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Responding to Plagiarism

Plagiarism matters to educators because acts of plagiarism can undermine the student learning outcomes that they have for their courses. Approaching plagiarism as an opportunity for teaching and learning, rather than exclusively focusing on detection and punishment, has significant benefits for both students and educators. Discussions about plagiarism allow students and instructors to focus on understanding intellectual property, evaluating sources, engaging deeply with others’ ideas, and employing conventions for authorial attribution.

The following pages provide resources about plagiarism and strategies for approaching plagiarism as an opportunity for teaching and learning.

DePaul's Definition

DePaul University’s Academic Integrity Policy defines plagiarism as occurring “when one uses words, ideas, or work products attributed to an identifiable source, without attributing the work to the source from which it was obtained, in a situation where there is a legitimate expectation of original authorship in order to obtain benefit, credit, or gain.” The policy goes on to list a number of possible acts that might constitute plagiarism.

While the Academic Integrity Policy provides a broad, umbrella definition of plagiarism, it is ultimately up to the instructor of a course to define plagiarism and clarify their expectations for students. In terms of reporting potential violations, initial determination for whether or not a student has violated the academic integrity policy regarding plagiarism within a course is made by the instructor.

Communicating why source attribution matters

Address reasons to avoid plagiarism other than “it’s wrong.” Giving students specific reasons will illuminate the issues at stake, and help convince them that doing their own work and attributing ideas appropriately are important.

  1. Plagiarism is a major barrier to learning. This reason is the most compelling and easiest to understand for students. Learning how to integrate and synthesize sources into a cohesive piece of writing takes considerable time and practice. Students who don’t engage in these processes by plagiarising whole texts, for example, forfeit valuable opportunities to develop the skills needed not only for school but also for work and civic life. And students who struggle with writing but resort to plagiarism are less likely to identify strategies and resources that can help them improve.
  2. Using sources effectively increases authorial credibility. Writers who cite relevant, timely, and authoritative sources are more reliable than writers who don’t, and their writing is more compelling to readers.
  3. Attributing ideas appropriately contributes to professional integrity. News stories about writers and politicians who allegedly plagiarized their material demonstrate that accusations of plagiarism can damage an individual’s career and professional reputation.
  4. Citing is part of a long tradition of scholarly research. DePaul Art History professor Mark Pohlad points out that plagiarism presents an exciting opportunity for professors to explain the great tradition of academic scholarship to students.
  5. In schools and universities, students accused of plagiarism can face serious consequences. Students accused of plagiarism may receive a failing grade on the assignment, fail the course entirely, or even be dismissed from the university.

Understanding the causes

The Writing Program Administrators’ statement on plagiarism makes a distinction between intentional plagiarism (deliberately using source material without attribution) and source misuse (careless or inappropriate citation). Understanding the differences between intentional and unintentional plagiarism, as well as the causes of both, positions educators to respond effectively when confronting instances of plagiarism.

Potential causes of intentional plagiarism include:

  • Fear of failing and of taking risks in their own work.
  • Lack of time to complete the work.
  • Perception of the course, the assignment, or citation conventions as unimportant.
  • Generic assignments that elicit uninspired responses.

Potential causes of source misuse include:

  • Unavoidable errors made while in the process of learning to read difficult texts, evaluate sources, integrate ideas with those of others in writing, and document sources appropriately.
  • Research notes not sufficiently careful or detailed.
  • Differing expectations for student work in high schools versus universities.
  • Lack of support from instructors who assume students already learned academic citation conventions in previous courses.
  • Unfamiliarity with cultural conventions around plagiarism and source use in U.S. institutions of higher education.
  • Limited language resources for reading and paraphrasing (particularly for students learning English as an additional language).
  • Not understanding conventions for source attribution and definitions of common knowledge vary in different contexts.

For a more in-depth exploration of why students plagiarize, see SCPS Writing Coordinator Michelle Navarre-Cleary’s “Top Ten Reasons Students Plagiarize and What You Can Do”.

Further reading

Council of Writing Program Administrators. (2003). Defining and avoiding plagiarism: The WPA statement on best practices. Retrieved from: http://wpacouncil.org/node/9

Developed by a task force of writing program administrators, the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ (CWPA) statement provides guidance on institutional policies and teaching practices concerning plagiarism. The CWPA statement’s definition of plagiarism departs from the official DePaul University definition in that it makes a distinction between plagiarism (intentionally using source material without attribution) and source misuse (careless or inappropriate citation). In addition to this more nuanced definition, the CWPA statement provides a useful overview of potential causes of plagiarism and a list of classroom strategies that deter plagiarism.  

Haviland, Carol P., & Mullin, Joan A. (Eds.). (2009). Who owns this text?: Plagiarism, authorship, and disciplinary cultures. Logan, UT: Utah State UP.

This edited collection reports on a three-year interdisciplinary study of faculty members’ conceptions of plagiarism and expectations for how students should use sources. The study documents a discrepancy not only in how plagiarism is defined across disciplines, but also between the way that experts write, collaborate, and attribute ideas in their professional work and the expectations they have for students in their classes. This study provides evidence that in-class conversations about plagiarism and intellectual property are essential to making context-specific expectations of source use explicit to students.

Hyland, Fiona. (2001). Dealing with plagiarism when giving feedback. English Language Teaching Journal, 55(4), 375-381.

In an empirical study of instructor comments on second language students’ writing, Hyland reports on the miscommunications that often occur when instructors give students indirect feedback on plagiarized passages. Indirect comments such as “Are these your own words?” and “I’m afraid this might not be your own work” did not prompt students to revise their work and therefore failed to reduce the instances of plagiarism in student writing. Hyland’s article offers useful guidance on how to be direct, clear, and helpful in responding to student writing while still being sensitive to students’ feelings and culturally-situated understandings of ownership.

Pecorari, Diane. (2003). Good and original: Plagiarism and patchwriting in academic second-language writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 317-345.

Pecorari presents a textual analysis of writing by 17 international Master’s students. In addition to her textual analysis, Pecorari interviewed each student and their instructors. The results of the study suggest that students at the advanced academic level plagiarize without intentionally transgressing academic conventions for source use and that unintentional plagiarism is a widespread, natural stage in learning to write at even the graduate level. Pecorari warns educators against the dangers of conflating the textual features of plagiarism with their “sometimes dishonest causes.” This article offers a particularly helpful developmental perspective on how students learn to write with sources.

Pennycook, Alastair. (1996). Borrowing others’ words: Text, ownership, memory, and plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly, 30(2), 201-230.

Pennycook urges instructors to be more flexible rather than dogmatic in how they conceptualize plagiarism, given that concepts of textual ownership are linked to complex factors such as memory and resistance. He examines three different paradigms of textual ownership from the Western tradition (the premodern, modern, and postmodern) to show how current plagiarism conceptions are culturally and historically situated. Drawing on his experiences teaching in Hong Kong, Pennycook challenges these dominant paradigms by raising questions about memorization, common knowledge, and the ownership of ideas.  

Project Information Literacy. (2011, August 16). Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard: Unraveling the citation trail. Smart Talks, 8.

In this interview, Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard discuss the results of the Citation Project, a multi-institutional study that provides descriptive data on how students use sources in researched writing. The first phase of this study analyzed 174 student papers produced at 16 different colleges and universities, focusing on writing in first-year composition courses. The findings suggest that most students are primarily working with sources on a sentence level through quoting and paraphrasing, rather than engaging with the ideas and arguments of the source as a whole. The researchers offer three suggestions for responding positively to plagiarism in ways that go beyond prevention: (1) teach students to read complex sources critically, (2) teach students to select and evaluate sources, and (3) teach students to summarize longer texts, such as whole articles and books.

Vie, Stephanie. (2013). A pedagogy of resistance toward plagiarism detection technologies. Computers and Composition, 30, 3-15.

Vie offers a critique of plagiarism detection services, claiming that these technologies devalue communal forms of writing, compromise effective teaching, and lead educators to ignore the complexities of intellectual property issues. The article provides a thorough review of recent scholarship exploring the intersections of plagiarism and technology as well as the implications of using plagiarism detection services (p. 4-6). Although DePaul faculty have access to plagiarism detection tools, this article is helpful for considering the issues with and limitations of these tools.

Further Resources​