I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

To Plagiarize or Not to Plagiarize

                                                                                                      by Heidi Larson Geis

I wrote something amazing today and I’m so proud of it I just had to share it with you:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Can you believe how talented I am? Wait, what? You think that it sounds familiar and you wonder if maybe I’m taking credit for the awesome writing of someone else?

(Photo: Kirsten Brownrigg, Herald de Paris)
Well, you would be correct. One of my favorite English writers, Charles Dickens wrote that beautiful piece of literature as part of the opening line to his classic A Tale of Two Cities. Do I wish I had written some of his oft-quoted lines? Absolutely. Is it okay for me to take them and pretend to have written them myself? No. And in reality, it’s kind of stupid, since most people recognize his writing; it is, as I said, oft-quoted.

Is it illegal for me to call Dickens’ work my own? Surprisingly, no. It's called plagiarism, and although copyright laws technically protect what is known as intellectual property, there are no laws that relate specifically to plagiarism. It is, however really, really unethical and it can get you into a lot of trouble in the educational sphere.

Which brings me to why I’m a little late to writing my blog today. I was dealing with two students who plagiarized their work on a team project in an online college class. They literally copied their portions of the project word-for-word from the Internet--a 100% match. One other team member and I did our own work and properly cited our sources, but apparently, the other two could not be bothered to do their own work. Not only was this unfair to us, it was disrespectful to the original authors of the material who devoted their time, presented their knowledge, and applied their talent.

If you would’ve told me back when I started work on my BA in English that the mostly-adult students in my classes would plagiarize their work, I would not have believed you. I mean, all of these students know that work is put through a plagiarism checker, and I would think they all know they can get kicked out of school for it. But students who love language and writing enough to pursue a degree in it? There’s no way these people would steal the writing of another...And yet, here I am, stewing about not one, but two such students.

Plagiarism is not just “borrowing” or “copying” someone else’s work; it is literary theft, and it is not okay. And even if you pull out your trusty thesaurus and change some of the words, if you fail to give credit to the original source of the idea, it’s still plagiarism. 

According to the “Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab)” (2013), you must give credit (cite or document) the following:

  • “Words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, Web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium
  • Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person, face to face, over the phone, or in writing
  • When you copy the exact words or a unique phrase
  • When you reprint any diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials
  • When you reuse or repost any electronically-available media, including images, audio, video, or other media” (para. 5).
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “plagiarism” is derived from the “Latin plagiarius ‘kidnapper, seducer, plunderer, one who kidnaps the child or slave of another’ (2013) and first surfaced in the late 16th/early 17th century, when the Roman poet Martial used the word to describe a “literary kidnapper” who had stolen his verses (2013). 

There is a long, but fascinating history regarding plagiarism, intellectual property, and copyright laws; I encourage you to check it out here. (I think you’ll be shocked by some of the more famous plagiarizers!) 

I had originally planned to blog about time management or ways to help you remember things (since I got crazy busy and completely spaced my May 7th blog responsibility!!) but after this experience—which I regret was not the first time I’ve encountered plagiarism in the classroom—I felt compelled to bring it up to our reading and writing audience. Obviously, with as few as three original story plots (or as many as 40, depending on who you ask) it is impossible for anything truly unique to exist. But it is our duty as responsible writers to make sure we are doing everything in our power to update, innovate, renovate, or in other ways transform work to create something that we can honestly claim is ours alone. We must work hard to fashion our own ideas into our own words, and when we can’t say it better than someone else, to give that someone else the credit they deserve. 
With so much information so readily available at our fingertips, and the option of cut-and-paste making it incredibly easy to “borrow” or “copy” the work of others, we must be more careful than ever. Writers (even student writers) need to have enough respect for themselves (and their readers!) to explore their own ideas, create their own work, and craft their own words. As author Walter Colton said, “Most plagiarists, like the drone, have neither taste to select, industry to acquire, nor skill to improve, but impudently pilfer the honey ready prepared, from the hive.”

How do you feel about plagiarism? Tell me about one of your own experiences, or if you would be shocked to find that Benjamin Franklin was one of the most famous plagiarizers…

Lynch, J. (2006, 2013). Writing World. Retrieved from http://www.writing-world.com/rights/lynch.shtml
Online Etymology Dictionary. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=plagiarism 
Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab). (1995-2013). Retrieved from http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/589/02/ 
Photo: http://www.heralddeparis.com/plagiarism-and-the-web-a-blunt-look-at-how-the-internet-redefines-ethics/89940


  1. My teaching career ran from a time when plagiarism was relatively rare to when it was commonplace.

    The saddest thing was that the kids didn't see anything wrong with it, nor with any other actions they might take to pass. The grade was everything.

    And, generally, the administration looked the other way (these were colleges). A teacher who failed students for plagiarism was at risk; the students could expect a slightly lower grade, or a required do-over.

    But the problem does not lie in the kids - it lies in our adult generations, for building a society in which advancement trumps everything. We were the ones who made Lee Iaccoca and Donald Trump nation heroes. We are the ones who voted to put liars back into office.


    1. Wow, interesting thoughts, Andrew. What resonated most with me was what you said about advancement trumping everything, including learning, and figuring out the process of genuine success. Thanks for sharing this.

    2. Hi Andrew!

      Thank you for your insight! Do you think the trend to commonplace is due to the availability of a wide variety of materials (including student-written papers for sale) online? I am so sad to know that the administrations where you taught were so willing to look the other way and punish the TEACHERS for doing their job!! To me, if you didn't do the work, you shouldn't get the credit. Period. I agree with you that the adult generations get some of the blame for rewarding people who lie to get ahead, but I think the kids need to bear some of the responsibility as well...my school is constantly talking about plagiarism: what it is, why it's wrong, etc. and every student must submit a "Certificate of Originality" (a paper they've signed, basically swearing that none of what they've written is plagiarized) along with every assignment. So they know it's wrong, and yet they choose to do it. I know how frustrated I am, as a student...I can't imagine how much more frustrating this must be for you as a teacher!!

  2. Sorry you ran into that, Heidi, and hope it got properly resolved. I teach online classes & it is something we have to watch for. Some students, especially if they're from 3rd-world countries & have little educational background--think refugee camps--do not initially understand plagiarism is wrong. They simply think their research found a gold mine, and use it. I work w/ them to educate their understanding, but do lower grade. For those who know better? My college has serious consequences including failing course or being expelled, as we're a Chris. college. Thanks, Heidi, and blessings.

    1. Hi D!
      I completely agree with you regarding 3rd-world students who truly do not understand the concept of plagiarism. These students know better, they just chose to cheat. The last time this happened, I requested the offending party not be allowed to participate in our final team project, but the instructor told me I just needed to lay firmer ground rules...like it was my fault the guy cheated. This was in a class where the teacher REQUIRED a plagiarism report be filed with every assignment...the student KNEW I was going to put it through the checker. I commented to my teenage sons that I wondered how stupid you had to be to cheat in a case like that. My oldest said, "No, that's brilliant!! The guy knew you were going to be doing all the final editing before you submitted it...he probably figured he could just give you the info straight from the source and let YOU fix it for him before you turned it in." Maybe so...but since I got to it late, I didn't have time to fix it, so I turned it in along with a note to my instructor. I have no way of knowing if the student was penalized...I'd be very unhappy if he was!! I guess we'll just have to see with this team...Blessings to you, too!!

  3. My daughter recently ran into this same problem on a group project in college. She did original work, then two other students copied her words in their versions of the assignment. This college administration (nursing) takes plagiarism seriously, and she could have been booted out of the program. Thankfully, the clinical instructor knew my daughter had interviewed the patient and it all worked out. But it was scary for awhile.

    1. And for the record, I hate group projects!

    2. Hi Rox!

      Your daughter was lucky to be in a brick-and-mortar school in a program where the teachers/nurses know all of the students and can identify who is doing their work versus who is not. In an online environment, with a new class/instructor every five weeks, there is no way for a teacher to know for sure. Although in this case, as I edited the project, I got to a part and I knew there was no way any of my team mates had written it. I know it had to have been lifted from a professional because it was that good, and the other work I'd seen these from these students was not. I'm so glad it worked out for your daughter!! Did her team mates fail the project?

    3. And for the record, so do I!!!!!

  4. I've read about authors who have plagiarized other authors. Crazy, isn't it??

    My university took plagiarism seriously. When we submitted our papers online, they went through a database that checked for plagiarism.

    And for the record, I hate group projects also because you have to relinquish control and rely on others. My grades were my responsibility, and I didn't want someone else messing with it.

    1. Hi LJ!
      We also have a plagiarism checker. It gets used in varying degrees by instructors...some require a report be submitted with all assignments; others don't seem to care much. My teams know, right up front, that I will be running everything through it. I've gotten to the place where I include in the "Learning Team Charter" (set of team member-set rules/guidelines for the team) that each person run their own part through the checker and post it WITH their part in the learning team forum. This time around I didn't get to the charter before the rest of the team had put the least amount possible in it and turned it in. So, I need to be more diligent about that!!

      Like you, I want to only be responsible for my own grades! And in the University of Phoenix environment, despite being in the higher levels of the English program, there are many students who, based on their grammatical and writing challenges, maybe should have chosen something other than English as their area of focus. Oh well, I only have a few classes left to go...

    2. One more thing...for me, hating learning teams is as much about me letting them down as it is about them letting me down. As a result of the injuries I sustained in my car accident, I have ADA accommodations. Because my physical and mental health are both fairly unpredictable, my doctor requested the accommodations on my behalf. Basically, I just have more time to do my assignments. This only includes my personal assignments...I do not get extra time for Learning Team projects. So, I always worry that I will let my team down if I am unable to function. But God has been good to me...in ten classes, I've missed one LT charter (see my comment to Beth) and one assignment. God gave me one good friend (I met in class #1) to be with me in every class and sort of run interference for me, it's been good.

      To combat the fact that most of my team mates have not been strong writers, I usually sign up to write the introduction and conclusion of any project, as well as doing the final editing. This gives me control over the finished product, and we've never gotten less than an A on any project I've edited. So, I really can't complain too much...until someone plagiarizes...and then I complain...a lot. =)

  5. I have to agree with Roxanne -- I have never seen group projects go smoothly. There are always slackers, or worse, cheaters.
    Plagiarism is inexcusable. Words wield power -- and there is no excuse to say that someone else's time, effort and creativity is yours.

    1. Hi Beth!
      I agree with you both!! (And Lisa!) As I began the BA program, my advisor told me about these team projects. I told her I knew I was going to hate it, but she told me to give it a chance. In my very first class, my very first team was, according to another team mate, the worst. team. ever. She told me of all the teams she'd been on, this one took the cake. So far, 10 classes later, I agree with her. The great thing was that I met her, a young mother of two and writer of Christian fiction who lives in Oklahoma. As much as I hated being on that team, I would do it again to have made such a valuable friend. We linked our schedules and were able to be on every learning team together until recently, when I was forced to skip a week and our schedules got off. We are working to get back on track, though, taking classes we don't share in the meantime. So, some good came of it!

      Words not only wield power, but in my opinion, they are no different that a great painting or piece of music. Plagiarism is nothing more that the theft of someone's property...no different than breaking into their house and stealing a painting or money, especially when it is a writer who makes their living from their writing. An example of the frustration of a writer who has been plagiarized can be found if you click on the link under the picture I used. It is from an online newspaper article and is essentially a letter to a rival online "news" group who took what she wrote, word for word, and used it without so much as a thank you or a link back. It really spells out what they lost as a result.

  6. So agree with all of you. You know, in high school if a student plagiarizes someone's work it stands out like a sore thumb. By college, not so much, but they will be caught and the sad part is, everyone loses, especially if it is a group project.
    Great post, Heidi!

    1. Thanks Pat!

      What you say is true, with a couple of exceptions in my history. When I was in 9th grade, my teacher (who I am still friends with via facebook today!) gave me an F on a paper for plagiarism. I was furious! I went back to her to find out what, exactly, I had copied. She told me that the paper MUST have been copied from another source because no 9th grader she knew used the word "sardonic." Except I did...to describe Dashiell Hammett. At the time, I was the queen of sarcasm, and I knew all of the synonyms for the word sarcastic, including sardonic. I was a geeky writer, even then, and I loved to read my thesaurus. My ego and I both wanted to know as many words as possible. After researching the author, I chose the word "sardonic" to describe his sarcastic, hard-boiled personality. After I showed her all my research and notes, she relented and gave me an A. At the end of that year at 9th grade graduation, she also gave me the Elaine Hurley Creative Writing Award. It was pretty cool.

      On the flip side, with this college level project, I was editing away and came to a section I knew had not been written by my team mates. Like I wrote in my comment to Roxanne, it was too good to have been written by either of the students. It was obvious because I'd seen their writing styles in the course topic discussion boards...and their project contributions were NOT in their "voice." Their lack of understanding of this concept just made it all the more obvious to me that they maybe should've chosen another program that didn't require them to understand voice and point-of-view.

  7. Great post, Heidi. I can't say too much more than what has been said. My introduction to the concept of plagiarism came in the third grade, where I plagiarized, but didn't fully understand all the implications of it. After that, I was much more careful.

    What was saddest to me was seeing students cheating via plagiarism or outright copying others' answers on tests was overlooked at my university. It angered me that I had studied and put my best effort into the project/test, and others could just show up and take the easy way through.

    For the record, I had NO idea Ben Franklin was a plagiarizer. Please don't tell my son who studied him in fourth grade. :)

    1. Hi Jeanne!

      First, let me congratulate you on making the finals of the Frasier!! You must be so thrilled!!

      I had a similar experience to yours in my early years. I think every kid plagiarizes before they are taught about it. I got extra credit in my music class for writing biographies about composers, and I was a bit of an overachiever. I think I was in about 3rd grade as well. So, I would copy, word for word, the biographies of composers from my piano lesson books. They were just the right number of words, and they were simply worded because they were for young piano students. The teacher totally believed they were mine. At the time, I remember thinking that if I wrote it with my own handwriting, that meant I wrote it. Ha ha!! Nice try, Heidi!! I never got caught, but as soon as I understood how much better it felt to write my own stories, papers, etc. I didn't do it again.

      If you go to the link I gave for the history of plagiarism, you can see that they actually called Ben Franklin a "serial plagiary!" To be fair, during Ben's time, plagiarism was sort of okay. Up to that point, artists in every genre were encouraged to try to copy the "masters." It wasn't until later in the 18th century that individuality and originality began to emerge. With the dawn of a new country out of the American Revolution, and the advent of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, that originality of speech, knowledge, and writing became something to celebrate, and therefore, something to protect.

      Funny, though...in my current class, Early American Literature (1492-1860) we studied Ben Franklin...and there is no mention of his tendency to steal material for Poor Richard's Almanac. Very interesting!!