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Ownership and Intellectual Property

Blame it on the French, or How did we get here?

Every value a society holds is rooted in its cultural past, and the notion of plagiarism-the theft of another’s intellectual property-is no different. We can trace a line of descent back at least as far as the 16th Century French philosopher Rene Descartes. Probably you are familiar with Descartes’ most famous pronouncement: Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes really only intended to solve a problem that had arisen in European philosophy: How can an individual really know that he (or she) exists? How can we be sure? Descartes’ reasoning was that as long as an individual is capable of independent thought-especially of forming a self-concept-then that individual cannot be a mere puppet of some superior being; that individual exists.

So how do we get from cogito ergo sum to copyright law? Well, think about it. If the only proof I have that I exist is my ability to form independent thought(s), then my thoughts define who I am. Thus, Descartes’ pronouncement, which took a while to achieve widespread acceptance, marked Europe’s turn away from the rest of the world, where religious principles still tended to see people as the creatures of a power beyond human control. Suddenly-in historic time-Europeans came to view humans as self-created. As a result, today’s Western world views the products of individual thought differently from the way the rest of the world does.

It is therefore no accident that the first copyright laws developed in Europe, in the 18th Century, or that the United States Constitution contains a copyright clause:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States;

To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;

United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8.

By 1789, when the Constitution was being drafted, the Founding Fathers recognized authors’ ‘exclusive right to their … writings’ thus was born the U.S. copyright law, which the act of plagiarism violates. By law, and perhaps more importantly by the ethics of Western culture, anyone who copies the words or ideas of an author without giving that author due credit by citing the original work is committing plagiarism.

This Western idea is currently being spread to the rest of the world via treaties, trade agreements (The World Trade Organization is just one example), and other measures. Basically, the Western economies have told the rest of the world to comply with copyright law or face being barred from Western markets. In effect, we’re telling the rest of the world to go back and take the turn first described by Descartes. And when your professor insists that you cite your sources, you are being invited to participate in a cultural tradition that is part of Western cultural heritage.

Technology Issues

Plagiarism – Technology Issues

The Question
Not Just Tech
Defining the Problem
A Closer Look
Next Steps
Works Cited

The Question:

The question as to whether technology is contributing to plagiarism in college classes seems simple. From a purely technical standpoint, sure, it’s easier to copy-and-paste chunks of text from one window on a computer to another than it is to re-type entire passages, or even papers. There are even web companies willing to supply would-be plagiarists with canned or customized papers for a fee.

It’s also easier to track these practices. Researching a possible plagiarism case used to (and still can, of course) involve closely analyzing a paper for consistency with past patterns, and trying to piece together a reasoned conclusion as to whether it might have originated with someone else — whether a published source that’s perhaps trackable through available library resources, or a file paper that would be virtually untrackable. More often than not these days, it’s possible to keypunch a short phrase into a web search engine (or a web database specifically for this purpose) and chances of discovering a match are really pretty good.

None of this information is new to someone who works or studies at a university. As Rebecca Moore Howard (a compositionist and leading researcher in the area of plagiarism in college classes) puts it, “If you are a professor in the United States and you have a pulse, you have heard about the problems of Internet plagiarism” (Howard, “Forget”).

But debates about whether technology makes plagiarism — or policing plagiarism — easier seem to miss the heart of the academic community’s real concern: what can we as a community of teachers and learners do for each other in an age that demands that we think differently about how information is shared, borrowed, and used?

Not Just Tech:

The only thing that seems clear is that things are getting more blurry. Even definitions of what constitutes plagiarism are difficult to pin down — for faculty as well as students. And certainly perceptions about how serious a problem plagiarism is becoming — particularly some types of “Internet plagiarism” — is a matter of much debate.

The problems may be bigger than the Internet. For one thing, students clearly need help with understanding plagiarism, and not just when the Web is involved:

  • Psychological Reports study found that “students will use writing strategies that result in potential plagiarism when they face the task of paraphrasing advanced technical text for which they may lack the proper cognitive resources” (Roig 979). More than 60 percent of students cannot tell the difference between paraphrased and plagiarized text (Roig 974).
  • In the Internet realm, as the University of Alberta Libraries points out, the complexity of choosing among and deciphering the many available style guides is further compounded by the difficulty of citing online sources. There is little agreement among the various guides for how one should go about citing an Internet source, and these sources change so rapidly that a cited source may not even exist in the same form the next day (Univ. of Alberta Libraries).
  • What’s more, there’s a common perception among Web users that information on the web is in the public domain (Univ. of Alberta Libraries). (More on this in the next section.)

Data on plagiarism trends among students certainly reflects uncertainty:

  • A Center for Academic Integrity study found that, “from the 1999-2000 academic year to 2001-’02, the number of college students who said they had cut and pasted from the Internet without attribution rose to 41 percent, from 10 percent” (Zernike 10).
  • But these students did not seem to believe they were cheating — at least not at the same level of severity: “Students who thought cutting and pasting was ‘serious cheating’ declined to 27 percent from 68 percent in those two years” (Zernike 10).
  • Interestingly, the faculty teaching these students also seemed less concerned. Teachers “who said cutting and pasting from the Internet was serious cheating dipped to 51 percent from 91 percent” in that same time frame (Zernike 10).

So students are using the Internet to plagiarize, and there also seems to be some disagreement out there about what constitutes a serious academic offense. What’s more, others are articulating serious questions as to whether the Internet actually encourages dishonesty:

  • A Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study found that “online plagiarism is not nearly as widespread as has frequently been suggested” (Scanlon and Neumann 381). While eight percent of the study’s respondents reported having plagiarized by cut-and-paste ‘often’ or ‘very frequently,’ 50.4 percent of them reported that their peers fell into this category, suggesting that students suspected much more plagiarism than was actually taking place (Scanlon and Neumann 379).
  • In addition, “the [RIT] study also found that the amount of online plagiarism students reported engaging in is comparable to the amount of conventional plagiarism — from books or other printed sources — that’s been reported for years” (Scanlon and Neumann 382).
  • The Center for Academic Integrity has found convincing evidence that, although the Internet may simplify cut-and-paste plagiarism, it doesn’t create cheaters out of otherwise honest people. In a study of 25 high schools, 54 percent of students said they plagiarized from the Internet, but only a small fraction plagiarized only from the Internet. In other words, most plagiarizers would have done so with or without the technology. “It appears the Internet is merely the means not the primary motivation for those students who copy text from the web and pass it off as their own,” according to Cara Branigan, Assistant Editor of eSchool News. “Most of the cheaters said they would have plagiarized anyway” (Branigan).

So it’s not just the technology, according to these studies — something else is going on here. If we pay attention to it, we might find that it’s something that we, as educators and academics, might be able to do something about.

Defining The Problem:

First of all, whatever the problem is, it’s looking like we’re all in it together — university students, faculty, and administrators — and we all could use some definition. Since technology is looking less and less like an instigator of the problem, too much focus on it might very well distract us from recognizing that the uncertainty surrounding Internet sources, and indeed plagiarism in general, is very much a part of academic culture right now. “Encouraged by digital dualisms,” suggests Howard, “we forget that plagiarism means many different things: downloading a term paper, failing to give proper credit to the source of an idea, copying extensive passages, without attribution, inserting someone else’s phrases or sentences — perhaps with small changes — into your own prose, and forgetting to supply a set of quotation marks” (Howard “Forget”).

“If we ignore those distinctions,” Howard continues, “we fail to see that most of us have violated the plagiarism injunctions in one way or another, large or small, intentionally or inadvertently, at one time or another. The distinctions are just not that crisp” (Howard “Forget”).

Robert Boynton, in a Washington Post& article titled “Is Honor Up for Grabs?” attributed the confusion for students, at least in part, to what he called the “Napsterization of knowledge — the notion that ideas (like music) are little more than disembodied entities, ‘out there’ in the ether, available to be appropriated electronically in any way users wish” (Boynton B01).

“What now constitutes honorable behavior,” he suggests, “is an open question” (Boynton B01).

His suggestion is to stay focused on the principles rather than on the technology: “…for all the added efficiency, … copying is still copying. Cheating is still cheating. The words you present as your own either come from you or from someone else. All the technology in the world will never change that” (Boynton B01).

But other researchers and scholars are complicating things even further by pointing out that the Internet, with the free exchange of ideas and information that it suggests, might be exposing a constructed and somewhat artificial basis for plagiarism rules and intellectual property in general. Through this lens, the truly collaborative nature of all writing and ideas is surfacing, making plagiarism rules seem a bit outdated. contributor Victoria Olsen refers to compositionist Andrea Lunsford’s work when she suggests that “the very nature of these controversies over student plagiarism may change as certain notions of authorship and what constitutes intellectual property continue to evolve.” Part of this evolution, in Olsen’s interpretation, hinges on understanding the inherently collaborative nature of writing: “By making it difficult to trace the origins of a text or idea,” she explains, “the Internet reminds us that writing is a collaborative process” (Olsen).

“If these ideas gain ground,” Olsen continues, “crediting someone with ‘ownership’ of intellectual property may begin to seem absurd, and plagiarism may become obsolete — through its sheer acceptance” (Olsen).

In the work on which Olsen’s article is based, Andrea Lunsford and her collaborators ask us to consider that the notion of intellectual property is central to current understandings of academia. In light of the more open system of information sharing suggested by the Internet, though, she poses a series of interesting questions raised by the electronic age: “What happens if the knowledge products educational institutions have reserved as their prerogative are now readily accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime? What happens if the producers of that knowledge, the romantic ‘authors’ … are so widely dispersed as to be invisible, parcelled out in so many ways and through so many different hands that ‘ownership’ cannot be fixed to a person or persons? What happens if the electronic revolution effectively destroys old systems of the ‘right’ to copy, to copyright? What then?” (Lunsford et al., 11).

That’s food for thought, anyway. We’re not there yet, obviously — we have policies and responsibilities as scholars and educators who must recognize current standards of ethical scholarship. And we need to think about how to be scholars in a digital age in the academic culture that exists now. But as Lunsford asserts, “if we do not get in on this discussion, we are going to be written and shaped by it — in ways we may not like” (Lunsford et al., 8).

“The information genie is out of the bottle,” Boynton exclaims, “and even the grown-ups can’t decide whether to try to put it back in, or to live with the anarchy it has created” (Boynton). For Donald McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity, the choice here is clear: “The challenge for educators is we need to come to some agreement on what the rules are, because students are not accepting the rules that have been out there for years” (Zernike 10).

So maybe there’s something we can do in our classrooms to help each other explore what’s behind these constructs, to look ahead a little, and to participate in shaping the shift that’s already taking place, with or without us.

A Closer Look:

If rules about plagiarism are becoming fuzzy, and if many uses of the Internet seem to contradict academic understandings of intellectual property, perhaps one place to start would be to spend more, rather than less, time working with the Internet and talking about the role of technology in honest, interesting scholarship.

It also seems important, given the level of shared confusion among all members of the academic community over what constitutes plagiarism, to recognize that plagiarism does not (necessarily) equal cheating. In fact, many forms of plagiarism seem to be more an indicator of learning waiting to happen than an attempt at fraud.


Internet technology provides an opportunity to more closely examine a practice that Rebecca Moore Howard has termed “patchwriting.” This practice of copying, or cutting-and-pasting, small amounts of text from the Internet (or elsewhere) and claiming it for one’s own is often, at worst, just a misunderstanding on the writer’s part of the conventions associated with using others’ ideas. At best, it’s often “a move toward membership in a discourse community, a means of learning unfamiliar language and ideas,” Howard explains. “Far from indicating a lack of respect for a source text,” she continues, “…patchwriting is a gesture of reverence” (Howard, Standing, 7).

Howard suggests teaching with patchwriting in mind. For example, to help writers become at once more cognizant of how such practices are often viewed in academic culture, and also to help them practice the process of interpreting and summarizing difficult material, she’ll conduct a class session in which the class summarizes particularly difficult passages together (Howard, Standing, 141-145).

Taking this a step further, she even suggests that writers new to the discourse of their disciplines might benefit from deliberatepatchwriting — albeit on a temporary basis — in order to pay attention to the language and patterns those writers use and to ways those practices might influence their own writing (Howard, Standing, 145-149).

And finally, Howard urges writers to spend time on the context in which notions of plagiarism, and patchwriting as plagiarism, developed and are sustained. Examining the theories out of which these issues developed, she explains, can “acquaint students with the history of and current theoretical work in authorship, so that they come to realize that the autonomous, originary, proprietary, moral author is not a foundational fact, but a cultural arbitrary, one that still governs the expectations for their own writing but that is nevertheless ceaselessly undergoing change” (Howard, Standing, 151). In doing so, a writer will not only come to understand what is acceptable and what is not, and will not only learn how to use their sources accordingly, but will better understand what they are able to do as authors, thereby gaining greater facility with expressing their own ideas.

Examples for practice and critique

Because the Internet offers open exchange of information, it’s not difficult to think of other ways in which writers could use its resources while simultaneously examining its role in academic scholarship. It provides a wealth of examples, for example:

  • Critiquing web sites can help groups of writers come to consensus about what good writing and good scholarship is.
  • Examples can also be chosen for their ability to helphone critical thinking skills (what constitutes well thought-out argument? what holes can be poked in an argument that seems sound on the surface? how would a comparison of two different perspectives raise additional questions?).
  • And of course, it’s not difficult to find opportunities on the web to discuss evaluating sources.

All of these practices can help think about not only web resources but also about broader issues of finding, evaluating, synthesizing, and presenting one’s own work in ways that are appreciated by the broader academic community.

-Audiences and colleagues

The Internet not only offers writers countless sources that we can go out and get, but a (theoretically) vast audience for our own work. Web pages that writers might produce are one way of accessing this audience. But listservs, chat rooms, news groups, discussion boards, and other communications opportunities that the Internet provides can put us in touch with others who share our interests and who can help us develop our thinking. By engaging consciously in this process, it’s also possible to think more deeply about how knowledge is formed through the exchange of ideas.

Next Steps:

The Internet is not a panacea, of course. But neither does it seem to be the instigator of the problems we’re seeing with academic dishonesty. By looking away from the technology and toward the culture shaping its use scholars are bound to find some fascinating and extremely challenging questions to grapple with.

The problems are real, of course: students are having more and more trouble making choices about how to use sources, and are less and less inclined to understand that some of the practices they sometimes resort to are considered dishonest and are (or should be) taken seriously (a confusion that faculty seem to share, at least to a certain extent).

In short, the question of whether or not technology makes plagiarism easier doesn’t seem to matter. What constitutes responsible scholarship given the changing landscape of information exchange, and how we can help each other engage in the practices that responsible scholars engage in, seems the more critical question, and one that we, as a community of educators and students, are better equipped to address.

Works Cited:

Boynton, Robert S. “Is Honor Up for Grabs? Education Isn’t About Surveillance.” Washington Post. May 27, 2001: B01.

Branigan, Cara. “Rutgers Study Confirms that Web Makes Cheating Easier.” eSchool News Online (May 11, 2001)

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

——-. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1999.

Lunsford, Andrea, Rebecca Rickly, Michael Salvo, Susan West. “What Matters Who Writes? What Matters Who Responds?” Kairos1.1 (Spring 1996)  (Apr. 18, 2003).

Olsen, Victoria. “Jane Eyre, To Go.” (Nov. 13, 1998)

Roig, Miguel. “When College Students’ Attempts at Paraphrasing Become Instances of Potential Plagiarism.” Psychological Reports 84 (1999): 973-82.

Scanlon, Patrick M. and David R. Neumann. “Internet Plagiarism Among College Students.” Journal of College Student Development43.3 (May/June 2002): 374-85.

University of Alberta Libraries. “Why Students Plagiarize.” Guide to Plagiarism and Cyber-Plagiarism. 2002.  (April 18, 2003).

Zernike, Kate. “With Cheating on the Rise, More Colleges Are Turning to Honor Codes.” The New York Times (Nov. 2, 2002): Sec. A, Pg. 10, Col. 1.

Cultural Perspectives


Cultural Perspectives on Plagiarism

Different cultures have various customs about how to use texts, how borrowing should happen, and where names should be placed. The “I” writing this text is unnamed because the group producing this web site agreed to work and share collaboratively. In some traditional cultures in Asia and the Middle East, for example, college students are expected to quote or paraphrase the best known political or religious authorities without attribution because readers, especially professors, are expected to know what texts are being circulated. Indeed, it might be a serious insult to the teacher if the student writer formally cites the text being borrowed. The student writer in one of these traditional cultural settings must understand what she or he can reasonably expect readers ­ professors ­ to know as a source text being quoted or paraphrased without being cited. If the student misjudges what is common knowledge, either by citing what is common knowledge or by not citing what is not common knowledge, the student writer gets into real trouble. Gaining enough intellectual maturity and experience to know what is common knowledge in a traditional culture is a complex and demanding task.

If determining what constitutes common knowledge in a traditional culture is a complicated process, especially for first-year college students, imagine how much more perplexing this process is in intercultural spaces, such as American universities. An intercultural space is a place where a number of cultures meet, overlap, dispute, and challenge. It is a place of endless restructuring. It is a locale that bridges, contests, and separates what might seem like unchanging cultural structures. But if one sees cultures as interactive and unfixed, rather than self-contained and stable, then intercultural spaces resist any form of stasis and can suddenly change dramatically and in the most surprising ways. Authoring and plagiarism are just such intercultural spaces. A national authority on authorship and plagiarism, Rebecca Howard argues that “the autonomous, originary, proprietary, moral author is not a foundational fact, but a cultural arbitrary” (151). We are in the midst of the most fluid and conflicted transformations of authorship and plagiarism since Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum invited the concept of legal ownership of intellectual property. Students who work through intercultural landscapes and a fluid experience of authoring discover that if words are many-sided acts, territory shared, student writers need to move from having inherited values and beliefs to choosing or modifying them through the use of consciously intentional language. This is the time when especially first_year students fear open questions. They fear the clear need for re_conceptualization: students invariably ask some form of two questions: “where will re-conceptualization lead?” “What and who will I become?” Students in the intercultural spaces of American universities by the very conflicting nature of intercultural spaces, are forced to question the sustaining postulates of the world view they inherited. Students need to consider the democratic character of the pursuit, and regard it as the minimum requirement for education to take place. As one Chinese student — Fu Chun — wrote: “if a college course doesn’t produce times of deep writer’s block, and if a classroom experience doesn’t produce intense culture shocks, then one has retreated to the surface of things, to comfortable stereotypes and deadly familiar dogma.”

The first-year college classroom is a new culture to students in which there is a perpetual invitation to analyze and criticize all cultures, including academic discourse itself, endlessly, and to act on the critique. Academic discourse becomes more than playing with ideas; it is an invitation to change self and society individually, collectively, and democratically. Students who work through culture shock and writer’s block begin to realize that writing is an author’s answer to the world and is a powerful form of action. As we move increasingly in the direction of multi-media authoring, students are demonstrating the desire to create new conceptual environments in which diverse, overlapping, cultural and intercultural perceptions and experiences provide new environments for acts of freedom and connectedness. Authorship and plagiarism are the most contested and rapidly changing intercultural landscapes in the American academy. Who or what are we becoming?

Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants : Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, Conn.: Ablex Pub., c1999.

Teaching Strategies

Assignment Design and Its Role in Plagiarism

The relationship between the type of assignment and its resulting student product is new territory. Often times, faculty lament about the poor quality of student work, and often do not reflect upon poorly constructed assignments might play a factor in the lack of such quality, and may even invite or encourage students to be academically dishonest. Further complicating this issue is the immediate accessibility of electronic information which can be cut-and-pasted into a document effortlessly. Further, many assignments are based on information retrieval, and have no engaging purpose making plagiarism almost the logical outcome of the assignment for the students.

First, teachers should consider the following complicating factors in students’ responses to assignments.

  1. Different countries have different ideas about the ownership of ideas. Some cultures encourage students to use other sources directly because they are not “owned” by the author, and because it is a form of respect or flattery to copy the master.
  2. Even if students are not from other countries, many have a hard time understanding that ideas are currency in US Universities. People’s careers and economic securities are based on the ideas they generate and write about. Not giving status to such things, undermines their reason for being.
  3. Assignments often only ask students to retrieve information. They don’t require students to engage with, take a stand on, or do anything else with course information. This puts students in the quandary of trying to present a paper full of others’ ideas in some sort of interesting way without having a useful purpose. Is it any wonder that students unintentionally plagiarize?
  4. Different disciplines have varying standards on the type of information that needs to be cited. Common knowledge is defined contextually. While it is the burden of the writer to ascertain the level of common knowledge, students often find themselves taking courses in different disciplines with conflicting standards. This can be confusing to students.

Several things can be done by faculty to head off or lessen the chance of plagiarism. First, having a frank discussion with students about expectations within your discipline, and for your specific course is essential. This conversation should occur at all levels in all varieties of courses. This is not a discussion reserved by the folks who teach the introductory writing course. Since conventions vary from discipline to discipline, it’s important that you inform your students about the expectations for your specific situation.

Second, it’s important for faculty to realize that everyone across campus has the responsibility of teaching students to write and think. In these endeavors, we’re all in the same boat, and have a vested interest in helping students think and write better.

Next, consulting useful pedagogical resources to design effective assignments and looking at ways to discourage plagiarism through effective pedagogy are important too. See Jamie McKenzie’s article, “The New Plagiarism: Seven Antidotes to Prevent Highway Robbery in an Electronic Age”, McKenzie asserts seven points in preventing plagiarism before it starts. According to McKenzie these include:

  1. Distinguishing the types and levels of research.
  2. Discouraging “trivial pursuits” or finding discrete facts just for the facts’ sake.
  3. Emphasizing essential questions.
  4. Requiring and enabling students to make answers.
  5. Focusing on information storage systems.
  6. Using student friendly methods for citation.
  7. Assessing students’ progress throughout the writing process.

Assignment Heuristic

This document prompts faculty to articulate the types of things they would like their students to do in the assignments, and tries to help the faculty get at the reasons why.

What is the name of the assignment, when is it due and how does the assignment fit in with the goals and objectives of your course?

What is the main purpose of the assignment?

To demonstrate:

  • Critical Thinking skills
  • Innovative or creative thinking
  • Content knowledge
  • An understanding of disciplinary conventions
  • Other

What types of student perspectives or opinions can be incorporated into this assignment?

  • None
  • Changes since starting course
  • Personal values
  • Values synthesized with facts and sources

How pervasive should student opinion be in this assignment?

  • It should not be included
  • It should frame the assignment
  • It should be present only as an addition to other perspectives

What kinds of perspectives and positions might be integrated into the analysis of the issue?

  • Expert perspectives in the field of study
  • Popular opinion
  • Other

How do you want the student to integrate perspectives and positions into the analysis of the issue or problem solution?

  • Not at all
  • Through referencing
  • As examined through a predetermined structure
  • As examined through a student-determined structure
  • As examined through one or more overt theoretical frameworks

What kinds of assumptions do you want students to recognize with regard to this issue or in their approach to the problem?

  • None needed
  • Student’s personal bias
  • Predominant Cultural biases
  • Awareness of views of different sub-groups
  • Awareness of evidence
  • Different theoretical frameworks
  • Limits or constraints to the observation of the problem or issue
  • Awareness of credibility of sources

What do you want students to do with their recognition of assumptions?

  • Nothing
  • Describe
  • Analyze
  • Explain relevance

What kinds of supporting evidence is appropriate?

  • Personal anecdote
  • Interview
  • Researched materials
  • Books
  • Internet materials (limits?)
  • Scholarly periodicals
  • Popular culture materials
  • Newspapers
  • Other

How do you want students to use their evidence?

  • Summarize to compare it with evidence from other sources
  • Synthesize evidence from various sources to support generalizations and prove a point
  • Extrapolate issues to draw conclusions (inductively or deductively)

What do you want the student to do to conclude the assignment?

  • Summarize main points
  • Consider personal implications
  • Consider social-cultural implications
  • Give the reader instructions or directions for additional thought or action
  • Draw plausible connections which support larger principles or theories
  • Other

What rhetorical (communicative) mission does this piece of writing have?

  • To teach
  • To persuade
  • To entertain

Who is the intended audience for this piece of writing?

  • Professor
  • Peers, friends, family
  • Classmate
  • Layperson
  • Professional in the field
  • Child
  • other

How long should the piece of writing be and how does this length support the assignment?

  • 1-2 pages
  • 3-5 pages
  • 6-8 pages
  • 8-12 pages
  • 12-20 pages
  • Other

Additional Details to consider:

  • Formatting requirements
  • Number of expected drafts or options for revision
  • Opportunities for extra-credit
  • The appropriateness of group work
  • Would the assignment be better if given in parts or stages?
  • Are there activities that could accompany the assignment?

Plagiarism – Severity

There are many kinds of plagiarism and many factors surrounding the severity of the violation. This table can be used by instructors as a tool for measuring the severity of a plagiarism violation and as a guide for a classroom discussion about plagiarism. Instructors are invited to define consequences for the various degrees of violation and to redefine the point system as they see fit. Begin by selecting at least one of these six forms of plagiarism (below – left hand column).

Plagiarism: Calculating Severity

  Choose one of these two measures of plagiarism frequency for each selected form of plagiarism Choose one of these two measures of intention
  A few examples seen across the work Numerous examples seen across the work Unintentional Intentional (or regardless of intent)
1. Evidence of incorrect paraphrasing because did not change the wording or sentence structure 2 6 2 5
2. Evidence of incorrect paraphrasing because of incorrect usage of the appropriate citation style 1 5 2 5
3. Evidence of incorrect paraphrasing because did not provide any citation information 3 7 2 5
4. Evidence of incorrect quoting (directly copying) because of incorrect usage of the appropriate citation style 1 5 2 5
5. Evidence of directly copying without giving credit (providing a citation) 3 7 2 5
6. Turning in a work completely written by another person (other people) n/a n/a n/a 55
Total Points (3 – 55) Degrees of Violation Consequences
3 to 10 less severe TBA by instructor
11 to 35 more severe TBA by instructor
36 to 55 most severe TBA by instructor

What is it?


Plagiarism: What is it?

There are two circumstances that could give rise to a charge of plagiarism:

  • Cheating (intentional plagiarism)
  • Misuse of sources (unintentional plagiarism)

Intentional plagiarism (cheating)

Intentional plagiarism is where one knowingly appropriates the work of others and passes it off as their own. This can include:

  • copying entire documents and presenting them as your own;
  • cutting and pasting from the work of others without properly citing the authors;
  • stringing together the quotes and ideas of others without connecting their work to your own original work;
  • asserting ideas without acknowledging their sources, reproducing sentences written verbatim by others without properly quoting and attributing the work to them;
  • making only minor changes to the words or phrasing of another’s work, without properly citing the authors.

Intentional plagiarism can also involve inventing sources to which you would attribute your own ideas to make them seem credible. Intentional plagiarists can be either ignorant of the seriousness of the offense, or disrespectful of the seriousness of the offense.

Unintentional plagiarism (misuse of sources)

Unintentional plagiarism, or the misuse of sources, is the accidental appropriation of the ideas and materials of others due to a lack of understanding of the conventions of citation and documentation. Misuse of sources might include a lack of understanding of paraphrasing, not being clear about the parameters of common knowledge, and/or the statute of limitations on the attribution of ideas. Since rules of attribution are culturally determined, much of unintentional plagiarism could also be the result of writers not understanding the sanctity with which American academics endow the concept of idea ownership. The misuse of sources can be the result of ignorance or laziness, but is not the result of a desire to cheat.

“Common Knowledge” and context

Material that can be plagiarized is material that does not meet the criteria for “common knowledge” and is the product of someone else’s research, experience and investigation. However, because the criteria for common knowledge are a relatively undefined set of parameters, it allows for misunderstandings that could result in unintentional plagiarism. However, because it often makes no difference whether you have intentionally or unintentionally plagiarized—it is still treated as a violation of the codes of academic honesty—it is important for you to gain as much knowledge about using and citing sources as possible. The following lists attempt to sort out what does and doesn’t need to be cited. Because, however, much of what constitutes common knowledge is audience specific, it is impossible to create a table that unequivocally illustrates the rules of citation.

What doesn’t need to be cited or attributed

  • Common knowledge (often determined by audience and context):
    George Washington was the first President of the United States.
    Locations near the equator are warmer than those closer to either pole.
  • Your own words and ideas in your own work.
  • Clip art on your computer.

Grey areas

  • New scientific discoveries, even if they are headline news.
  • Things you learn in conversation with others.
  • Things that may be common knowledge to you but not to others.

When citation and attribution is needed

  • Any information taken from sources that are not common knowledge, even if this information is in the public domain (free of copyright).
  • Any quotations, even if you are quoting something that would otherwise be common knowledge (such as quoting from a dictionary or encyclopedia).
  • Using proprietary materials such as images, audio, or videos.

How to Spot It?

How to Spot It?

Signs Denoting Possible Plagiarism

Oftentimes, teachers suspect a student of plagiarism because something in the paper just doesn’t seem right somehow. They can’t always put their finger on it, but there is a suspicion. What should you do if you are a teacher and you suspect that what you are reading may be plagiarized? Here are a few things you can look for to help you figure out what exact features are causing you to view the writing as suspect.

The most important step in spotting potential plagiarism in your students’ writing is familiarizing yourself with their own writing style. One way to go about this is to assign in-class writings that you keep on file for future reference or comparison should questions of plagiarism arise. These samples should give you some idea of your students’ voice, tone, vocabulary, sentence structure, level of sophistication, etc.

Now that you have a point of reference with regard to your students’ writing, you can be aware of features in the writing that are different from that you have come to expect from the student. Things to notice:

  • Sudden changes in audience, tone, vocabulary, sentence structure, level of sophistication, degree of depth or understanding of topic
  • Writing that seems far more sophisticated than that you normally see or expect in students of the same level
  • Anything else that strikes you as different from student’s other writing or interests

You will likely come to recoginze features of individual students’ writing as the semester progresses and you become more familiar with your students and their writing.

Independent of knowing your students’ writing, other features that may suggest a fully or partially plagiarized paper may include:

  • Font of paper suddenly changes (suggests copy/pasting)
  • Inconsistencies in citation format or usage
  • Complete lack of citations, especially for complex material/ideas
  • Last minute change of paper topic or research focus

Citation Help

Citation Style Quick Guides

These quick reference guides are designed to provide easy access to common formatting and stylistic requirements for each citation style. If we do not currently have a citation guide for a style you are working with, or you suspect that there may be an error, please take a moment to provide feedback.

APA (American Psychological Association)

The APA citation style is frequently used in the Social Sciences.

CSE (Council of Science Editors formerly CBE)

The CSE citation style is frequently used in the Natural Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Mathematics, Physics).

Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style has two methods of documentation, the humanities style (notes and bibliography) and the author-date style.

MLA (Modern Language Association)

The MLA citation style is frequently used in the Humanities.

NLM (National Library of Medicine)

The NLM citation style is frequently used in the Health Sciences disciplines.

SSSA (Soil Science Society of America)

The SSSA citation style is frequently used in Soil Science, Agronomy, and Crop Science.

Additional resources

How Do I…? | Tutorials

How Do I…? | Tutorials

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