First Lady Melania Trump got a pass for plagiarizing former First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech because a staffer took the blame. But college students accused of plagiarism seldom get a pass. Graduate students, college students, high school students, professors and journalists all get accused of plagiarism. Unlike the First Lady they lack any staffers to blame, so they suffer the consequences. The consequences can be severe.
At many schools, plagiarism results in sanctions ranging from an “F” on a paper to expulsion. Mid-range sanctions may include failing the course and receiving notations on the student’s transcript. Such notations range from temporary ones to permanent ones and can follow a student when they seek transfer, graduate school admission, security clearances and employment. Even worse, applications of all types often ask if the applicant has ever merely been the subject of or accused of any academic honor code violation. For professional academics and journalists, even an accusation or suspicion of plagiarism carries career-threatening stigma.
Yet all this arises from a term lacking any consistent definition among high schools, colleges, academia, and journalism. Academic honor codes from Harvard to George Washington University cannot even agree on whether plagiarism requires intent. Thus, at many universities it makes no difference whether a student intentionally tried to pass off another person’s words as their own or unintentionally mis-cited some references in a paper. Both actions constitute plagiarism.
Plagiarism is hardly a new phenomenon. Even Shakespeare is not immune from rumors that he plagiarized and children learn writing techniques through assignments involving copying the styles of famous authors. Arguably, successful plagiarism is more art than copying. Theoretically, all art builds upon the work of past artists. Poetry, songs, and paintings all copy, innovate and expand upon past works with allusion, not attribution. Digitization of music has created wider opportunity for such techniques as mashups which, as Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams found out, when they were sued by the estate of Marvin Gaye, can be used to prove copyright violations (a form of plagiarism) as well as creating plagiarism issues of their own. Indeed, a popular plagiarism detector app – Turnitin – even has a category of plagiarism named “mashups.
So what do our schools do to educate students about how to avoid plagiarism? Very little.
From elementary school through graduate school, students learn nothing meaningful about plagiarism and how to avoid it. Rather than methodical instruction on the multiple forms of citation and the analysis required for good paraphrasing, schools and teachers treat plagiarism as a morality issue needing no instruction. The charge stigmatizes the accused as cheaters and poor students lacking original thought. But assuming “good” students innately understand the intricacies of academic citation is a poor assumption when little or no instruction exists. Over- reliance on plagiarism detection software encourages abdication in teachers and administrators of their mission to educate. A teacher who knows their student can nearly instantly recognize if a student’s writing style is not their own. The right approach in such cases would be to confer with the student and find out the origin of their mistakes and the correct sources of their work. Reliance upon a word-match percentage tells little about a student’s learning processes or thinking.
When investigating plagiarism, schools would do well to remember the teaching from Ecclesiastes 1:9: “there is nothing new under the sun.” The problem of plagiarism is nothin new. Nor is the solution. Schools must stop playing a game of “gotcha” and instead focus of the hard work of teaching.