documents:

…the need to ensure that staff do not plagiarise others’ work in handouts, learner guides, etc. that are disseminated to students (Policy 1, University 2).

All staff members, lecturers and postgraduate supervisors have a moral obligation and professional responsibility to act as role models of scholarly conduct by avoiding plagiarism in their own work … (Policy 1, University 6).

Academic staff should set an example and be role models for students in terms of academic integrity by, for example, demonstrating appropriate referencing… (Policy 1, University 23).

While there are good arguments for universities to share wording in strong policies, there is an expectation that attribution would be given. Furthermore, if plagiarism is understood to occur along a continuum and its prevention understood to require extended educational approaches, then the specific institutional type, programmes and context would surely require an individualised policy to be developed. The management of plagiarism and the induction into academic literacies cannot be seen as a generic activity which disregards the knowledge structures, “disciplinary thinking” (Rowland, 2002, p. 62), and other aspects of the institutional context.

Many of the policies had not been reviewed or revised for a significant period of time. University 4 last reviewed its policy in 2008, while University 3’s policy was last reviewed in 2011. Some policies were developed before the institutional ← 38 | 39 → mergers that occurred in 2005 and were never revisited (Policy 1, University 11), despite such mergers often resulting in new institutional types and names. One indicated in their Teaching and Learning policy: “Policy on Academic Integrity - to be drafted” (Policy 2, University 2).


Critical Realism allows us to understand that events and experiences emerge from the interplay of causal mechanisms. While this is not a simple causal relationship, it is important for a researcher to move beyond the description of the events and experiences to begin to tentatively identify mechanisms.

By analysing various documents and interviews across 25 South African universities, it was found that plagiarism was often understood as an intentional act rather than existing along a spectrum of plagiarism events some of which might be unintentional. Furthermore, referencing was understood to be a technical writing skill rather than emerging from the knowledge production norms of the specific discipline. This understanding means that plagiarism was understood as the lack of application of technical referencing requirements. The study found that most of the universities understood their educational role as being awareness-raising about plagiarism and that such awareness raising was generally offered in a generic fashion that failed to take the knowledge-making norms into account. Furthermore, the awareness took the form of a one-off initiative outside the curriculum.

The mechanism whereby this approach to reducing plagiarism emerged is at least in part due to the understanding of teaching and learning, including the development of academic writing practices, as neutral and a-cultural. A social understanding of teaching and learning would, we have argued, lead to more engaging activities or (better ‘experiences’ and ‘events’, in critical realist terms) for novice writers. These are activities that provide opportunities to acquire the knowledge-making norms of the discipline, including coming to terms with its relationship to prior knowledge in the form of referencing.


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1 Lecturer, Department of Business Management,

2 Director, Centre for Postgraduate Studies,