The Kiss of Death
Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Professors hate plagiarism. In fact, hate may not be nearly strong enough a word. Loathe, abhor, detestthese get closer to the real emotion. Think about it: the plagiarist not only commits theft; he or she also adds insult to injury, basically gambling that the professor is too dull or lazy to catch the infraction. That is why there is no tolerance for plagiarism. In my courses, the immediate penalty is an “F” for the entire course, not just the assignment where the infraction actually occurred.
The Why of It All...
Two basic questions usually dominate this topic. Why is this penalty so draconian, and why, year after year, do students (even good ones) resort to plagiarism? I’ve hinted at an answer to the first question above. Academics indeed tend to live in a world of ideas, and piracy of those ideas thus strikes us as all the more reprehensible. In addition, here at Longwood we all agree to abide by an Honor Code. That code, along with university policies, and this little rant, all make it clear how seriously we treat plagiarism. Admittedly, some Longwood students of previous years have discovered to their sorrow that this is not merely a rhetorical stance or a bargaining point. It is how it is.
Okay, but if the penalty is so heavy, why do students keep doing it? The overall answer appears to be desperation, a bad decision brought on by either laziness, misplaced priorities, or a combination of the two. Plagiarism may take place most often the night before an assignment is due, but the road to such a choice starts well before. Treat your written assignments seriously; they are actually one of the most direct interactions you will have with your professor. That directness is one of the reasons professors can usually see right through the plagiarized paper. Do not put off your research; do not delay in starting to write. Taking time to do your work right and with care will prevent the accidental plagiarism that results from haste and sloppiness. And note this well: unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism, and the same penalty applies. Steady application and investment in your work will also help to avoid the worst scenario: the deliberate choice to submit someone else’s words or ideas as your own. Do not let the pressure of balancing college’s many demands put you into such desperate straits that you attempt this. The costs are just too high when you are caught.
Defining the Deed
Actually defining plagiarism brings to mind the words of a federal judge who balked at creating a definition for obscenity. “I know it when I see it,” he said. Plagiarism often works in a similar way. Should that make students nervous? Yes, enough to be on their guard, but not so much as to go into catatonic paralysis, fearful of ever writing. I mentioned a definition above, but here it is again:
Sounds simple enough, right? Give credit where credit is due. Be honest. Using another person’s ideas and words is perfectly normal, perhaps utterly unavoidable. We depend on others to spur us towards our own original thoughts and ideas, and it is a sign of responsible research to acknowledge that debt.
“Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap...”
The problem, of course, is that it isn’t so simple. There are some clear, black-and-white examples, but they fade compared to all the tortuous grey areas. For instance, should I credit the group “AC/DC” for giving me this section’s header? Have the words of their song gotten passed around so often and so far that, in a sense, they belong to all of us now? Or there is the story of the judge above. It has been passed around for years now in learned circles, among politically active folk, and especially among anyone who has studied First Amendment issues. Is it footnote-worthy?
Here are some further examples that may offer better clarity (or just muddy the waters even further).
- The Cut & Paste Job: even easier (and thus, more tempting) in the world of the Internet, this is verbatim lifting of someone else’s words from their text into your own without attribution. Many students claim to do this accidentally, “forgetting” to include quotations marks. This excuse does not wash away the error.
- The Cut & Paste with a Thesaurus Job: a mere half-step up on the sophistication ladder, this is essentially the same as the above. Changing a word here and there in a passage does not make it your own original phrasing.
- The Purloined Idea: let’s face it, if you are studying the Third Crusade as an undergraduate, you did not begin with much knowledge about Saladin’s policies. When you discuss these, however, even in your own words, you owe credit to the scholar or primary source that pointed this material out to you.
- The Common Knowledge Filter: the problem I tried to highlight with my section header, this refers to material that is effectively the common property of us all. Some of this is simply the facts and data that we all as educated people naturally hold in our heads. With different audiences, however, this pool of common knowledge can change. It will change during your own college career as you master a growing body of information.
See what I mean by all the grey area? Do I still owe Bon Scott an apology?
Fortunately, there are almost limitless resources available on the web to help you avoid the problem. Here below is a mere pittance of the help offered by academic institutions around the world
- Style Sheet of the Longwood University Dept. of History, Political Science & Philosophy
Why not start close to home? Besides offering a definition that Longwood’s historians agree upon, the deparmental style sheet offers advice on a myriad of other practical matters that you will want as you write your papers, essays, reviews, etc.
- Writing Center
Part of Longwood’s Learning Center, the Writing Center has peer consultants who can help you with your paper. Help you, that is, not write it for you. If you avail yourself of their aid, however, you could benefit enormously from personalized attention, especially in the avoiding-plagiarism department.
- Dr. Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College
This is the site I wish I had put together. Prof. Rael’s site is a treasure-trove of good counsel. Give yourself time really to explore. You can find the plagiarism material under the “Citing Sources” link.
- The Honor Council at Georgetown University
An energetically written essay, this may be one site that explains things in more contemporary terms.
- Writing Tutorial Services at Indiana University, Bloomington
A page recommended especially for the way it walks through a number of related examples, showing with precision why various efforts qualify (or not) as plagiarism.