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I am an EU student studying for my MBA in Germany. I have been a top student throughout the year. However, my thesis (24% supposedly plagiarized text) and the last two assignments (55% and 56%) have resulted in plagiarism. The plagiarism has happened mainly because of self-plagiarism in my thesis, not citing common knowledge while being identically used, not citing page numbers, and not properly paraphrasing.

I have cited everything, but the writing and paraphrasing have not been efficient, especially with the last two minor assignments. I did not do it on purpose, and it was all an unintentional mistake because of my own lack of knowledge of academic writing and lack of guidance from my professors.

However, the university has given me two weeks to write an official statement, and a committee will decide on my temporary or permanent exclusion from the program. The permanent exclusion seems disproportionate punishment, and I want to get my statement right and avoid being excluded.

Can anyone help me with tips on how I can approach my statement to improve my chances? I appreciate any opinions or previous experiences.

More details:

  • I had financial pressure, so I started working full time while taking classes, finishing my thesis, and delivering three last assignments. I was under a lot of mental pressure, working day and night from April till the end of June. My goal became to deliver something that can be good enough to pass.
  • The percentages refer to identical matches (or very little paraphrasing) in two main categories of self-plagiarism (my own prevision publication) and common knowledge, which I did not cite or paraphrase. Again, I cited everything, but I did too little paraphrasing and was not acceptable by the examiner.
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    The question is a bit confusing. Proper citation is an absolute defense against plagiarism; one cannot plagiarize something that they properly attribute to others. You state that you "have cited everything", but I hardly see how that could be true if they're considering expelling you for plagiarism. It's not even clear if you think you've committed plagiarism or not - the argument seems to be both "I didn't do it" and "it was a mistake". Aug 19 at 18:16
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    Some additional info has been edited into the post. Various answers, advices, and explanations of what plagiarism is have been moved to chat. Please use the chat for all other anecdotes and discussion; we cannot move comments to chat more than once.
    – cag51
    Aug 20 at 3:09
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    Re "common knowledge": Can you elaborate a little bit in your question? E.g, where did it come from (presumably wholesale copy-pasted)? What was the extend (part of a sentence? Entire sentences? Entire paragraphs?) Aug 20 at 19:35
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    @Paul No sane institute will expel a student based purely on the outcome of an automated plagiarism detector. Of course some faculty member will have a look when the detector indicates that the text is largely plagiarized.
    – Servaes
    Aug 21 at 11:02
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You probably deserve to be expelled.

Normally, my focus here would belong in the form of comments to improve faulty premises in the question; but in this case the OP is so entirely riddled with misapprehensions that a larger space is needed. There is so much to unpack that's wrong with the present question. I deal with cheating a lot at my institution, and I think they've ticked off all of the top-5-frequently-seen-excuses list.

Almost everything in the OP's question doesn't make sense. Some highlights:

  • "My thesis (24%) and the last two assignments (55% and 56%) have resulted in plagiarism" -- so you've committed plagiarism again, and again, and again, repeatedly, without correcting course.

  • "not citing common knowledge while being identically used" -- if it's common knowledge, then it doesn't need citing; what you mean by "identically used" is that you copy-pasted (plagiarized) someone else's writing.

  • "not citing page numbers" -- this is not plagiarism.

  • "it was all an unintentional mistake because of my own lack of knowledge of academic writing and lack of guidance from my professors" -- totally unacceptable excuse for someone at the Master's level; at this point it's your responsibility to learn the acceptable practices, and frankly it's unbelievable you could get to this point without having heard them.

  • "I had financial pressure, so I started working full time while taking classes... I was under a lot of mental pressure... [etc.]" -- totally irrelevant issue; you've either committed academic malfeasance or you haven't, and trying to distract from that issue has a bad smell to it.

  • "Can anyone help me with tips on how I can approach my statement to improve my chances?" -- how likely are you to copy-paste something someone writes here to produce your statement?

But as someone who regularly deals with these issues, the single biggest red-flag is the following theme:

  • "not properly paraphrasing"
  • "the writing and paraphrasing have not been efficient"
  • "I did too little paraphrasing"

What does this focus on "I did too little paraphrasing" mean? It means this: You're one of the (many) people who believe that it's acceptable to copy-paste others' writing, and then exchange a certain number of words until it avoids detection by automated scanning systems. When someone writes "paraphrasing have not been efficient [sufficient?]" it means you think you should have exchanged some more words from the copied text, and then you'd avoid detection, and that's what plagiarism-avoidance means. You've probably been doing this on all you papers for a very long time. I see this over and over.

Exchanging words is still plagiarism. As soon as you copy someone else's writing, that is plagiarism. Regardless of how many words you exchange later.

If that's your standard paper-writing process, then you have been plagiarizing everything you ever submitted like that. And if that's the case, and you've now submitted a largely plagiarized thesis, as well as multiple other papers, then it's very hard to see how that is recoverable at this point. It's possible you really don't know how to write a paper, and never did.

Perhaps the best course now is to say, "no comment" to any part of the investigation -- so as to not compound the trap with further dishonesty and promises you can't keep -- and then entirely re-learn how to write properly in another (maybe remedial) program.

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    @human: Disagree. Your first quote cut off most of a key sentence by the OP; it starts, "The plagiarism has happened mainly because of...", and then lists 4 different clauses, of which self-plagiarism is only the first. Aug 19 at 20:50
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    While it may be true that the OP shouldn't use mental health as a defense (although not nessesarily; mental illness should be considered), because that's likely to be received poorly, this answer communicates that in a very dismissive way. This answer should take greater care to acknowledge that OPs mental health does matter, even if may not be wise to include it in their statement.
    – Vaelus
    Aug 19 at 21:53
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    Absolutely correct. Also note how the OP's focus is on "how can I minimise the damage", not "how can I improve my writing".
    – Orntt
    Aug 20 at 0:53
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    "I turned a product into a business plan. Therefore even the description of my business partner (which is in our website) was marked as plagiarism. " if this is what the automated algo picked up the OP didn't do anything wrong. Perhaps he should have cited it, but suspension or expulsion is absolutely not appropriate. I'm guessing english isn't the OP's first language so there's probably an issue there with how they are explaining themselves. Regardless, this answer makes a lot of assumptions with 0 evidence.
    – eps
    Aug 20 at 1:01
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    @quarague exchanging words is done in the spirit of a plagiariser. Copy+paste+exchange words is a dishonest attempt to make it seem like you've done more work than you have. If you wanted to say what you knew someone else had already said, just quote and cite. Your point might be that exchanging words can't be detected and so shouldn't be the basis of punishment, but Daniel R. Collins isn't suggesting to do that, he's just pointing out that the OP has a plagiariser's approach to thesis writing. Aug 20 at 7:39
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Plagiarism is not something that randomly occurs, it is an act committed by a person. Here, this person was you. Take responsibility.

Make sure to understand what plagiarism is. It is only tangentially related to a similarity score computed by some tool. If you have not actually plagiarised, be prepared to explain in some detail what happened during the writing process, and how you wrote text phrases similar to those used by other authors; either independently or crediting them appropriately.

Sloppy referencing is not necessarily plagiarism, and, in my opinion, rarely merits punishment beyond bad grades for the relevant item. If you tried to give credit where it was due, but did it in a substandard way, point to the evidence of your attempts as well as to you having learned now how to do it better.

Self-plagiarism is not a special kind of plagiarism (and probably should have been named differently). You do not mention where the recycled text is from, but besides a previously written thesis I don't think there is a source for which there is a clear consensus that you can't reuse it in a dissertation[1]. As such, if this is to count as academic misconduct, it would be because you violated a specific rule at your university. Find out whether such a rule exists, and what it says.

[1] If it is published in some way, you ought to cite it (and there is no reason not to); but I wouldn't agree that failure to do so is misconduct.

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    Such rules about "self-plagiarism" do exist. My college has a rule to the effect of "You can't submit the same written work twice for assignments in different courses without instructor permission." Aug 19 at 12:22
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    @MichaelSeifert See my comment below the original message. Self-plagiarism means trying to get credit/marks for the same work twice. It is not plagiarism in the sense of appropriating undeserved credit and it is not even an offense when a thesis repeats work in an official publication by the same author, as the publication is not (in general) accruing study credit, but has a different role; which is, I think, the case that OP is concerned about. Aug 19 at 12:39
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    Using your own publications in your thesis is 100% allowed. If something is worthy of publication, it better show up in your thesis. Half my chapters were published papers. I had to get approval from all authors on my publications and each chapter started with a clear statement that this chapter is a modified version of (reference goes here).
    – noslenkwah
    Aug 19 at 18:40
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    @noslenkwah It seems like you are describing proper attribution of content used from another place; it does not seem like OP has any such proper attribution, and it isn't only their thesis that is the issue, also other assignments which are likely expected to be new, original content, and not re-use of what is already written, which bypasses the purpose of the assignment.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 19 at 21:07
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    @noslenkwah in France this is even a kind of thesis: you write a description of the problem you did research on, conclusions and pointers to the papers, and attach your papers instead of (re-)writing them in the thesis.
    – WoJ
    Aug 20 at 15:27
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I think you need to start with an informed second opinion. Get someone who is an academic to look at your document, the accusations against you, and your defense that the document is not plagiarism, and tell you if your defense is reasonable. If you have an assigned tutor, that would be a good person to ask.

I say that because, it's really hard to tell from what you have written here if;

A) You didn't plagiarise, the only reason this accusation has been made is your referencing was poorly understood.

B) You don't understand plagiarism and you actually have committed plagiarism.

C) The process was started erroneously by an automated system.

If A is true, then you really really messed up the referencing. These misconduct processes don't start because someone got a url wrong. Whoever read your work couldn't even tell the references were there. You need to be clear on what you should have done, and how you will improve, and seeking outside advice on that will show your intent to improve. That is what you will write in your statement; how you got the referencing wrong, the advice you sought, and how you would do it better next time.

If B is true, you need to apologise, and resist the temptation to defend anything. Your statement need to be free from excuses, or claims that you didn't understand. As tempting as that may be, it will look like you have not grasped the seriousness of this problem. You need to write a statement that explains that what you did was wrong, you understand what you should have done, and you hope they offer you a chance to demonstrate that.

There is also a small chance that this process was started by some automated system, C. And just the high similarity score with idiosyncratic reference format, caused the accusation to be made. If that is true it is even more important that you ask an academic in your institution to look at these accusations, because this would be immediately obvious to them, and they can stop this from going any further. I think this is unlikely to be the case.

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    Honesty Boards really don't like hearing "I didn't understand plagiarism" from advanced students. We hear it a lot from early students, and believe it, but a Master's student probably shouldn't run with that defense. Aug 19 at 16:43
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    @ScottSeidman That's why I said "Your statement need to be free from excuses, or claims that you didn't understand."
    – Clumsy cat
    Aug 19 at 19:47
  • @ScottSeidman Self plagiarism is very different from copying another students work and in most jobs people will be dismissed for not doing it.
    – Ian
    Aug 19 at 20:35
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    "advice you sought"? Aug 20 at 2:46
  • @dave_thompson_085 thanks
    – Clumsy cat
    Aug 20 at 8:55
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Permanent exclusion from the program is indeed very harsh and probably only used in the most severe cases of blatant plagiarism and cheating. I do not expect this penalty to apply to your case, given the circumstances.

However, it sounds to me like you were indeed too sloppy (56% similarity is a lot!). Although your mistakes are understandable under the circumstances you mention, the fact remains that it will be hard for anyone to reward you with a passing grade for copying and pasting a quarter of your thesis and more than half of two final assignments. Academic degrees do not come for free: In most places, any kind of thesis expects you to demonstrate that you understand the matter and did some research and analysis on your own.

The other side of the story is that self-plagiarism and "not enough paraphrasing while citing the sources" are not the worst kinds of plagiarism. Not citing common knowledge and leaving out page numbers are normally acceptable, but taken together with the above I think it becomes a bit too much to let it pass silently.

So what can you do? Be honest and hope for the best:

  • explain your difficult circumstances,
  • demonstrate that you actually studied and understand the subject,
  • explain that you understand your mistakes, have learned from them, and will avoid them in future,
  • explain (if this is true), that you have not plagiarized in the past and that you performed well,
  • let the committee know that you are willing to put in extra work to earn your degree (eg. improve your thesis and re-do the final exercises), and
  • plan some time to work on your degree or thesis: if you do get a chance to redeem yourself, this will probably mean a substantial amount of extra work.

Hopefully the committee will understand the circumstances, but from what you describe I think you can expect some form of punishment, probably involving extra work, so make sure to plan some time for this so you do not fall into the same trap again.

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    I agree. Permanent separation is often reserved for second offenses, at least in the US. Aug 19 at 16:47
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    "My thesis and last two assignments"
    – Adam Burke
    Aug 20 at 5:38
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    @ScottSeidman But this is not the US and other countries treat students as adults starting at the Bachelor's level.
    – Nobody
    Aug 20 at 5:54
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Get a lawyer specialized in the field.

The way you present your case here, you will only make things worse if you write the statement yourself. Look at this like a court trial because basically it is. You will be creating evidence which can and will be used against you.

This thing has the potential to impact your career very much. Pay some lawyer 400€ an hour to do it right instead of making it worse by yourself.

Consider this: you write something in your statement that can be understood as admitting plagiarism. They expell you. You appeal to a court. They cite your statement. You lose.

You are already on trial - it just hasn't reached an actual court. But you can already screw up the whole case by submitting that statement.

Get. A. Lawyer.

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    In theory, this seems like good advice to maximize the OPs chances of a successful defense. But are there lawyers who specialize in this? If so, what keywords should the OP include while searching for such a lawyer?
    – Vaelus
    Aug 19 at 22:50
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    This is terrible advice. OP has plagiarized and the university can prove it. No lawyer can fix that, and resorting to legal action (or legal language) will probably make it worse, especially in the EU. This is (fortunately) not America, where way too many things are "solved" in court. If however, OP indicates that they will learn from their mistakes, they may give him another chance.
    – Louic
    Aug 20 at 6:51
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    @Louic "Prty A commited a crime, party B can prove it, so party A shouldn't seek legal council" — that's the bottom line of what you are saying, and it really doesn't make sense. This is even more of a reason to get a lawyer, albeit it might be an overkill. Aug 20 at 7:01
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    @louic Actually Germany litigates more than the US, don't be misled by lazy stereotyping. That said, I don't think getting a lawyer is sensible here. Aug 20 at 7:26
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    I don't know the laws of Germany, but in this case it seems most likely that a good, honest lawyer would inform OP that they aren't in a court of law, aren't going to any trial, and unless they plan to file suit against the university claiming some wrongdoing there isn't much role for a lawyer here. A less-honest lawyer may rack up all sorts of fees pursuing legal avenues that, while technically available to OP, are unlikely to result in any satisfaction. Bringing lawyers in means OP won't be able to interact with the committee like a normal human, they'll interact with university lawyers.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 20 at 14:10
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You have already done it and it's useful that you have learned your lesson. The only thing you can do is accept punishment and the only way to get a 'win' is to get a smaller punishment.

The best way would be to accept your problems but try to justify them in less than two sentences because you don't want to look like a person who is avoiding responsibility.

Secondly, think about reimbursement in some other forms. Try to praise them a little bit by saying that if I got caught by a higher authority then it would have created many life issues.

Always remember: They are just doing their job. You are somewhat of a disturber and no one likes those. You have already created a negative impression and fixing that is a lot harder in just this short of a time span.

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Hate to say it but Daniel R. Collins is probably largely in the right here.

These numbers are way high - we have a similar system implemented and highest I've seen among people we studied with was 5% give or take.

Paraphrasing smells of sorry school essays approach which is unacceptable for a Masters level student. Your problem is not that you did not paraphrase enough, it is that instead of rather than copying and editing you are supposed to spin a coherent "story" of your own.

Very basically, imagine you have read something on the internet and are discussing it with some friends - just pulling out your phone and reading the post aloud in its entirety would be silly. Academic writing is not terribly different from that.

With all that said, there are a few lines of defense here...

  1. If you have properly provided citations and attributed work to respective authors, it would not be as much of an ethical issue, rather just a job poorly done. This has way less severe implications and is probably your best option here, if available. Even coming clear with too much Ctrl+C Ctrl+V to pad page count to meet the submission requirements is better than essentially saying "oh well my bad didn't trick the automated checker enough". If anything, overusing direct quotations is blatantly obvious to a human reader.
  2. IFF these similarities mostly come from the introductory parts, this also could be written off as a poor understanding of what you were supposed to do in those. However, that also implies there's not so much of your own work in the entire thing...
  3. Self-plagiarism is more of a gray area. One is almost universally expected to not reuse own work for articles (for the same reason, journals would reject too much quotations from already published work, that brings no value to the reader). For conference talks, lectures, written reports, even books it is the exact opposite - they are less atomic, often delivered to different groups of people and academics are routinely reusing things they made earlier. If anything, if you have to report on the same work you wrote an article or two on, and the report for some reason is not limited to providing references to said articles - why do the same work twice and overcomplicate it by the need of "paraphrasing".

It is important to understand what the requirements are. In STEM, copying others verbatim is a big no-go - again, not because others would shun you but because this is not the work you are supposed to be doing at all. If you are doing some literary analysis, say, it is expected for some direct quotations to be provided. Even then, a single full paragraph of text should be extremely rare. Your numbers are way way high.

And finally... Quoting needing to work to make ends meet is not really a viable defense. If you cannot commit enough, you cannot commit enough, and this just doesn't work in academia. That is not an easy decision to make but the situation is not really "I do not have to have a responsibility for my choices yet, just have to get through university and the life would sort it out somehow". It would not. You are not alone, actually - for many it is the period in life when they have to make really, really big decisions for themselves for the first time. You can't bury your head in the sand anymore. Especially not in academia.

And start with that last point. Until you work out, with honesty, what do you want to do with your life and how much are you willing to commit, all these fine people at the faculty would struggle with helping you succeed. Most often, they sincerely want to help, but sometimes the best help they could provide is pushing you off the cliff.

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