Is plagiarism a character issue?

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From a Six-Pillar perspective, this question seems like a no-brainer. Deliberately passing off another’s words as one’s own is dishonest; disrespectful to the teacher and original author; irresponsible; and unfair to the original author, the teacher, and other students.

But on the New York Times Opinionator blog, author and former college dean Stanley Fish offers a different interpretation. Fish thinks students who plagiarize “are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into.” Fish quickly adds that plagiarism should still be punished, but “what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.”

One could reply that a breach of discipline is a breach of the moral universe, but those of us who grew up pre-Internet have to consider that students today have spent their lives navigating a seemingly lawless frontier where humanity’s greatest works and worst gibberish live all mixed up together, and much is borrowed and re-purposed. Kids still download movies and music illegally without much sense that what they’re doing is stealing. Often the music itself borrows from previously recorded music, or the movies borrow from previous movies. In a world where new television shows are based on movies that were based on TV shows that were based on comic books, originality can be a tough concept to grasp.

The results of a 2009 survey commissioned by Common Sense Media highlight the severity of the problem: Out of 2,015 middle and high school students, 36% said downloading a paper from the Internet isn’t “a serious offense,” and 19% thought it wasn’t cheating at all. Twenty-one percent admitted to turning in a paper downloaded from the Internet, and 38% admitted to copying texts from websites and turning them in as their own work.

These high numbers suggest a complete misunderstanding of the conventions of academic inquiry. So how can we change this? Fish thinks we shouldn’t bring character into it. In a follow-up to the post mentioned above, he writes, “If, on the first day of class, you start talking about the moral abyss of stealing and the potential unraveling of civilization… your students’ eyes will glaze over…. But if you say to the students, ‘The enterprise you and I are engaged in here is underwritten by the assumption of originality and the possibility and desirability of the advancement of thought,’ you can then say that these assumptions and the outcomes they look forward to – new insights, solutions to problems – will be undermined if students and researchers take the easy way out and just copy something someone else has already done.”

Obviously Fish is focused on undergraduate and graduate students, but the point holds (in shorter sentences and fewer syllables) for middle and high school students. They aren’t too young to understand that learning is their primary responsibility, and the purpose of doing research and writing an essay is to learn. With guidance they can see that, by cutting and pasting or paying someone else to do the work, they shirk their main responsibility and rob themselves of the opportunity to learn something.

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, anthropology professor Susan D. Blum supports Fish’s claim that appealing to the morality of students could be ineffective. Students might prioritize other values over an honor code, and treating plagiarism as “the breaking of a law” might not help, since adolescents and teens often disobey rules they see as pointless. Teachers could, Blum says, treat “academic integrity, especially the mandate to cite sources, as a set of skills to be learned. Students must be persuaded of the value of citation… and instructed over time in how to do it.”, owned by the same company that invented Turnitin – which checks students’ papers against the Internet and hundreds of thousands of previously submitted papers – offers some sensible arguments to counter students’ justifications for plagiarism. For example, to the student who thinks the point of a research paper is just to compile information from the Internet, the teacher can explain that the point is to analyze and interpret the information they collect. That’s where one develops one’s critical thinking and communication skills. To the grade-obsessed student who thinks the ends always justify the means, teachers can explain that eventually the truth will out: “Your students’ grades won’t matter if they don’t have the skills to show for them.”

In addition to the why of academic integrity, teachers need to explain the how: How is summarizing different from paraphrasing and quoting? How should one take notes to avoid mistakenly copying the author’s words as one’s own? What does that slippery term “common knowledge” really mean? How can the process of writing be emphasized over the final product? What else can we do to de-incentivize plagiarism?

* For answers to these and related questions, check out How to Stop the Plagiarism Plague by educational consultant Candace Lindemann.

* The Online Writing Lab at Purdue University also has helpful resources for every aspect of the writing process for Grades 7-12 teachers and students, including this paraphrasing exercise.

* CHARACTER COUNTS! also offers resources to help you teach, enforce, advocate, and model academic integrity. Click here to learn more about our Honor Above All Manual.

5 thoughts on “Is plagiarism a character issue?”

  1. In my college they have a program called Turn It In. It checks for plagiarism. A paper is checked against the Internet. You are allowed 25% originality. This really keeps you on your toes and makes you think more about a writing project.

  2. Very interesting article since I have had other health professionals post entire articles from our blog and make it their own with no links or no credit to us or our blog!! It is supposed to be a kind of flattery, however I did feel abused when I discovered it!

  3. Globalization and information technology has its pros and cons. We are living in a world that is persuaded to consume more than to produce, simply because things are handy. Unfortunately it is the negative part of modern civilization

  4. What if it is the teacher who plagiarizes? We can no longer argue that they grew up in the digital age when the teacher grew up in the days of black and white tv with 3 channels, long before the net.When teachers plagiarize, what is the correct response? Should they keep their jobs? Can they look at students and claim to be role models? Yes, I have had my work stolen by such an individual.

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