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More Thoughts on Plagiarism

Based on the time I’ve spent reviewing student papers, it is clear to me that most students do not relate plagiarism to anything they themselves

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Editor's note: Hildreth is writing in response to this disconnect: Seventy-five percent of a student cohort agreed or strongly agreed that copying text without referencing it was plagiarism. Eighty-one percent said that the behavior should result in strong punishment, but when confronted with an actual example, only 30 percent identified it as a serious breach of academic guidelines.

In response to highlights from the article “Plagiarism: An Interesting Disconnect,” which appeared in the April issue of the newsletter, I would have to agree. Based on the time I've spent reviewing student papers, it is clear to me that most students do not relate plagiarism to anything they themselves might do when writing. It's a classic case of “Thee, not me.” I think several factors account for this prevalent student reaction to plagiarism.

Part of their problem is related to a weakness in fundamentals. Research requires a specific set of skills: reading, processing the reading, and reprocessing the information into the writer's own phrasing and syntax. To successfully pull this off, a student needs patience, a good work ethic, a good vocabulary, and excellent reading/processing skills. With my experience teaching at the community college level, I would hazard to say that only a small number of students possess this skill set. Processing information to correctly paraphrase is just too much work for many students. Unfortunately though, critical thinking depends upon this skill set.

Students sometimes mistake intention for action. If a student did not intend to plagiarize, but copied sentences into a paper without attribution, then the action is not perceived to be plagiarism. After all, if I did not intend to be dishonest, I couldn't be dishonest. A great deal of self-righteous ballast is coupled with intention severed from outcome. This ballast is a regular feature of popular culture, further adding to student acceptance of the idea. It's a compound error sealed with the bandwagon fallacy: everybody else thinks the same way too, so it must be true.

Writing is often seen as isolated and unconnected to other disciplines. It is also bountiful, easily accessed online, and apparently everywhere, making it seem relatively worthless. The popularity of convention-shunning activities such as texting and tweeting encourages many students to abandon notions of formal English, structured thought, and ordered reasoning. “Harm” or “damages” from copying words or sentences are not apparent, consequences nonexistent for the most part, and the whole idea of “stealing ideas” is abstract—not concrete and real.

Unfortunately, the concept of personal integrity and self-monitoring for infractions that are seemingly irrelevant is foreign to many students. Taught chiefly by television, our society glamorizes antiheros as unrecognized “genius.” From Ferris Bueller to House to Captain Jack Sparrow, our admiration of people who are dishonest and generally lacking in moral qualities but are nonetheless “cool” is not lost on young people saturated in popular culture. Copying a few words without stating where they came from seems trivial in comparison. The real issue becomes not how or why to avoid plagiarizing, but how to avoid trouble from the instructor. The problem will lessen when our culture changes.

Contact Donna Hildreth at