Plagiarism?  What Plagiarism?

by Tina Blue
November 14, 2003

          Each semester, on the second day of class, those of us who teach Freshman-Sophomore English at KU are required to explain to our students what plagiarism is and what the penalties for it are. We then direct them to the relevant pages in our department's
Composition and Literature Handbook
, so that they can have a handy reference if they should at any time need a refresher course on the subject.

          But I think we might need to reconsider the issue of plagiarism.

          I don't mean we shouldn't take it seriously or teach our students not to do it.  I just think there are things going on with them that sometimes make our traditional model of plagiarism inapplicable, and that getting them to understand what they are not allowed to do might be more complicated than we think it is.

          Today I had to deal with one of the most bizarre cases of plagiarism that I have encountered since I began teaching college in 1972.

          It started early last week.  My students had turned in their essays on drama, and several had chosen to write about Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House.  But four different papers from three different classes had heavily plagiarized the same two internet essays on the play.  I knew it was plagiarism, not just because the girls were using phrases and sentence structures that didn't sound like them, but also because they were using a lot of the same phrases and sentence structures. In fact, there were whole sentences and paragraphs that were identical or nearly so from one paper to the next. Using Google, it took me only about ten seconds to locate the essays they were plagiarizing.

          But three of the four girls are among the most intense and hardworking students in my classes.  I often see this--where a serious, intelligent, hardworking student will turn in a paper with several chunks lifted from internet essays. It is evident in most of these cases that the students don't realize they are committing plagiarism.  They think they are doing research. Usually it is very easy to clarify the matter for them so that they never make that mistake again.

          Here's how I handled the four plagiarized papers last week.

          I didn't return them to the students that day, because I needed to photocopy them just in case "issues" should arise over time.  But in each of my four classes, I spread the four papers on the desk in front of me, along with the two internet essays they had lifted passages from. I would read a given passage from the internet essay, and then read, one after the other, the same passage in each of the plagiarized essays. Sometimes a passage from the original would not show up in all four papers, but then I would read it from the paper or papers it did show up in.

          Occasionally one of the girls would make some sort of minor modification of the phrasing, but when the passages were read one after the other, the total inadequacy of the modification as a means of avoiding plagiarism became self-evident.

          After this little exercise, which demonstrated to each class how easy it is for us to spot such plagiarism and to locate the source of the plagiarized material, I explained that while I knew that sometimes the plagiarism was deliberate and shameful, I also knew that sometimes it was not--that the person involved meant well, but just didn't understand the line between "research" and plagiarism.  Then I explained in even more detail than I had at the beginning of the semester what sorts of things would lead to a charge of plagiarism, and how to use secondary sources without inadvertently plagiarizing. I also explained again the very serious consequences of committing plagiarism.

          By the way, one of the girls actually plagiarized a third essay that is up on the  internet--a sample essay that I had written and posted so that my students could see what sort of essay I meant for them to write for this assignment.  See what I mean?  If she were trying to get something past me, she certainly would not have plagiarized an essay I wrote myself.

          The next class period, I returned the essays to the four girls, with a message on each that I would not penalize them this time, but that they would have to completely rewrite their essays, entirely as their own work, and turn them in to be regraded.

          Well, two of the girls have turned in their rewritten essays, and they both did a very good job. I checked carefully to make sure there was no plagiarism this time, though honestly I didn't expect that there would be.

          Another girl asked for a little more time to work on the paper, since she had exams in two other classes this week. I gave her the extension.

          But the fourth girl--well, you might find this hard to believe.

          The fourth girl went back to the same two essays she had plagiarized the first time, and instead of getting rid of all the plagiarized passages, she lifted even more material from the internet essays!

          Now, what do you think she thinks she is doing?  She knows I
know she plagiarized the first version of her essay, whether intentionally or inadvertently.  She has been sternly warned and then given a second chance.  And yet she turned in a second version plagiarized even more outrageously than the first version was!

          Is it possible that she believes I won't remember the stolen passages, or that I won't check them against the original if I am not sure? Could she do something this, well, this stupid on purpose?  Doesn't it seem that she must not understand what she is doing wrong--despite my detailed explanation last week?

          Of course I gave her an "F" on this assignment, plus another stern warning.

          I have had to file an academic misconduct report on her, which will go into an English department file. If she never commits another act of plagiarism, then nothing will come of it.  But if she does, then it will be on record that it is her second offense, and she will be subject to more serious sanctions.  I am hoping that this will make perfectly clear to her that she has made a serious mistake and must not ever make the same mistake.

          If she was being intentionally dishonest, having this report on file about her should make her think twice about trying a stunt like that again.

          But if she was not, then that means she still doesn't understand what plagiarism is or why what she did is plagiarism.  I don't know how she could end up not understanding it, and yet to be honest, I still think that is more likely than that she deliberately tried to pass off an even more obviously and outrageously plagiarized essay, especially when she knows that I have the originals it was copied from.

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