Blurred Lines of Plagiarism

What is plagiarism?

Has this become a blurry concept?

Plagiarism is “appropriating” someone else’s words and ideas without acknowledging them and, instead, passing them off as one’s own. Some definitions add in there the word “intentional”. Plagiarism is unethical, dishonest and a “high crime” in academia. You can’t be convicted in a court of law (unless there is copyright infringement involved), but the punishments of failed courses, expulsion, severely damaged reputation are as real and as painful as jail time.

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According to some reports, including a NY Times-sponsored blog article published in August 2010 (“Are You Part of Generation Plagiarism?” by Holly Epstein Ojalvo; , students in the “digital age” might be confused about what constitutes plagiarism. Use of sources on the internet is much more common now than paper-based books in libraries. Just “google” anything and there’s tons of information ripe for the picking, selecting, copying and pasting. It’s hard sometimes to even identify who wrote that material, let alone figure out how to cite it properly. Some people believe that internet information like that found on Wikipedia or on government or public resource web sites is “common knowledge” or public domain. But, if you read something in a print version of an encyclopedia or dictionary, you would cite your source, right? How is Wikipedia different? It’s not. But the way students use the internet can lead to this mistaken belief.

Our students (and even many of us) are constantly moving others’ ideas and work all about on the internet. Think about Instagram and Tweeting. People get a message with a photo. They re-post that photo on their instagram. They get a tweet and instantly re-tweet it. Who owns the original words or photo? When you tweet something, don’t you want it re-tweeted endlessly (in the case of tweeting, the owner’s info is linked to the tweet automatically)? What if you take an instagram photo and put it into a slide show you are presenting in class? Is that plagiarism? If you re-post that picture on your Instagram to get “likes” it’s thought to be okay (or at least the only repercussion might be that you get some angry comment from the owner), but if you put it in a Powerpoint show for an assignment it’s not, right? Here’s a statement in WikiHow about manual retweeting:

“Be aware that manually retweeting content without adding comment is viewed as poor Twitter etiquette in many circles, as it appears as though you are taking credit for the tweet, while also denying the original tweeter the possibility of gaining more retweets.” [from:]

Sounds like all you have to do is add some words or material around the tweet and you’re all good. You gotta admit it’s murky out there in the web. Poor etiquette versus unethical high crime…..foggy!

There’s almost a feeling that whatever’s on the internet is public knowledge. It’s out there for all to see, for all to post and re-post. It’s hard enough figuring out what information is right and what’s just opinion, let alone figuring out whose ideas are whose. Sure, we professors have a pretty good idea about how to cite others’ work and can adapt these principles to our research work using the internet. But what about our students? Have they had adequate training in high school? Are they really ready for college-level work that involves citing sources appropriately?

It’s important to educate our students about what constitutes “original work” or “their own work.” That’s the goal in education, right? We want our students to do it themselves, to learn by writing, by thinking, by presenting. Copying and pasting from the internet doesn’t constitute learning, does it? We don’t want our students just creating a “mashup” of a bunch of stuff they’ve lifted from the internet.

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We can’t keep the internet out of the research arena (nor should we!), but we do need to help our students understand what they can and can’t copy/paste and how to cite sources from the internet.

I think they could also use a tutorial about note-taking from work found on the internet. A lot of students just copy/paste information from the internet into a “notes” document on their computers. They often are trying to do the research for college assignments quickly. It might get pretty tough, especially if a student is under pressure to finish a paper assignment, to remember to copy/paste every web site, note every author, of everything that’s in that “notes” document. It seems likely that a student might “forget” that the notes document contains copied information and, at paper-writing time, might end up re-writing using that notes document and end up plagiarizing, just from sloppy note-taking.

Now that a lot of professors accept electronic submissions of papers and other assignments, a lot of students never even print out a draft of their papers to look over before they turn them in.  I would guess that the amount of proof-reading and double-checking that all “borrowed” words and ideas have been properly cited or have been turned into the student’s own original words and thoughts is at an all-time low. A lot of these copy-paste instances of plagiarism might well be oversights, unintentional or just the result of laziness or time pressure. Do these rise to the same level of dishonesty as a student intentionally downloading a paper assignment from the internet, printing it out and calling it her own?

How can we teach our students to bring their blurred lines of proper attribution into focus? I personally think putting paper assignments through plagiarism-detection software like “TurnitIn” doesn’t help teach anyone anything. Because different academic disciplines use the internet differently, it’s critical to take some time to clearly articulate for your students how to properly use internet information in your field.

Show them examples.

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Be explicit.

Take the time. It’s a terrible thing for a student to fail a course because of lack of diligence, or unintentional plagiarism.

We can’t just assume that students know how to avoid plagiarism or that they fully understand plagiarism.



2 thoughts on “Blurred Lines of Plagiarism

  1. I’m not sure where this falls on the pie chart but, in some circumstances, it has been my experience that students default to “copying” because they simply don’t understand what they’ve read and, therefore, cannot “put it in their own words!”

    • Great point!! Especially with scientific jargon. All the more reason for us as teachers to try to help our students with note-taking, how to put things in their own words, etc. Thanks for the comment!

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