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Students’ understanding, perceptions and experience of plagiarism : a case study of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg campus.

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Plagiarism is a complex and multi-dimensional concept sometimes lacking a universal definition. Universities are socially situated and as such should ensure that they construct their policies in a way that is representative of their students’ history and biography. The institutional policies must therefore be aligned with the country’s copyright laws and accommodate societal and students’ milieus. This study aims to examine students’ pre-university experiences, their socio-cultural and socio-economic background and how these impact on their understanding, perception and experiences of plagiarism. Qualitative research methods underpinned by interpretivist paradigms were utilised to provide insight into the social phenomena under study. In-depth semi-structured face-to-face interviews were employed as they are compatible with an explorative and descriptive research purpose. Data was collected from 23 students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg Campus in the College of the Humanities particularly in the School of Social Sciences. A key selection criterion was level/ year of study, and 12 first year and 11 postgraduate honours students participated. This enabled for comparisons in terms of academic practices and perception, understanding and experiences of plagiarism. Purposive and snowball sampling techniques were used to locate the sample, and as such the findings are not generalisable. The findings show the ways in which students experience, perceive and understand plagiarism are dependent on their academic, social and economic background, peer and adult (teacher/ lecturer) interactions and global, institutional or technological contexts. These produce diverse and varied understandings, perceptions, and attitudes towards plagiarism. While, some students heard about plagiarism at school, there were no in-depth discussions. It was only in their first year at university that most participants were introduced to this and grappled to understand referencing norms for written assignments. Postgraduate students showed a better understanding of what plagiarism is, how to address this and why is it an important academic norm. The findings suggest that academic institutions need to implement a range of cohesive and complimentary strategies to address plagiarism that may entail greater institutional visibility and persistent guidance and interaction between academic staff and students, particularly at undergraduate levels.


Master of Social Science in Sociology. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 2017.