How to avoid allegations of plagiarism in the age of AI

Medico-legal adviser Dr Ellie Mein says doctors and medical students risk their reputation by inadvertently plagiarising other’s work. But in the age of increasingly sophisticated AI technology, can you spot the genuine article from the fake?

As I write this, an article in an education journal called Chatting and cheating: Ensuring academic integrity in the age of ChatGPT, is causing a bit of a stir. The paper argues that artificial intelligence tools "raise a number of challenges and concerns, particularly in relation to academic honesty and plagiarism" - and turns out to have been written by the AI chatbot ChatGPT.

The 'authors', academics at Plymouth university, wanted to show the technology is improving so fast that it's difficult for universities to keep ahead of it. Peer reviewers didn't know that it had been written by the AI tool when they passed it for publication.

This neatly demonstrates that AI has evolved to be able to generate written work that's increasingly difficult to distinguish from that authored by a human. The release of ChatGPT in November 2022 highlighted how far AI, large-language models (LLMs) had come. With reports that this AI system has performed at or near the pass mark for the United States Medical Licensing Exam, it's clear that this technology can be a powerful tool in academia.

While AI will doubtless have an increasing role in healthcare and medical education, the importance of using it ethically should be emphasised. Using it to generate ideas or content for your own coursework or publications could expose you to allegations of plagiarism, which is likely to put your future career at risk.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism - presenting work or ideas from another source as your own without acknowledging it or reusing your own work without acknowledgement - is not a new concern in medicine. Honesty and integrity are long-established qualities for a career in medicine. As such, it's easy to see why plagiarism by medical students and doctors is taken seriously as it indicates a lack of probity.

We've seen problems arising from alleged plagiarism impacting medical students just as much as qualified doctors. In the last five years, MDU members have come to us for support in around 40 cases, with numbers evenly split between undergraduates and post-graduates.

Allegations of plagiarism and collusion were mostly detected in medical student work via the use of text-matching software such as SafeAssign and TurnItIn. This software identifies words and phrases in the submitted work that match those in other works by comparing the text to global databases of other students' work, the organisation's own database of student work and millions of other sources such as articles and books.

The software-generated report was then used as evidence in the investigation. However, while the software flags potential issues, such as a high percentage similarity score, it does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing. For example, the software can flag section of text as being identical to other sources even when it has been correctly referenced. It was therefore possible to mount a robust defence of members' actions in a number of cases.

Your career on the line

For medical students, plagiarism concerns almost always resulted in a fitness to practise (FTP) investigation by their university. The outcomes ranged from having the mark for the piece of work capped or having to repeat the assignment through to warnings or exclusion from the course.

In setting a sanction, fitness to practise committees considered issues like:

  • the student's seniority
  • the extent and nature of the plagiarism
  • the honesty of the student when giving evidence
  • their willingness to engage with the investigation and reflect on their conduct
  • mitigating factors such as mental ill health
  • whether there were other concerns, probity or otherwise, as part of the investigation.

Remember that part of the appeal of AI tools is the ability to generate persuasive and convincing sounding text, which may end up being incorrect (or illogical) when reviewed by a subject matter expert. AI may also fail to consider the relevant UK law or GMC guidance, applying American law as the default.

It's worth reviewing your medical school guides on academic misconduct and offences. These publications will define plagiarism, explain how such issues will be investigated and outline the possible outcomes of any investigation.

Impact on GMC registration for students

It's important to be aware that your conduct as a student can follow you into your future career. If you've been involved in a FTP investigation, you need to disclose this to the GMC when you apply for registration. In several cases where this didn't happen, students were surprised when the GMC wrote to them, after receiving information from the medical school, to ask why they had failed to disclose this information on their application.

Records of these matters are kept by medical schools and information about disciplinary proceedings may be disclosed to the GMC.

The GMC has guidance on what to disclose when applying for registration. If you're not sure, check with us. The specific guidance on what to share about medical school concerns suggests that if you are still not clear on whether you need to declare an issue on your application then you can seek input from one of their advisers.

The GMC usually requests a statement explaining why you haven't disclosed the information in your application. Be open and honest and include a reflection on the importance of professionalism and probity, how these relate to the GMC's guidance, and show insight and remediation into the concerns raised. You can contact us for more advice about this, and read the following guidance:

Tips on avoiding allegations of plagiarism

Plagiarism can come in various forms, so it's possible to breach academic conduct rules without realising it. Here are some tips to help you avoid common pitfalls.

  • Be familiar with your organisation's policy on academic misconduct and definition of plagiarism.
  • Be aware of the potential to self-plagiarise where you reuse your own work without referencing it.
  • Ensure you use quotation marks when reproducing exact text, and reference correctly as required by your educational establishment.
  • Don't paraphrase too closely, otherwise known as 'para-plagiarise'. Being able to take other authors' ideas and convey them in your own words to demonstrate your understanding and analysis is an important academic skill. But paraphrasing too closely - eg, changing the odd word and not showing your own additional insight - could be considered a form of plagiarism.
  • If you're working with a study partner, you will need to be mindful of the potential for collusion and unauthorised collaboration when generating a written piece of work. This offence entails a student copying part of another student's work (or allowing their own work to be copied).
  • Add a reminder to yourself when making rough notes if a section of text is taken directly from another source. This avoids you inadvertently using wording from another source that you think is your own.
  • While there are various free plagiarism checkers online, it's unlikely they will scrutinise your work to the same level as the software and staff at your university will. Relying on these could lead to a false sense of security.
  • Don't be tempted to cut corners to meet deadlines. If you're struggling to cope with your studies or under time pressure, speak to your supervisor for extra support or to get an extension.

This page was correct at publication on 11/04/2023. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Dr Ellie Mein MDU medico-legal adviser

by Dr Ellie Mein Medico-legal adviser


Ellie joined the MDU as a medico-legal adviser in 2013. Prior to this she worked as an ophthalmologist before completing her Graduate Diploma in Law in Birmingham.