What Exactly Is Plagiarism?

Ann M. Pearson

Does unintentional plagiarism exist? In a college setting, this question is rather significant. Some purists would claim that it does not exist. Plagiarism is plagiarism. Period. It’s wrong. Everyone knows it’s wrong. As with horseshoes and grenades, there is no almost. As such, so claims this totalitarian approach, all instances of plagiarism must be punished severely.

I wholeheartedly agree with the wrong part. Intentionally taking the intellectual work of another and passing it off as your own is a crime akin to forgery, counterfeiting, and theft. And it is egregious. I do not accept ignorance as an excuse. Ignorance just means you have room to learn.

So, for me, the key concept on determining the severity of the needed discipline in a case of alleged academic plagiarism is intentionality. As an English instructor who isn’t quite old enough to have dated Shakespeare (as a student once asked), but who has been around long enough to see a lot of plagiarized text, I use almost all instances of plagiarism as teachable moments.

Now, a teachable moment may conclude with an errant and unrepentant student learning the nuances of the College’s suspension and expulsion policies, but usually it doesn’t go to that extreme. If a student deliberately cuts passages out of some online source with no citations and attempts to pass off the work as original, he or she is in serious trouble. Mostly for thinking I’m stupid and un-observant. But even this seemingly cut and dried situation has the potential to transform into a lesson—several come to mind: integrity, ethics, fair play, ownership, pride….

Students need to see the big picture relative to plagiarism. Sometimes relating academic dishonesty to a more familiar situation can help. The music industry has numerous examples of alleged plagiarism to study from the George Harrison-Chiffons’s lawsuit to the prevalent practice in the hip-hop community of sampling old lyrics and soundtracks. While not exactly the same as writing an academic essay, these musical examples can start significant conversations about intellectual property, copyright, and artistic protection.

What if student writers didn’t mean to steal, but didn’t fully comprehend how to show others where they found the information they used incorrectly? Students need to understand how to cite sources in their disciplines. The overriding concept may be the same—give others credit. The reality of academic and professional citation, however, is far more complicated. The big guns are still the Modern Language Association Handbook (MLA), used primarily in the humanities, and The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) used by writers in the social and behavioral sciences. But other style guides do exist and have slightly different ways of acknowledging sources, including:

  • The American Medical Association Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors (AMA);
  • The Associated Press Stylebook (AP);
  • The American Sociological Association Style Guide (ASA); and
  • The American Chemical Society Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information (ASC).

Students can easily become overwhelmed by all the choices, which is, however, no excuse for ignoring their responsibility to cite sources. Citing is just part of the package. Faculty can help students recognize style guides as resources. Learning the basics is helpful, but students don’t have to memorize the placement of every comma, and the nuances of every in-text citation configuration. They just need to know where to look for examples and explanations in their chosen style guide and incorporate those models. With practice, some formatting details will become familiar, but students who understand the reasons behind their responsibility to ascribe credit appropriately will soon be able to see citation as just another aspect of the writing process and not a daunting barrier to creative expression.

My biggest problem with ascribing the harshest punishment to students who plagiarize—intentionally or not—is that suspension from a class stops a student from learning. We don’t expect students who don’t spell well to memorize a dictionary; and we shouldn’t expect students to know all the details of professional citation early in their academic journeys. We teach them and guide them repeatedly. Learning isn’t easy, and students need support and direction, not punitive stoppage, to become successful.

Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on August 29, 2017.