New Thoughts on Plagiarism

Last week, I went to Schreyer’s session on academic honesty and although I have been to a lot of plagiarism talks, I really got some good insights out of this.

Plagiarism Varies by Context. What’s Yours?

We all know plagiarism when we see it, but a checklist from Faculty Perceptions of Plagiarism by Jean Liddell and Valerie Fong (2005) reminded me that definitions vary widely.


Should all student work be “original”? It depends on the assignment. A creative writing assignment should always be original, but how about a paper for Intro to Egyptian Archaeology? Unless the class attends a dig, students will have to rely exclusively on secondary sources and quotes. If a professor is lucky, a student may come up with an original comparative twist, but how likely is that? Of course, it is this unoriginality that allows paper mills to thrive.

Another twist is that some cultures feel that originality belongs only the “masters.” Apprentices and students may be more expected to copy from the master first before embarking on an original work (I’m sure I heard that somewhere). That’s actually how many crafts work – crafters copy other’s designs, partly to learn new techniques, then may begin original designs after learning basic skills. The same may be true for quotes – is it better to rewrite another’s thoughts? In my world, yes (because it’s good writing practice), but others could consider that destroying a well-crafted thought.

Common Knowledge

Another parameter is defining common knowledge. Is it whatever appears on Wikipedia? Any factoid said by an instructor? Or, as some students claimed, the same fact in three sources? The answer is probably not, but how can students tell without a little instruction?

One of the benefits of learning academic writing is learning to track the trail of “everybody knows X” to its source. How do we know when someone was born? It’s not from a Wikipedia article or even the biography quoted in Wikipedia, but likely from some document from that era (birth certificate, church records, family history, etc). Understanding our sources of knowledge is an important analytic skill.

But…out in everyday life, we rarely “cite” our information. How many course slides and best practice handouts have you seen listing facts without a bibliography? Do consumers care? Not if they’re trying to fix something or pass a course. No wonder students think whatever they hear in class is “common knowledge”.

The Collaboration Trap

I hate to be cynical, but if you really want to see plagiarism in action, just encourage students to work together. When done poorly, one student gives the answer to another. I often figure this out because either 1) the copier misunderstands the information and doesn’t convey it quite right or 2) the “team” doesn’t spot the errors, but instead replicates it across multiple assignments. Sigh.

For the record, I don’t forbid collaboration because I don’t want the study groups to break up. I merely require that students use their own words so that they at least “process” the information. But I am struck at how successful the academic loners remain in many contexts. No cheating and better formulated material in many cases. We all have to learn teamwork at some point, but I still think it needs careful thought.

Is Plagiarism de rigeur now?

Perhaps the most revolutionary thought is that students are being trained to think that academic dishonesty is part of the natural order. First, Engler, Landau and Epstein (Keeping up with the Jones (2008) note that students overestimate the rate of cheating. They also cite research that students who believe cheating is prevelant are more likely to cheat themselves.

Even more alarming is a thought from a sociology professor who asks if all our instructor warnings set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many ways, our culture considers instructors and students to be adversaries, and a student who cheats and gets away with it definitely scores a victory. As might be expected, I have heard that students who feel more connected to their instructor may be less likely to cheat, but it probably doesn’t replace an instructor providing plagiarism guidance.

Change it up!

The above are all good reminders as I enter final project season, but it’s also important to vary assignments. In fact, I like to avoid traditional research paper assignments as much as possible – who needs another rehash of a topic we all know already?

There are lots of ideas out there for original assignments, but one I like is a class project to build a wiki around one book for a literature class (or a wiki around a specific topic in another class). It’s a good team project in which each student’s contribution can be clearly seen, and hopefully you can switch books/topics between semesters. Another is to meet with students to develop a project idea (preferably one that is interesting and doable). Students who are interested in the topic are more likely to do more work for it. This is also a stage where you can set expectations so students don’t panic at the last minute. Finally, I think making a lit review a more overt assignment is interesting – that is what most beginning academic “papers” really are, and hopefully the lit changes often enough that the paper mills can’t quite keep with it.


I’ve had some experiences in past semesters which have made me very cynical about plagiarism, but I’m hoping that this discussion will help me guide students towards being better researchers. We’ll see.

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