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Stop Scaring Your Students About Plagiarism

It’s October, so it’s the season for spooooky things. So, let’s talk about plagiarism!

Oooh it’s sooooo scary!
Photo by Skitter Photo via StockSnap

No, but, really, stop scaring your students about plagiarism. Seriously. Stop. They’re terrified. They’re paralyzed with fear at the horrible p-word. STOP IT.

“But,” I hear you say, “students need to know that plagiarism is bad! They need to know that they need to avoid it!”

They know. Trust me. They know. That’s about all they know, though. And that’s why they’re scared rather than educated about plagiarism.

When I talk to my students about plagiarism, I often give them case studies and have them imagine they’re the teacher, and ask them what they would do and why. My students often tell me things ranging from “they should be kicked out of school” to “they should be put in prison.” I’ve had students suggest torture and capital punishment (I really hope they were joking!).

When I ask why, they tell me that plagiarism is illegal, that it’s criminal, and that it’s outright theft. None of these things is true.

Plagiarism is not illegal. It’s an ethical problem, not a legal problem. You’re thinking of copyright infringement, which is illegal, but is technically not the same thing, even though they often overlap. When I teach plagiarism to my students, I tell them that it’s less like shoplifting and more like sleeping with your best friend’s partner. Not technically illegal (except where adultery or fornication laws are in place, perhaps, depending on the situation), but we can all agree it’s not the right thing to do.

Likewise, plagiarism is not criminal. Even when plagiarism entails illegal copyright infringement that could be charged in a court of law, it gets brought to a civil court, not a criminal court, meaning it almost never involves prison sentences, just a requirement to repay damages for lost income as a result of the copyright infringement. As best I understand, it’s tried in the same sort of setting as other kinds of civil cases, such as divorce settlements.

Finally, and perhaps most important, plagiarism is not theft. It is more accurately described as misrepresentation. It’s not theft to lie on your resume; it’s misrepresentation. Plagiarism functions the same way. It’s not shoplifting, and it’s certainly not larceny. It’s simply saying you did work that you didn’t do.

When we explain plagiarism in this way: as an ethical issue about misrepresentation, one that has to do more with integrity than with the law, we reduce the fear, but we also increase the understanding of how plagiarism works and what to do about it.

Another approach I use to teach plagiarism is I point out that you can plagiarize yourself. The fear-based approach that likens plagiarism to criminal theft to be punished can’t handle this simple fact: you can’t steal from yourself, right? This challenges students, and many students become indignant, because they rightly assume that whatever they write is theirs to do with as they see fit (legally, it is; we get to grade it, but they retain the copyright unless otherwise indicated). However, if we understand plagiarism as misrepresentation, then it makes sense that you can misrepresent your own work. You can plagiarize yourself when you say you did a piece of writing for a particular assignment, but it was actually written for another class. You can plagiarize yourself when you submit a text for publication and assure the publisher that they’re getting first rights to that text, but you actually published it elsewhere. And, because it’s not theft, these cases are ameliorated simply by an open and honest disclosure of what the text actually is. Theft isn’t avoided simply by saying to someone “I am taking this item,” but plagiarism is avoided simply by saying “I am taking this text.”

When students are scared of punishment, when they are scared that they will Do Something Wrong, they’re also scared to try, scared to do anything. If we teach them that they will be punished if they so much have a comma out of place or forget one parenthetical citation, how can we expect them to practice citing sources at all?

I see very few plagiarism cases. I get perhaps one a year. Seriously. That’s a rate of perhaps .5% of students plagiarizing over the course of four major writing assignments in a semester, most of which have some research component.

Scaring your students by misrepresenting plagiarism as theft is basically the same kind of sin as plagiarism itself: misrepresentation. If you want to ensure you don’t have to do the dreaded plagiarism paperwork (whatever that looks like in your institution), it’s very simple: Talk to your students about what plagiarism is, and don’t mislead them or scare them by telling them it’s theft. It’s an ongoing conversation over the whole semester, not just a threat in a syllabus.

Teach them, don’t scare them.

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