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Nick Carbone, New Media Consultant
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Talking About Plagiarism

A Syllabus Strategy for Talking About Plagiarism with Students

After reading Robert Harris's book, The Plagiarism Handbook: Strategies for Preventing, Detecting, and Dealing with Plagiarism (2001, from Pyrczak Publishing); an article on the role of honor codes by Robert Boynton in the Washington Post; and thinking about the many plagiarism discussions that have come up on professional listservs I participate on such as WPA, TechRhet, WCenter, it occurred to me that the first place to begin a better discussion with my students on plagiarism is in my own syllabus. The syllabus, after all, is the contract I make with my class. It's the document that conveys my personality, my view of writing, and sets the tone and approach I want to take with my students (as well as the tone I want them to take with one another). Teachers use syllabi to set parameters, to layout conditions, to explain grades. How a syllabus talks about things like grading, writing, and plagiarizing matters. 

I want an open, inviting class, where students feel comfortable taking risks with their writing, have a clear idea of what I expect, and can comfortably share their work at any and every stage. But the plagiarism statement I had in the first draft of my fall 2001 syllabus, worked directly against those goals. It read: 

The Emerson College Statement on Plagiarism in The Emerson College Student Handbook warns that "plagiarism is the use of the words and/or ideas of another as if they were one's own and without acknowledgement of their source" (63). Please familiarize yourself with this policy by reading this section of the undergraduate catalogue. 

Intentional plagiarism will not be tolerated. Any student who plagiarizes another's work will automatically fail this course. In addition, Emerson College will take disciplinary action and an official record of such action will become part of your permanent file. Plagiarism can result in probation or expulsion from the College. Most importantly, you are here to learn and gain skills that will serve you during your entire career and life; to plagiarize is to cheat yourself of this opportunity.

My conflict here is that I don't lead any other discussion with threats, so why one on plagiarism? Why start off scolding? Why build anxiety and fear when I know that I'll be asking students to learn complex literacy skills, writing skills, and academic conventions? Why make myself a state trooper to their novice driver? So I deleted the above language and swapped in this instead: 
You should read your student handbook. (Has anybody read it?--I've never met a student who has unless and until they have a question it answers. It's not exactly scintillating stuff.) It has all the legal warnings you'll ever want to hear. But since you're likely not going to read the handbook, let's think about plagiarism more carefully and realistically than the handbook does. 

Unfortunately, the term plagiarism is more technical than practical. It's used to describe equally mistakes in handling and citing sources and deliberate cheating and lying about the authorship of the work you hand in. In fact, one refuge of many cheaters is to say that they merely made mistakes in source handling. So by plagiarism in this course I want us all to distinguish between fraud and cheating, which is always wrong, and mistakes in learning, which are inevitable, correctable, and for many people, necessary for learning. Mistakes are welcome; deliberate fraud is not. 

To help explain some of these differences, and how they play out in practical terms in the course, and to give us a way to talk about these issues, I'd like to invite you to think about plagiarism as a matter of Don'ts and Do's. Some of the Do's will vary in other courses, but most all teachers will agree and assume you'll abide by the Don'ts. 

We'll talk about this stuff as the course goes on. 

Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't steal. Don't misrepresent others work as yours. Don't go to places like,,, or any of the other hundreds of online and off line sources where term papers can be commissioned or bought or borrowed for <wink>research purposes only</wink>. Don't make up fake sources. Don't make up fake quotes. Don't make up fake interviews. Don't think that by copying something over and changing every couple of words that you've put it in your own words. Don't think that because something is on the Net it doesn't need to be cited. Don't think that because a lot of textbooks and other printed matter you read don't site sources that you don't have to cite them either. Don't think that because politicians have speech writers and actors have script writers who often go unacknowledged that you can get a writer to "secretary" your paper for you; rules that apply in other settings are different here, where the purpose is for you to do the writing. Don't go to the library, find a book that hasn't been checked out often, then find a source in its bibliography, and then copy that source into a paper as yours. Don't procrastinate on assignments and homework so that you end up under too much deadline pressure and become tempted to take shortcuts. Don't be afraid to come see me if you feel overwhelmed, unsure, fear missing a deadline, or start falling behind. Don't try to get around any of these Don'ts by working so hard to disguise them that you might as well have just done the Do's. 

Do share ideas with one another. Do swap writing. Do help one another write. Do edit and rewrite sections of one another's papers from time to time; writers do that kind of thing all the time, and editors do it with them. Do learn to like your writing; even when it's bad, hand it in any way, and know I'll always find something to like about it. Do expect to make mistakes managing and citing sources. Do expect to correct them. Do take care in downloading sources and taking notes. Do find a way to use sources wisely and fairly. Do learn the myriad rhetorical purposes that including and citing sources can serve. Do use the word processor to help you manage sources (for example, put sources you're quoting or paraphrasing in a different font and font color until the final draft so you don't accidentally forget they came from some other writer). Do have fun with sources, think of using them as weaving, building, playing with blocks, or any other metaphor that you associate with "taking what's at hand and making something of it." Do write before, while, and after you research, but especially before. Do discover an argument so you have a distinctive voice in your own essay, and aren't overwhelmed and intimidated by sources. Do come see me whenever you have a question about the course, are feeling overwhelmed, or unhappy with an assignment or your work; we can talk and find a way to make things work. 

As you can see, there are some contradictions in these lists. My students asked, "but isn't someone editing and rewriting my paper cheating?" Well, no, not if it's done right. It depends on the circumstances and the assignment, but most published writers benefit from this kind of help. Students need to learn how to manage that kind of help. (I want this to be an issue, by the way, because I know a lot of students, especially in other courses, will do what so many of us do--ask someone to proofread their paper. And sometimes that proofing is simple punctuation correction, but sometimes it gets into sentence level revisions. So it is important to know to ask, when is that okay and when is it not?) 

The Don'ts and Do's also link plagiarism and cheating to writing skills (drafting, revising, editing), research skills (evaluating sources, file management, planning), and student skills (time management, talking to teachers, learning to ask for help). That is, I found the lists give me a framework for talking about plagiarism and cheating in context, as things which come from daily decisions, sometimes small, in doing the work of being a student. 

I know this approach might not appeal to all teachers; certainly my list of Don'ts and Do's will not. But I found this semester that using this approach has really helped me in day-to-day workshops and discussions. It has given me a vocabulary in everyday language to talk about writing, plagiarism and cheating in a way that supports writing rather than polices students. I guess I see it as the difference between gatekeeping and hosting, between warning and inviting, between suspecting and trusting. 

[Thinking About Plagiarism]