Plagiarism Is Not Always What We Think

 Plagiarism Is Not Always What We Think

Digital technology, coupled with the age-old problem of plagiarism, has ignited a good deal of anger and frustration across the country. Well-meaning instructors feel trapped into policing students, rooting out culprits, and catching repeat offenders. Students are accused of stealing and immoral and unethical behavior (Senders, 2008). By setting aside ersatz legal definitions, crime-scene metaphors (Senders, 2008), and moral hyperbole (Fish, 2010), we can reexamine the problem of plagiarism from the perspective of teaching and learning.

Don’t get me wrong. Copying the work of others with the intent of passing it off as one’s own is dishonest. The university has a policy in place to address this type of deceit. But many students who use big chunks of material from the Internet without citing their sources are not trying to deceive. There are other reasons students resort to using material that is not their own:

  • Students haven’t yet learned the citation conventions required in their classes. (Our Liberal Arts department uses MLA. Our Art Education department uses APA. Other departments require a list of websites at the end of a paper without special formatting.) 
  • Students know they don’t have the skills necessary to complete the assignment on their own and the pressure to turn in good work is overwhelming. 
  • Students value the words and ideas of experts more than their own, and they think we do too. 
  • Students are using Internet content in much the same way they use social media and in that context the crime-scene metaphors don’t resonate.

None of these reasons constitutes an excuse. But, in Stanley Fish’s words, “If learning is the goal, engaging in behavior that shortcuts the learning process is a bad idea, institutionally bad, not morally bad”(2010). In each case above, students have squandered their chances to engage authentically with the course material. What’s more, when students lean too heavily on the work of others it’s hard for instructors to know if students have understood the material. Ultimately, students don’t get the help they need.

Paradoxically, despite our best intentions, some of our assignments can increase the likelihood that students will substitute another’s work for their own. The most common way we invite plagiarism is through low-context assignments. Low-context assignments are open-ended tasks with vague instructions and few constraints. Low context assignments are so generic, so general that students can easily find suitable responses online. These tasks send students into the universe of possibilities, with an undefined purpose. Students may even think—incorrectly—that the Internet will provide the best response. But again, in this case, their intent is not to deceive.

A low-context assignment might look something like this:

  • Find three designers that inspire you. Describe their work in one to two pages.

Compare this assignment with a high-context version:

  1. Select three designers whose work relates to your plans for your final project. Briefly describe the type of work the designers do in one paragraph each. Include information about their approaches, materials, styling, and inspirations. Use at least one direct quote from an article or blog. In the paragraph include the title of the article/blog and the full name of the writer. 
  2. On a separate page, write an email to one of the designers. In the email explain why you find his/her work inspiring and how you plan to incorporate his/her aesthetic into your project. (If you’re feeling bold, go ahead and send the email. The designer may even write you back!)

Notice that the second example, the high-context version, has specific constraints, detailed instructions, a specific audience, and explicit criteria. Notice also that the assignment is rooted in the context of your students, your course, your field, and the Academy.

It would be nearly impossible for students to plagiarize such an assignment, even inadvertently. Information randomly grabbed off the Internet will necessarily be unsuitable because it wasn’t designed for your assignment. The very nature of a high-context assignment demands an authentic individual response.

Make no mistake; it’s impossible to create plagiarism-proof assignments. Those bent on deceit are bent on deceit. Still, our assignments are powerful teaching tools. Through them, we can make it harder to plagiarize, not through punishment, but through authentic opportunities for students to demonstrate their emerging skills.



Deterring and Discussing Plagiarism


Fish, Stanley, The Ontology of Plagiarism: Part Two

Senders, S. (2008). “Academic Plagiarism and the Limits of Theft” in Eisner, C. & Vicinus, M. (Eds) Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.