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Plagiarism as a construct

copypasteA student recently spent some time tearing his hair out in my office because he was really really worried about the possibility that he might inadvertently plagiarize his sources and therefore fail his course. Meanwhile, a group of faculty in a recent workshop worried that their students routinely failed to quote, summarize, synthesize, and cite in proper measure. And every year our Information Literacy in Student Writing assessment project reveals that our sophomores do a good but not great job of knowing when their readers could use some more clues about their sources.

And on the one hand, everyone kind of nods and says, “Yeah, students these days.” But I think that we’re at least as much of the problem.

Lots of academic librarians (and disciplinary faculty) deal heavily in the world of plagiarism detection and anti-plagiarism instruction, but I think long habit and acculturation has made a lot of us feel like plagiarism is an objective thing with rules that everyone agrees on. You don’t use passages in your writing that other people have already used; you don’t pass off other people’s ideas as your own. If you do these things you are either ignorant or bad, or both. Done.

While college policies make it sound like a concrete thing called plagiarism is forbidden, in real life there are a whole lot of circumstances where those rules just don’t seem to fit very well, or where they’re applied one way in one classroom and another way in another classroom. What do you do about writing that results from thoughts developed over the course of class discussion or long conversations? What about the world outside of academic writing, where sharing and re-purposing may be the rule rather than the crime? What about all the genres of writing assigned in classrooms that mimic genres outside of academia and that therefore don’t have the same norms built around them?

Similarly, librarians and faculty either “care about citation” or “don’t care about citation,” but we also tend to link plagiarism and citation as almost one-to-one topics when really citation is about so very much more than just the presence or absence of plagiarism. The complex interplay between what counts as evidence and what counts as proper community participation lead to different norms even within academia. For example, in Lit studies, individual words are the evidence, so quoting individual words is every bit like reporting the response rates on a survey in the social sciences. In other disciplines this kind of quoting is frowned on as “over-citation” and a lack of synthesis. In computer science, there’ll be different rules for your classroom work and your industry work because using other people’s code functions fundamentally differently in an individual competence environment than it does in a development team. Anthropologists tend not to cite each other very much, and historians tend to value rich tapestries of citation functioning as almost a parallel narrative to the author’s work. These rules are not self-evident or consistent, but they are vitally important in their own contexts. Is it any wonder that students are confused?

So my job as a Disciplinary Discourse Mediator is to figure out what the rules are in my departments, why they are that way, and then to help students see the norms that they will be expected to conform to. More than that, my job is to alert students to the importance of figuring out what the rules are for any community they participate in, because the community will value these norms deeply but may express them vaguely (if at all), and when they do talk about they they’ll probably do so as if these are self-evident practices or even a matter of basic human decency.

Right now my strategy has been pretty subtle for the most part, framing any conversations about citation or academic honesty in terms of community norms and (when the situation seems to call for it) explaining some aspect of the connection between the norm and its community. For the rare people who are actually interested, I point them toward the work of Ken Hyland and all the various studies he did on disciplinary practices of quotation and attribution. But I always wonder if there’s something better I could do to usefully problematize the monolithic definition of plagiarism and its strangle-hold on the topic of citation while at the same time actually improving students’ abilities to detect and mimic the practices of the communities they participate in.


Published inTeaching and Learning