The Citation/Plagiarism Trap

An adult more than a decade out of college and working as a staff member in a local public school contacted me about a discouraging experience in an on-line course for a graduate degree.

This person’s story is one I have encountered quite often over almost four decades of teaching at both the high schools and college levels.

This person received a zero on an assignment, identified as plagiarism by the professor. The problem here is that this student was cited for plagiarism on the assignment, yet the citation strategy flagged is identical to a previous assignment that the same professor gave a 95.

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Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

As background, this 30-something student has been required in the first classes of their program to cite using APA, but has received no instruction in that citation format (which they had never used as an undergraduate). During the earlier course, I shared with this person some of the materials I provide students when I require and also give direct instruction and support in proper APA format in my courses.

Throughout the first course and including the first assignment in this second course, the student’s citations have not been flagged as incorrect or as plagiarism.

However, the student described for me the section flagged as plagiarism in the more recent assignment: They copied and pasted from the original source, included the in-text parenthetical citation and bibliography in the references, but did not include quote marks.

It is hard to capture in writing the sound of discouragement I witnessed when I informed this student that this was, in fact, plagiarism because quote marks are always required when using the exact words of a source.

The student immediately explained, “But I did the exact same thing on the last paper and made a 95.”

As I have documented in English Journal, students often have to navigate a gauntlet of different and conflicting expectations for citation as well as shifting parameters for plagiarism across course and professors.

Academic and scholarly requirements for proper citations are more than simple attribution (a reasonable expectation that ideas and words drawn from sources can be easily identified and accessed by a reader) because for students and scholars, citation includes requirements linked to formal stylesheets grounded, often, in disciplinary expectations for those attributions (MLA, APA, Chicago Manual, etc.).

Real-world standards for attribution (such as in journalism) and consequences for plagiarism tend to be quite different than what students and scholars must navigate—creating yet another set of conflicting and contradictory messages for students.

This student also received another layer of mixed messages from plagiarism detection software, which failed to be effective since the student was working from misinformation (what the software flagged hadn’t been identified by any professor as plagiarism).

This situation is deeply frustrating for me because it remains far too common for students but highlights the citation/plagiarism trap that is allowed to persist in many classrooms.

The citation/plagiarism trap for students includes the following:

  • A shifting or absent definition of what constitutes proper citation and plagiarism in any course as well as in the program or school that course serves.
  • A weak or nonexistent connection between assigning/requiring citation formats and direct instruction in using and understanding those formats in connection with a detailed definition of proper citation and plagiarism.
  • A transfer of responsibility for plagiarism detection to (mostly) inadequate software and technology.
  • A culture of detection and punishment that supersedes a culture of teaching and learning.
  • Different and ever-changing citation systems (from course to course and discipline to discipline) that seem arcane and arbitrary to novices.
  • A blurred relationship among proper citation, plagiarism, grammar, and mechanics.

When I explained this situation to a friend who teachers high school ELA, that teacher immediately replied, “O, that student knew better,” because it seems reasonable to expect quote marks around the exact words from a source and common knowledge that students shouldn’t copy/paste from sources.

My experience in this context and with dozens of other students, however, is that what seems reasonable to those of us well-versed in citation and stylesheets is often a maze of equally confusing and capricious requirements for students.

I cannot find any way to see this situation as having value for students; it simply doesn’t serve well why we have expectations for scholarly writing or for fostering students into ethical and skilled scholars and thinkers.

At the core of why this trap is harmful to our charge as teachers of writing and scholarship is in the bulleted list above: many courses create a culture of detection and punishment that supersedes a culture of teaching and learning.

Teaching students to write and cite as scholars is not a one-time inoculation that can be accomplished by simply assigning and requiring a citation stylesheet (and giving students a link to Purdue OWL).

Like the good student trap, the citation/plagiarism trap leads to the very worst lessons we can pass on to our students—mixed messages that perpetuate antagonistic relationships and fails to encourage students to become the sort of ethical and thoughtful people we claim to be seeking.