Information Sheet #82

September 27, 1994


During the past year the NCTE's The Council Chronicle has published a vigorous exchange of letters on the subject of plagiarism and how the problem should be treated by faculty. The matter has also made several appearances in The Chronicle of Higher Education because of accusations brought against the historian Stephen Oates, charging that his book on Lincoln included passages "derived" from an earlier Lincoln biography by Benjamin Thomas. A third publication, the Journal of Information Ethics, has devoted an entire issue to the Oates case, and an upcoming issue, due out in October, will provide a broad examination of plagiarism, including a bibliography listing recent publications examining "misconduct in research."

As a writing instructor who dealt with my first case of plagiarism in the fall of 1967, I admit that I've never been satisfied with either my warning remarks about the dangers of plagiarism or the methods I've used for handling plagiarism when it occurs. Fortunately for me--and I think the faculty at Coe--the incidence of intentional plagiarism has declined during the past 10-15 years. When we first opened the Writing Center in 1986, dealing with plagiarized papers was a major concern of the undergraduate tutors, an issue we frequently discussed in our training sessions. I'll never forget the day in the spring of our first year when the staff encountered five different papers which had appropriated long passages of text taken from other sources.

While the Writing Center staff still discover instances of suspected plagiarism, most appear to be unintentional. In my own teaching I encounter fewer gross misuses of sources than in the 1980s (my favorite remains the student in Introduction to Modern Culture who quoted verbatim the back cover of Ibsen's A Doll House as his opening paragraph in an analysis of the play). Nor do I hear many complaints from faculty about the hassles of dealing with plagiarized papers. If, indeed, there has been a decline in intentional plagiarism, several factors may have contributed to the change:

The writing program's emphasis on revision, eliminating some of the pressure to create a perfect paper the first time.

More writing assignments (when writing for so many classes, who has the time to find pre-written papers?).

Wider diversity of writing assignments, many of which ask for a student's personal response.

The frequency of faculty using one-on-one conferences for talking about papers.

The use of computers (computers facilitate the writing/revising processes; and the writing is frequently done in a public forum, library, computer lab).

The increase in students collaborating, sharing writing with each other, taking papers to the Writing Center, asking a roommate to proofread a paper before it's submitted.

Incoming students better prepared as writers to deal with secondary sources.

Although intentional plagiarism may have declined, any of us assigning compositions will sooner or later receive papers that misuse the sources. I would be interested in hearing from Coe's faculty about your experiences with plagiarized papers and how you handle these situations, which can so easily become sticky and uncomfortable for all concerned. Feel free to use either e-mail (RMARRS) or more primitive techniques. To provide stimulus for the conversation, I've reproduced three letters on the topic that were published in the September '94 issue of The Council Chronicle. --Bob Marrs

The Cardinal Sin of Academe

Plagiarism gets a chunk of my syllabus going-over during the first week of school. I offer two reasons for documentation: (1) the researcher deserves credit for the material you're quoting; (2) you don't have the authority to make the pronouncements earned by scholars. Then I read the syllabus statements on plagiarism:

Plagiarism is unacceptable and seriously treated in this class. Plagiarism is an intentional representation of the words or ideas of another as if they are your own. To avoid plagiarism, follow these guidelines:

    a. Identify direct quotations by quotation marks or other appropriate designations. Give the source either in text or in acceptable footnote form.

b. For paraphrasing or summarizing material from another source in your own words, acknowledge the source.

c. For borrowed facts or information obtained from your reading or research, acknowledge the source. Exception: Borrowed facts which are common knowledge among students in this course need not be documented.

Calling plagiarism the cardinal sin of academe, I cite the case of a professor I know whose career nosedived when his work was identified as plagiarized. I cite litigation arising from use of borrowed passages. My students hear me saying, This is a serious issue treated severely.

A policing role is not part of my job description, but if I readily discover plagiarism, I deal with it. Usually it starts with a returned paper lacking a grade and carrying a note, "Your paper is too dependent on its sources to warrant a grade." This is solemn news in my class, because a student must submit all assigned papers (six per quarter).

After I've read a derivative-sounding paragraph, I may ask the student, "Rewrite it in your own words so that you can achieve your own voice." If the student spouts interpretations of which he/she isn't capable--e.g., This infuriated Harry Truman, or This was the most significant vowel shit to occur in the Middle Ages--I ask, "How do you know? Were you there?" Other times I collect the papers and ask the students to write an alternate opening paragraph. Comparing the two yields the authentic in-class writing to compare with passages dependent on sources.

Now for confession: I have never reported a student to the dean's office. I have said to students who are dropping, "This is between you and me. I'm not planning to talk to your advisor or anyone else. But when you come back to take this course again, be prepared to follow the guidelines." I have said to those who ask for another chance, "I can't help you finish college with integrity unless you follow these guidelines. Now get out there and write a new paper. Prize your own voice. And be fair to the scholars whose work you use." [Edna Maye Loveless, La Sierra University]

The World Doesn't Care about Intent

I define plagiarism broadly, but with specific parameters. I work from the assumption that students in high school do not know now what work-world demands will be made upon them, and so it is incumbent upon them to be aware of all the dimensions in which other people may define plagiarism; furthermore, I repeatedly tell them, "If you give me plagiarism, I will give you an F." I am not concerned with the idea of "intent to deceive" since my experience tells me two things: the world doesn't care about intent; and since I give very thorough instruction regarding plagiarism prior to expository writing, if it occurs, there is intent to deceive.

These are my rules for calling something plagiarism:

something is copied verbatim, without proper (MLA) documentation;

something is copied, with student word changes, even with documentation;

whole ideas are lifted from a source, without proper documentation;

whole ideas are lifted, and documentation not provided for several paragraphs;

documentation is inaccurate.

Proper documentation, in addition to following guidelines in the MLA Handbook, means a citation immediately following another's ideas--not at the end of several paragraphs, nor with multiple pages being cited (e.g., Smith 101-125). I also track down sources if I suspect a student has plagiarized; since I take such a charge very seriously, I cannot penalize with an F unless I am certain I am correct in my suspicions.

I try to relate the training I am giving students to genuine world-world situations that might occur in their future. For instance, they are working on a project that requires compiling statistics from a multitude of other sources; they have to write a report for their boss on the project's outcome--are they going to pass off the other sources as their own? Suppose they are asked to show the actual study--could they provide it? Of course not--so the rule is "provide documentation for anything used that is not your original work."

Sloppy scholarship? The world has not time for such sloppiness; to me, that is in the same category as sloppy proofreading. . . . The skills learned in English class must be taught so as to be translatable into other fields--poor proofreading skills reflect lack of pride and care in a job being done to perfection; plagiarism is, plainly and simply, stealing.

[Hildegarde Bender; Medina, Ohio]

Guidelines for Paraphrasing

In my classes, I would definitely consider both passages [cited in The Council Chronicle] as plagiarism, even though the students might have inadvertently overused the sources' words due to ignorance or carelessness. Therefore, I would not make accusations--just take off for not following directions. See the attached guidelines for paraphrasing that I give my students.


Paraphrasing involves digesting the source's material and putting it into your own words. You may either give a complete recap or make a summary that shortens the original without changing its author's meaning. Using the words or sentence structure of the author is plagiarism. To avoid this, study the following tips for paraphrasing and apply the "Dot Method" (Tip #8) to each paraphrase or summary.

1. Begin by planning each paragraph around a key idea. Focusing your ideas around a topic sentence helps you gain control of the material and hence avoid using the words or sentence structure of the original.

2. Study the note cards relating to that idea. Spend a few minutes thinking about the content of each card. Ask yourself questions about it and answer them aloud. Then decide what information you intend to use. It may help to either circle or highlight the exact details.

3. Try to paraphrase without even looking at the note card. You can always check the card later to make sure that all of your information is accurate.

4. If you can't paraphrase without looking at the card, refer to it, but approach the idea from a different direction and use a different sentence structure. For example, begin your sentence with an idea that came last in your author's sentence. Also, when using "definitive terms" (words that have no synonyms--e.g., the names of people or places), put them into different structural "slots."

5. Break down all difficult passages. To avoid "juggling" a large number of ideas, take the first part of the original and put it into a sentence by itself; then fit the rest of the original into another sentence, perhaps adding an example of your own. Lists are often hard to paraphrase, so separate the items into different areas. For example, so long as you don't change the meaning, you might approach the material as 2 + 2 instead of 1 + 1 + 1 + 1.

6. Summarize or generalize about some of your material. So long as you're very careful not to distort the author's meaning, you may leave out minor, non-pertinent details.

7. Give in and quote. When you finish your paper, you can go back to the quotation and either paraphrase it then when you're more relaxed or keep it as a quotation if you haven't been quoting excessively in the rest of the paper.

8. Apply the "Dot Method" to test each paraphrase. Compare your paraphrase or summary with the original quotation: insert a dot in your paper over each word that also appears in the quote either in that form or a closely related form (e.g., requirement and requirements). If more than just a few dots occur, you have plagiarized--whether you meant to or not--and must revise the sentence to remove some of the author's words. [Monte Prater; Tulsa Junior College]

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