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What to Do About Plagiarism

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English Teacher

Plagiarism is one of those things kids know of, but are not sure about. They read something on the Internet and think, “Yes, that’s exactly what I want to say. This person said it better than I ever could,” and then they don’t know what to do. I put a note on a student’s assignment that said we need to chat about plagiarism. This particular student had been having trouble with this consistently the previous year. Because I would be teaching him again, I decided that I would begin a discussion of plagiarism right away. That would give us an opportunity to discuss it throughout the school year.

Plagiarism is tricky. I know teachers who have an absolutely virulent attitude towards plagiarism. From that perspective, it is always malicious: the student is trying to pull one over on me! But what is plagiarism, exactly?

·      Using another writer’s words without quoting and citing

·      Paraphrasing or summarizing without citing

·      Copying so many words and ideas that the majority of the writing is not your own, even if there are some citations

·      Using the organization of another writer

·      Putting your name on someone else’s work

·      Using incorrect citations

List sourced from plagiarism.org

As a class of only five, we talked about the nuances of plagiarism. I asked my student to explain the situation to his classmates. We had discussed that plagiarism is when you copy without citing. Well, he had cited his sources. He had, slightly, paraphrased. So, why did he get a low mark?

It was an opportunity to discuss the more subtle aspects of plagiarism that may not be so obvious to young writers. Our students are moving from the black and white tones of childhood into the more complex, strange world of adulthood where there are no easy answers. We asked: what was the problem with his approach? The response: you used some keywords from the other author without quotes. If you copy and paste everything, then you’re not showing that you learned something.

We came to the conclusion that avoiding plagiarism is harder than we think. It means that you have to develop your own voice. This is hard when we can always find the answers on the Internet. How can kids become comfortable with their own voices? When they have a safe place to make mistakes, a teacher who is supportive instead of punitive, who identifies struggle instead of malice. And, perhaps most importantly, a classroom where students are comfortable sharing their mistakes.