Why Students Plagiarize and What We Should Do: Part I

This is part I in a two-part series. For part II click here.

Thinking About Plagiarism

Until I read Rebecca Moore Howard’s article “Forget About Policing Plagiarism. Just Teach.” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I believed I had thought carefully about intellectual honesty. But as I reread her article and read dozens of other articles and essays about plagiarism, internet plagiarism, intellectual dishonesty, cheating, and honor, I decided that I agree with her main point: “If plagiarism by students is a problem, it is best addressed by establishing an academic environment that nurtures an appreciation of intellectual honesty and teaches students what they need to know to avoid dishonest writing.”

Howard’s views challenge prevailing notions of plagiarism as a simple “us versus them” proposition. In fact, one of her most important observations could make many teachers a little uncomfortable. “Most of us,” she argues, “have violated the plagiarism injunctions in one way or another, large or small, intentionally or inadvertently, at one time or another.”

I recall my own rather embarrassing moment of plagiarism. Early in seventh grade, our science teacher assigned a research paper; the subject escapes me now, but everyone in the class was to write a research report to read aloud. One by one we dutifully read large portions painstakingly copied in longhand (this was a long time ago) from the World Book Encyclopedia or, for those from higher-income homes, the Encyclopedia Britannica. About a third of the way through my report, Mr. Frida stopped me and asked what I was reading. “My report,” I answered. “Which encyclopedia did YOU use?” he asked. “World Book,” I stammered in reply. “You COPIED it, didn’t you?” “Yes, sir,” I stammered again. “Sit down,” he barked, then stomped from his desk in the back of the classroom to the front where he spent several minutes explaining at full volume why all of us had failed.

I remember the phrase “lazy cheaters” reverberating in the room and since I was the one reporting when he’d finally lost his cool, I slid lower and lower in my seat to hide my embarrassment and shame. Ultimately, Mr. Frida pulled that report off of his record book and started over with us. He walked us through the note-taking process, explained what he expected us to do, even demonstrated the processes of summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Until then no teacher—not even our seventh-grade English teacher—had done that for us, and most of us had been together since third grade. That experience was a life-changing one.

Of course, not all acts of plagiarism are so innocent. Still, Howard advises, we need to remember that it covers a wide variety of behaviors, circumstances, and motivations. Accidentally omitting a set of quotation marks is not the same as submitting a downloaded paper. And we can’t afford to be glib about the way we deal with our plagiarism policies. We can’t simply hand students policy documents and expect them to read, understand, and abide by them. The policies need reinforcement, explanation, examination, and demonstration.

Why Plagiarize?

Howard suggests two possibilities for students’ plagiarism. For the first she says:

It is possible that students are cheating because they don’t value the opportunity of learning in our classes. Some of that is cultural, of course. Today’s students are likely to change jobs many times before they retire, so they must earn credentials for an array of job possibilities, rather than immersing themselves in a focused, unchanging area of expertise. The fact that many of them are working long hours at outside jobs only exacerbates the problem.

Is Howard advocating that we let students get away with theft and deception? I don’t think so. Certainly, our students are under a great deal of stress to produce quality work with limited time. According to an April 2002 survey by CNN, “many students say cheating’s OK.” A senior in a top Northern Virginia high school told CNN that “cheating is a shortcut and it’s a pretty efficient one in a lot of cases.” This young woman somehow learned that “what’s important is getting ahead ... and if you learn to cut corners to [get better grades], you’re going to be saving yourself time and energy.” Certainly, students’ long working hours lead them to seek ways to “cut corners,” but we as teachers can certainly help them do so without cheating or plagiarism. Our job is to guide students academically and to help them learn to make the correct academic choices, including choosing to write right.

Howard asserts that the second possible reason for student plagiarism is that “rather than assigning tasks that have meaning, we may be assuming that students will find meaning in performing assigned tasks.” Instead, we need to design new assignments and update old ones so that they provide students with authentic work. We also need to be involved in the writing process: “Assigning and grading a paper,” she says, “leaves out a crucial middle: working and talking with students while they draft those papers.”

Although this places a lot of pressure on teachers and administrators, we can’t afford to miss her point: if we leave students alone to work on our assignments in a vacuum, other activities will take time away from their research or writing, and they will find themselves facing blank computer screens 12 hours before a paper is due. That’s when they will cut corners by copying someone else’s work and attempting to pass it off as their own. Administrators must make sure that teachers have time to teach. Teachers must use the time effectively.

What Should We Do?

First, let’s not worry about assigning blame. Parents, school administrators, teachers, testing programs, politicians, the media, and students, too, are all culpable here. We must all address and correct this cultural attitude that seems to condone, and even reward, cheating.

Second, let’s teach study skills. Students need to know how to summarize text without relying on direct quotation, how to paraphrase in their own words, and how to incorporate direct quotations into their own writing. They need to know how to document each “borrowing” accurately and completely. There are no mysteries in these skills, but many of our students have never learned them.

Third, let’s emphasize an expectation of intellectual honesty. Demonstrate your expectations for your students through your own work. Walk them through group exercises of summary, paraphrase, quotation, and documentation. Show them how the proper use of others’ work can enhance rather than detract from their writing. If you use others’ work in your syllabus or other materials you prepare for your students, document it appropriately and mention that you expect your students to document as you have done. Continually emphasizing the ethics of documentation will help spark a change in student behavior.

Next, be accessible to your students. Obviously, you aren’t accessible at midnight before the paper is due, but you should be available during the academic week and at various times during the period in which your students should be working on your assignment. If yours is not a writing workshop, set aside a few minutes at the end of class to talk about student progress on papers, to answer questions about paper expectations, and to remind students of the date the assignment is due. You might even offer students an opportunity to submit drafts for your review relatively early in the writing process.

Finally, there is no “finally.” Teaching is an ongoing enterprise, just as learning is a lifelong activity. As teachers, we must continue to learn about what makes our students tick. We must learn more about how they learn. We must learn not to allow our own prejudices to blind us from our students’ capabilities. We must realize that the students we taught in 1987 are different from the students we taught in 1997 and even more different from the students we taught in 2007. Each generation may require a different approach, but each can come to appreciate the importance of honoring intellectual property. And remember: students who understand—because we have taught them—what plagiarism is and still choose to cheat deserve whatever reasonable punishment is meted out.

Works Cited

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Forget About Policing Plagiarism. Just Teach.”
Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 Nov. 2001: B24.

Slobogin, Kathy. “Survey: Many students say cheating’s OK.” CNN.com. 5 Apr. 2002.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense or U.S. Government.

Authored by

Janice Edgerson Hudley
U.S. Army