Plagiarism: It's More Than Just Borrowing Words

Chairs and tables in classroom
Chairs and tables in classroom

Last week, plagiarism became national news. It got me thinking about the bigger picture of plagiarism, and why it is about more than simply borrowing someone's words or ideas.

Plagiarism is defined as to take (ideas, writings, etc.) from (another) and pass them off as one's own. (Webster's Dictionary)

As a teacher, I see it often. The things listed below routinely happen in my class--

1. Copying portions of another student's essay, but changing some of the wording around.
2. Copying answers off another student's homework.
3. Pulling a paragraph from a website and pasting it into an essay, rearranging some of the sentence order.
4. Overhearing another student explaining an answer, and writing down what you heard word for word on your own homework assignment.
5. Hearing a student explain an idea, and then using those exact words to explain it yourself.

So, which of the above are examples of plagiarism? Every single one. Which of the above examples do you think students have argued are NOT actually plagiarism?

Every. Single. One.

To me, there are bigger issues here: Why don't people understand what plagiarism is, and if they do understand, why do they plagiarize?

People who plagiarize either (1) don't care that they are stealing, or (2) don't believe what they are doing is wrong. Either way, it is really frightening. Plagiarism is rooted in a lack of integrity. When you plagiarize, you disrespect the hard work of someone else. THAT is a big deal. It would be easy to write plagiarism off as the problem of a lazy, entitled generation who has the answer to any question at their fingertips, just an Internet search on their smartphones away.

It is so much more than that.

It is the pressure to be perfect. It is the need to get in to the most prestigious programs. It is the desperation to please parents. It is competition with students who are better prepared. It is being overworked and overtired. And yes, in some cases, it is laziness.

But it is also our fault, for not teaching our kids what plagiarism is, and why it is a big deal.

Very few of the students I confront about plagiarism take responsibility. Most of them say they don't believe that they did anything wrong, or that they didn't mean to plagiarize, as if it just happened. They say things like, "How else would I have answered the question? I used words anyone would use."

Haven't I heard that somewhere recently?

It is true, when asked to answer a question with a definition or factual information, there is often only one way to answer it (e.g., what is the earth's core made of). But when asked to express an idea, share an opinion, or describe a process in your own words, there are many ways to do it (e.g., explain how we know what the earth's core is made of). The way an individual weaves words and ideas together is unique, unless the individual is reading it/hearing it, and copying it down (i.e., plagiarizing). We--as parents and educators--need to teach this.

When adults--adults who are asking us to put the care and leadership of our nation into their hands--blatantly plagiarize, and then rattle off excuses as to why it wasn't plagiarism, or why it is ok to take words that you like and use them as your own, or how they were simply stating common ideas ... it sends a message to our kids that it is fine to plagiarize. What do we expect if the people we pay the most attention to in this country plagiarize and get away with it?

We damn well should expect more. We need to do better when talking with our kids about why it is never ok to take credit for someone else's work. We need to teach integrity.

I am ashamed that we are not holding Mrs. Trump responsible for her own speech, one she claims to have written largely on her own. We let her pass the blame. Are we really surprised that so many young people are looking for the easy way to get an A, the easy path to a degree, or the easy road to success?

We should all hold in the highest regard imperfect, original, toiled over work. Perfect, plagiarized work should hold no value. As educators, we have responsibilities--to hold students accountable for plagiarism, to commend those who produce their own work, to encourage students to seek out help instead of seeking out shortcuts, and to be available and approachable. The bright, capable minds of our students deserve nothing less than to understand why plagiarism is a big deal, and how to succeed without it.