Plagiarism: Caught between Academia and the Real World

An international student enrolled in a U.S. university presents her first speech for a introductory public speaking course. English is not her first language so writing and delivering the speech present for her problems not faced by students native to the U.S.

All students in the course also submit their speeches to the professor electronically so that the texts can be run through plagiarism detection software. This international student’s speech is flagged for two passages being over 40% unoriginal, word-for-word identical in many areas to a high-profile political speech easily found online.

In academia, students accused of plagiarism and then proven to have plagiarized face dire consequences—failing the assignment, failing the entire course, and/or expulsion.

Having taught high school English and then first-year writing for a combined 30-plus years, and having served on a university academic discipline committee, I have witnessed a wide range of problems with how academia defines plagiarism (including different bars for plagiarism from professor to professor in the same university), how professors detect and address plagiarism, and how students are taught and not taught the ethical and technical aspects of proper citation and use of sources in original writing.

The scenario above, however, has now been very publicly presented through the speech offered by Melania Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

While Melania Trump’s speech has become fodder for parody and humor as well as partisan bickering over whether or not it is plagiarism and whether or not it matters, several key aspects of this act of plagiarism in the real world is being ignored, especially as it informs how we treat plagiarism in academia at all levels.

Here is the ugly truth we in the academy fail to teach students: In formal schooling (and most scholarship), plagiarism is punished harshly, especially when the plagiarist is a student; but in the real world, plagiarism occurs quite a bit, especially in politics, and with very few negative consequences—mostly because the plagiarists are powerful people.

The significant gap between the consequences for plagiarism by a student in school and for powerful people in the real world offers some important lessons for both academia and the public.

In K-12 and higher education, students are subjected to a high level of focus on and scrutiny about plagiarism. However, much of that is about detection and punishment—while too little time is spent directly teaching students about the ethics and technical aspects of choosing, using, and citing sources for original work.

When Rand Paul faced multiple cases of his work, including speeches and publications, being flagged for plagiarism, his response is important to consider (and in many ways parallels defenses of Melania Trump’s plagiarism):

Paul has argued that his speeches aren’t meant to be meticulously footnoted academic papers. He has also noted that he cited the movies he talked about and, in the case of his book, that the Heritage Foundation study and Cato were cited in the endnotes. Heritage and Cato have both released statements saying they don’t take issue with Paul’s use of their work.

For students, this real-world situation seems to suggest that only in academia is plagiarism a big deal, and thus, the academia is over-reacting.

Ultimately, plagiarism in any setting is about attribution of words and ideas to others [1]. From Rand Paul to countless students, the ease with which words and ideas can be lifted from Wikipedia combined with seeing education as mere credentialing or seeing a speech as just a functional thing is a dangerous formula—if ethical considerations matter at all in either academia or the real world.

Melania Trump’s plagiarism deserves scrutiny [2], and plagiarism must remain a line not to be crossed in academic and scholarly work.

While the real world will likely continue to allow some people to skirt consequences for plagiarism, I believe the academy needs to think carefully about how we address plagiarism and the adequate citation of people’s ideas and words.

Here, then, are some guiding thoughts about what must be confronted about plagiarism in the academy:

  • Proper citation and plagiarism are ethical considerations; therefore, formal schooling needs to increase requirements for courses in philosophy (to know the body of thought about ethical considerations) as well as embedding greater time spent on ethics within all disciplines.
  • Students deserve honest discussions of how plagiarism and its consequences are about power as that intersects ethics. Inviting students to investigate real-world cases of plagiarism is an important gateway to their understanding what it entails as well as why they should be making ethical choices in their own education and beyond.
  • Formal schooling needs to reconsider the intensity placed on detecting and punishing plagiarism (including rejecting technology as a central device for the detection) and to place more time and value on teaching students how to gather, use, and cite sources for their work. Too often students are simply told their work is incorrect or plagiarized; too rarely are students then guided through a revision process that requires and allows them to complete their work ethically and properly.

The phrase “merely academic” is a damning one because it captures the gulf between what we do and profess in formal schooling as that is refuted by the real world. When students see the real world functions under significantly different norms than formal schooling, they are apt to tolerate (at best) schooling until they can be released into the real world—too often unmotivated to be critical of or to seek ways to change that real world.

If education is more than credentialing (and currently it may not be) [3], and if education seeks to be transformative for both the students and the society the schools and universities serve, that gulf must be bridged.

Our society and our politics are neither equitable or ethical.

Our schools and universities have a duty to address both—but we must do it through rich and robust teaching and learning, not mere detection and punishment.

[1] While writing a blog post a week ago, I compared edujournalists discovering topics to claiming Columbus discovered America, but as I was writing, I had a nagging feeling I had read that comparison in a slightly different context. I had, and with some searching, realized it was here—thus, adding the hyperlink to my blog post.

[2] The political justifications for Melania Trump’s word-for-word plagiarism reveal the failures of the academia to properly teach people about language use. The online software detection company notes: “The likelihood that a 16-word match is ‘just a coincidence’ is less than 1 in a trillion,” and her speech had a 23-word match.

[3] See Cutting and Pasting: A Senior Thesis by (Insert Name), Brent Staples:

Not everyone who gets caught knows enough about what they did to be remorseful. Recently, for example, a student who plagiarized a sizable chunk of a paper essentially told my friend to keep his shirt on, that what he’d done was no big deal. Beyond that, the student said, he would be ashamed to go home to the family with an F.

As my friend sees it: “This represents a shift away from the view of education as the process of intellectual engagement through which we learn to think critically and toward the view of education as mere training. In training, you are trying to find the right answer at any cost, not trying to improve your mind.”…

If we look closely at plagiarism as practiced by youngsters, we can see that they have a different relationship to the printed word than did the generations before them. When many young people think of writing, they don’t think of fashioning original sentences into a sustained thought. They think of making something like a collage of found passages and ideas from the Internet.

8 thoughts on “Plagiarism: Caught between Academia and the Real World”

  1. Very instructive.
    However, in the real world most of what people say or write is interspersed with phrases borrowed from others be it from books by their favourite authors or from other sources.

    Still, it would be wrong to lift an entire paragraph from somebody’s work without ascribing it to them but using a two-word phrase from a book you read does not really constitute plagiarism, does it?

    1. If that two-word phrase embodies the original author’s idea/thinking, then yes, it does “constitute plagiarism.”

      1. “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” Ayn Rand

        The above as as you can see is a quote by Ayn Rand.

        Now:’Man is always driven by the desire to achieve’_myself

        Humour me now, have I just plagiarised Ayn Rand’s work?

  2. Part of the problem is the over-the-top workload of most teachers of writing. The non-mechanical, considered approach is clearly what is needed. But, faced with hundreds of essays to evaluate on a tight schedule in between teaching and other duties, teachers cannot even physically give each paper (and student) more than cursory attention. This is a systemic problem, not one of deficiency in the individual instructor, who would be ecstatic to have to time to interact with and guide their students, even in groups. The lack of personal closeness and communication between teacher and student, not to even mention on-line “teaching” and “learning,” precludes to a great extent a feeling of responsibility on the part of the student. It’s all just a job to be done with.

  3. Reblogged this on omigacouk and commented:
    This is where I thought the Turnitin system should come handy in every institution to check plagiarism. But when it has to do with speeches, that is a different kettle of fish.

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