I need your opinion on plagiarism and what it actually applies too. Is para-phrasing an offence. Should minor offences such as on homework be treated the same as bigger offences such as on termpapers?
Plagiarism is plagiarism. It does not matter if it is done on homework or on a term paper because it is still the same offense. Schools usually have very strict rules when it comes to plagiarism. Many times the consequences are very harsh so it is best just not to do it at all.
I'm sure you already know this, but when you take a passage from another work and use it word-for-word in your own paper (quoting), you must put the passage in quotation marks and cite it to give credit to the source.
Paraphrasing is an important skill in using sources in research papers and should be employed, but you must cite paraphrasing just as you cite quotations. By paraphrasing, you are using your own words, but the idea/information is not yours, so you must give credit to the source. To paraphrase without citing is plagiarism.
In teaching students to write research papers, it is important to teach them how to paraphrase. Taking a passage and simply changing a few key words is not paraphrasing; this, too, is plagiarizing. To paraphrase accurately, a writer must understand the passage in question and restate the idea or the information in a completely original way.
I believe dealing with plagiarism depends upon whether the plagiarism is accidental or intentional and upon the circumstances under which the student completed the work. For instance, consider a high school sophomore English class in which students are just learning how to write a research paper and deal with research writing skills. If a student copies someone else's paper and presents it as his own work, the plagiarism is obviously intentional and should be punished. However, if a student is sincerely trying to learn these new skills and fails to include a citation, that is a writing error, part of the learning process. Situations like this one, as well as many others, can arise in evaluating a student's research paper. For a teacher, it is a judgment call based on the level of the student's expertise (high school or college?) and the instruction that has been provided in the class.
Paraphrasing someone's else's words or ideas without citing that person as a source is plagiarism and one of the most common forms of it. What you might keep in mind is that if you are ever in doubt, just go ahead and cite the source, because if you have to think about whether something is plagiarism, it most likely is.
In answer to the second part of your question, my opinion is that plagiarism is plagiarism; so it doesn't matter what the assignment is. Chances are that if someone is willing to sacrifice his academic integrity and present himself as a thief and liar on a minor assignment, he most likely will have no problem doing the same on a major assessment.
It is especially important that high school students realize the seriousness of plagiarism at the college and professional levels. Most colleges use programs such as TurnItIn.com which runs student work through an immense check system to see if there is any plagiarism present. If the system determines that the work involves plagiarism, students often have no recourse and can receive a zero on the assignment or in some cases are expelled.
I tell my students that anything that is not your own original idea or known to be common knowledge (information that can be found in more than a couple of sources is usually considered to be common knowledge in that field), must be cited properly in an academic paper. Otherwise, you are stealing from the person who's work you are citing. You may paraphrase, summarize, or directly quote from another's work--you simply must give them credit for the idea by using parenthetical notation in the body of your paper and then creating a works cited page with in-depth source information.
Plagiarism is an unethical act which may or may not constitute an illegal offence. Plagiarism refers to to practice of claiming as your own some idea or piece of art created by someone else as your own. When you present such ideas,with correct acknowledgement of the original author, it is no longer plagiarism, but it may still violate legal provisions of copyright or intellectual property rights.
Paraphrasing a sentence, or even a longer passage, may enable a person to avoid detection of plagiarism, or even make it difficult to establish copyright violation. But if the intent is to present works of someone else as your own, then it is still plagiarism.
Plagiarism is the use of material without attributing sources. When it comes to offenses, that is entirely a grey area. Is forgetting to use quotation marks as serious as an entire paper not the author's? Is mis-numbering sources, or making fictitious sources serious? What about the quality of the student's writing in-class? Does it match the the quality of prepared papers outside of class. Even in my classes, I have no easy answers, as there are always special circumstances or simply not realizing what the rules of the class are.