Category Archives: plagiarism

Plagiarism, Accountability, and Adult Hypocrisy

You said “I think I’m like Tennessee Williams”
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in

“City Middle,” The National

A refrain by my father throughout my childhood and into my adolescence has shaped how I try to live my life; it remains possibly the strongest impulse I have as an adult.

My father’s parenting philosophy was possibly as misguided as it was reflective of the essential problem with how adults interact with children and teens: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

As a child growing up in the rural crossroads of Enoree, South Carolina, I witnessed my father announcing his dictum, sitting in our living room with a glass of Crown Royal in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

By the time I was a teen, the scenes were often far more physical, occasionally ending with me on the floor as my father attempted to wrestle me into compliance.

A game of him demanding, “Don’t say another word,” and me replying, “Word,” as he tightening his hold on me against the faux-brick linoleum of a different living room floor.

Adulthood for me has included a career in education, where I have taught and coached, and I am a father and grandfather. I am routinely tested, then, by interacting with children and young adults—challenged not to give into the adult hypocrisy of my father, of nearly every adult I encounter.

When the now-former president of the University of South Carolina was exposed as having plagiarized the end of his graduation speech, I immediately thought of my father and adult hypocrisy, certain that little or nothing would come of the plagiarism by the head of an institution that routinely holds students to draconian expectations for plagiarism and academic honesty.

In this case—unlike many high-profile examples that include Joe Biden, Melania Trump, and Rand Paul—Bob Caslen resigned, but there appeared to be nothing to suggest he was going to be held accountable by the system. And honestly, little consequences will occur to Caslen’s power, wealth, or status.

The university-level equivalent of this for students would be if a student were caught plagiarizing and that student were allowed to drop the course without any academic penalty, continuing on with coursework from there.

In academia, however, plagiarism for students tends to result in an assignment zero, a course F, or expulsion. Caslen is experiencing nothing equivalent to these consequences for students.

Since I teach writing, primarily first-year and upper-level writing at the university level, I often write about plagiarism and citation because these aspect of academic writing are both essential and deeply problematic.

I have even referred to the citation/plagiarism trap since consequences for plagiarism and the gauntlet of citation in college scholarship are disproportionately elements of stress for both students and professors.

The tension for me as a teacher, scholar, and writer is that I recognize how academic honesty and the mechanics of citation serve a writer’s credibility even while citation formatting and style guides are unnecessarily complex and often arbitrary to the point of inanity.

When we are dealing with citation, I find myself telling students that I recognize that APA, for example, is often mind-numbingly complex and essential in academic contexts that require formal citation (students also write using hyperlinks as citation, which emphasizes the possibility of citing that is academically honest and not tedious and pedantic).

The harsh reality about adulthood is that accountability, despite all the grandstanding adults do about it, is heaped mostly upon the youngest, the weakest, and the most marginalized. People with status—Biden, Paul, Melania Trump, Caslen—breeze through life little troubled by the bar we set for children, teens, and young adults in formal schooling.

“Pretenses. Hypocrisy” have driven Big Daddy into a rage, and Brick, to drink.

Especially for those of us charged with the care and education of children, teens, and young adults, we must lead by example; nothing is a worse lesson for young people than rhetoric that contradicts action.

If academic honesty and the proper attribution of other people’s words and ideas matter—and I think they do—certainly those standards must be higher for adults than children.

Otherwise, we are proving children right when they realize—as I did one day as a child standing in a smokey living room in Enoree, SC—that adult words are too often bullshit.

Despite all the jumbled mess that is the work and life of William Faulkner, I side with Addie from As I Lay Dying:

So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.

As I Lay Dying (p. 171)

“Words are no good,” that is, when actions reveal that they are merely words that serve to ask more of some than of others.


The Talk

Yesterday I had The Talk with two of my classes—my first-year writing seminar and my upper-level writing/research course.

Doing so proved to me once again that you can’t have The Talk too often with young people. Students were under-informed, misinformed, and worst of all, filled with fear.

The Talk, of course, for these classes was about plagiarism.

Two students in separate classes shared what I think is far too common with the emphasis on what to avoid, plagiarism, (a deficit perspective) instead of what to do and why, scholarly/academic citation—one having been “terrified” by a seminar on plagiarism when they were first-year students and the other struggling to express their concern about teachers being too “harsh” (a recognition that their experience with citation was mostly about avoiding punishment).

Despite the differences in class levels, these students were equally hesitant to answer basic questions about the purposes of citation and what constitutes plagiarism; they offered tentative and incomplete answers when I persisted in coaxing responses.

We tended to agree, eventually, that what constitutes plagiarism is a complicated issue. Students, unlike teachers and professors, were quick to argue that citation errors are not plagiarism, and students also place far more emphasis on intent (which among my colleagues is typically rejected out of hand).

The purpose of The Talk yesterday was to help students make some distinctions about reasonable expectations for citation in academic settings as opposed to intimidating students into not plagiarizing. My questions revolved around the purposes of the bibliographies included in cited essays as well as the basic expectations of in-text citations.

In other words, I wanted students to feel more empowered with increased confidence in terms of knowing they were not plagiarizing even when they remained uncertain about the formatting expectations of the style manual they were being required to use (my students typically are using APA in my courses but have backgrounds in MLA).

Approaching citation at the conceptual level (and avoiding the negative approach of “don’t plagiarize”) seeks to help students understand attribution in academic settings.

Some of the key concepts I emphasized include the following:

  • Recognizing that the primary purpose of the bibliographies included in cited writing is to provide enough information so that a reasonable person can locate the source with a minimum of effort. I urge students to start with what information is essential for that purpose and then to attend to the tedious formatting requirements of that information next.
  • Understanding that in-text citation is required to identify appropriate attribution of other people’s ideas and words. I have found that students often focus on attribution for words (quoting) but aren’t as apt to voice the need to cite ideas. (Note: Students are well aware that blunt plagiarism—passing off an entire essay as your own when it isn’t or pasting huge sections of text from Wikipedia into an essay as if they wrote it—is wrong; therefore, they see plagiarism as a situation about intent and characterize most concerns raised by teachers/professors in their cited work as citation errors, not plagiarism.)
  • Recognizing that the primary purpose of in-text citations is to include the essential information required by the style sheet assigned so that a reasonable person knows which source in the list of references is being cited. Here, the issues of citation at the conceptual level overlap with style sheet formatting so we discuss the different thresholds of major citation systems (APA focusing on author name and year as opposed to MLA using only the name).

The discussion of citation at the conceptual level seemed to help students feel more confidence as most of them faced the unfamiliar waters of APA, but we also had to confront the elephant in the room—what I call the gauntlet of academic citation.

I shared with students the harsh truths about plagiarism in higher education.

First, I explained my experience on my university Academic Discipline Committee, where many years ago I came to the realization that my university has no official definition of plagiarism and that professors vary significantly in their definitions of plagiarism as well as how they identify and punish plagiarism across campus (some religiously using and others never reporting even blunt plagiarism).

Regretfully, this discussion brought students back to fear, but I think they need to be aware of the unpredictable landscape of citation in college so that they can better advocate for themselves. I specifically urged them to seek out an advocate if they find themselves in situations where they think plagiarism is being misidentified in their work.

Next, I explained to students how systems such as work (another tool for variation in how plagiarism is addressed in different professor’s classrooms) and that these systems are expensive but not as effective as simple Googling.

I also addressed the student’s concern about many professors being too harsh by admitting that academic citation during college is often much more severe than in the real world (where plagiarists become president or serve in the senate) and far more complex than in the real world.

For me, after 37 years of teaching high school and college students writing and the gauntlet of academic citation, I recognized yesterday that we adults fail the citation/plagiarism talk the same way we fail the sex talk—by focusing on what not to do and instilling fear instead of understanding in young people.

This new recognition sits now beside a long-standing Truth I practice and preach about teaching all aspects of writing; there is no one-shot inoculation (or even two-shot inoculation in our age of Covid-19) because writing and the technicalities of citation are complex, things we gradually acquire even as there is simply no finish line.

Instilling fear in young people is a dis-service to them as well as the lessons we hope to teach and the good we believe we are doing for them.

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.

MacBook Pro near white open book
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.

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.

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

My home university has taken another step in our quest to provide our students more effective and intentional first-year and sustained writing instruction during their time at our liberal arts institution. Once we moved away from the traditional English Department-based approach to first year composition and committed to a first year seminar format, just under a decade ago, we opened the door to having professors in any department teach first-year writing.

We are currently re-thinking the first year seminar model, but we are also taking steps to support better professors who have content expertise in the disciplines, experience as researchers and writers, but little or no formal background in teaching writing or composition research. This summer, then, we have begun a year-long faculty seminar on teaching writing.

Coincidentally, on the day this week we were scheduled to address plagiarism and citation, a session I was leading, I came across in my Twitter feed Carl Straumsheim’s What Is Detected?:

Plagiarism detection software from vendors such as Turnitin is often criticized for labeling clumsy student writing as plagiarism. Now a set of new tests suggests the software lets too many students get away with it.

The data come from Susan E. Schorn, a writing coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin. Schorn first ran a test to determine Turnitin’s efficacy back in 2007, when the university was considering paying for an institutionwide license. Her results initially dissuaded the university from paying a five-figure sum to license the software, she said. A follow-up test, conducted this March, produced similar results.

I have been resisting the use of Turnitin, or any plagiarism detection software, but my university and many professors remain committed to the technology. The growing body of research discrediting the software suggests:

“We say that we’re using this software in order to teach students about academic dishonesty, but we’re using software we know doesn’t work,” Schorn said. “In effect, we’re trying to teach them about academic dishonesty by lying to them.”

My general skepticism about technology was confirmed years ago when I was serving on my university Academic Discipline Committee where faculty often debated about whether or not students flagged for plagiarism by Turnitin had actually plagiarized (see Thomas, 2007, below). That debate turned on many issues being raised by the failure of plagiarism detection software, as highlighted at the University of Texas-Austin based on Schorn’s research:

  • Despite industry claims to the contrary, most plagiarism detection software fails to accurately detect plagiarism. Read more.
  • The Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Council of Writing Program Administrators do not endorse plagiarism detection software and have issued statements warning of its limitations. Read more.
  • Plagiarism detection software can have substantial unintended effects on student learning. It perpetuates a very narrow definition of originality and does little to teach students about the complex interplay of voices required in dialogic academic writing.
  • Plagiarism detection software transfers the responsibility for identifying plagiarism from a human reader to a non-human process. This runs counter to the Writing Flag’s concern for “careful reading and analysis of the writing of others” as part of the learning process.
  • Plagiarism detection software raises potential legal and ethical concerns, such as the use of student writing to construct databases that earn a profit for software companies, the lack of appeals processes, and potential violations of student privacy and FERPA protections.
  • Plagiarism detection software does not, by itself, provide sufficient evidence to prove academic dishonesty; it should not serve as the sole grounds for cases filed with Student Judicial Services.
  • Instructors who choose to use plagiarism detection software should include a syllabus statement about the software and its use, establish appeals processes, and plan for potential technological failures.

The fourth bullet above—where the authority for both teaching citation and detecting plagiarism is shifted from the professor/teacher to the technology—is the core problem for me because of two key issues: (1) many professors/teachers resist recognizing or practicing that teaching citation (and all aspects of writing) is an ongoing process—not a one-shot act, and (2) focusing on warning students about plagiarism and suspecting all students as potential plagiarizers (teaching plagiarism, a negative, instead of citation, a positive) are part of a larger and corrupt deficit view of scholarship, students, and human nature.

While plagiarism detection software is being unmasked as not as effective as using browser search engines (a free resource), we must admit that even if software or technology works as advertised, best practice always dictates that professors/teachers and students recognize that technology is only one tool in a larger obligation to teaching and/or scholarship.

Another related example of the essential folly of placing too much faith in technology when seeking ways to teach students scholarly citation is citation software, such as NoodleBib and the more recent App RefMe.

Despite, once again, many universities (typically through the library services) encouraging uncritically students to use citation software, I discourage the practice because almost always the generated bibliographies my students submit are incorrect—in part due to some of the harder aspects of APA for the software to address (capitalization/lower-case issues, for example) and in part due to students’ lack of oversight after generating the bibliographies.

Ultimately, then, if we think of citation software as a tool, and if students can be taught to review and edit generated bibliographies, the technology has promise (setting aside that some citation software embeds formatting that can be problematic once inserted into a document also).

Both plagiarism detection and citation software are harbingers of the dangers of seeking shortcuts for teaching students any aspect of writing; spending school or university funds on these inadequate technologies, I think, is hard to defend, but the greater pedagogical problem is how technology often serves to impede, not strengthen our roles as educators—especially as teachers of writing.

Some lessons from these failures of technology include the following:

  1. Be skeptical of technology, especially if their are significant costs involved. Are there free or cheaper alternatives, and can that funding be better spent in the name of teaching and learning?
  2. Be vigilant about teacher agency, notably resisting abdicating that agency to technology instead of incorporating technology into enhancing teacher agency.
  3. Recognize that teaching writing and subsets such as citation are ongoing and developmental commitments that take years and years of intentional instruction.
  4. Resist deficit thinking about students/humans (do not address primarily plagiarism, but citation).

Straumsheim draws a key conclusion from Schorn’s research: “In addition to the issues of false negatives and positives, plagiarism detection software fits into a larger ethical debate about how to teach writing.”

The ethics of teaching writing, I believe, demand we set aside technology mis-serving our teaching and our students—setting technology aside and returning to our own obligations as teachers.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2007, May). Of flattery and thievery: Reconsidering plagiarism in a time of virtual information. English Journal, 96(5), 81-84.

Statement on Plagiarism Detection Software (UT-Austin)

Preventing Plagiarism (UT-Austin)

Teaching with Plagiarism Detection Software (UT-Austin)

Plagiarism Detection Software: Limitations and Responsibilities (UT-Austin)

Results of the Plagiarism Detection System Test 2013

Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices (WPA)

CCCC Resolution on Plagiarism Detection Services (#3)

Why I Won’t Use TurnItIn to Check My PhD Thesis, Travis Holland

Another Terrible Idea from Turnitin | Just Visiting, John Warner