Most people think that plagiarism is simply “copying” or “borrowing” information written by another person without giving them credit. We are guilty of doing this at some point in our lives, but when it comes to academic work, plagiarizing can be a serious problem. Some teachers estimate that one in three students have turned in plagiarized work in the form of research papers, mathematics problem sets and science reports at the high school level. At the college level, this statistic shoots up to 80% according to a study from The Center for Academic Integrity. The legal system looks at plagiarism as fraud, because it involves theft and lying about the original ownership. At the high school level, plagiarism is considered a moderate offense, usually resulting in detentions though some schools take the punishments as far as suspensions. In the college and university setting, plagiarism can often result in academic dismissal from a program of study and the college or university.
All of the following are considered plagiarism:
- turning in someone else’s work as your own
- copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
- failing to put a quote in quotation marks
- giving incorrect information about the source of a quote
- changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
- copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not (see our section on “fair use” rules)
Whether students are meaning to plagiarize or not, this is a problem and one that can be easily rectified using citations and bibliographies. Citing sources, even if they are just being used as reference for ideas and concepts is simply a good practice for everyone, regardless of profession or age.
Accidental plagiarism vs. deliberate plagiarism
Accidental plagiarism is the most common type of plagiarism; it is when students use information from a source and forget to cite or note the source. Everyone has done this at some point in his or her educational or professional lives. Typically, it is a simple oversight of not adding a source to a bibliographic or reference list. However, as teachers we must be especially careful to cite every source of information we use. We are, after all, leading by example. With students we must stress the importance of always sourcing every source of information. I teach my students, when in doubt add a source to your reference list. It’s better to have extra sources on than to accidentally leave one out.
Deliberate plagiarism is the malicious type of plagiarism; it is the deliberately knowing the source of information and passing it off as your own. According to most state and federal law, this type of plagiarism constitutes fraud. This type of plagiarism has cost students their academic careers, intellectuals their credentials and some offenders have been prosecuted under state/federal law. Deliberate plagiarism presents two major problems to both students and teachers. The first is the moral dilemma of when a student is caught can they be trusted again in the classroom or will they attempt to plagiarize again. The second is the theft aspect of the situation, if they have stolen information and used it one assignment all of their work becomes suspect and has to checked and scrutinized all over again.
Why should teachers teach students about plagiarism?
After several discussions with teaching colleagues and a few with my librarian mother, the basic question keeps coming up, “Why do teachers need to teach students what plagiarism is?” These conversations have given me a very basic answer, because they need to know how to use other people’s ideas correctly. Our students live in a world of fast and easy communication, the expectation is that of free and open information. However, they do not think about ownership of that information. That is why I always encourage them to put a creative commons copyright notice at the bottom of their papers. That way students have basic legal ownership of the information and ideas presented in the work they have created. I find it amazing that when students make the connection that the work they create has ownership value, the issue of plagiarism becomes personal. It literally changes their thinking on the process and I have had students point out to me when I have forgotten to reference a source or cite an image in one of my presentations.
This idea of teaching students about plagiarism should also not be confined to the English departments or librarians. All teachers should be taking a class period to talk with their students about what plagiarism is, what copyrights are and how they should be used in both educational and professional works. We as teachers should be inspiring students to learn and create, to use other people’s ideas and work as stepping-stones to the next big idea, but we must also be teaching them the proper and legal way to do this.