Plagiarism Doesn’t Bother Me


by Gerald Nelms

When I began teaching back in the early 1980s, any student plagiarizing upset me a lot. I experienced exactly what Richard Murphy describes in his 1990 College English article, “Anorexia: The Cheating Disorder”:

Plagiarism irritates, like a thin wood splinter in the edge of one’s thumb. With any sort of reasonable perspective, I realize that one student’s possibly copying part of one paper on James Joyce is a small matter. In a typical semester, I teach 120 students and read perhaps 600 student papers. In a typical day, I have two classes to prepare and teach, committee meetings to attend, conferences with individual students, the utility bill to pay, a child to pick up from a Cub Scout meeting. But everything I touch rubs the sliver in my thumb and sets its irritation pulsing. As much as I try, I cannot ignore it. (p. 889)

And, for me, the longer the situation played out, the more irritating it became.

But that was then. Not now. Now, plagiarism doesn’t irritate me at all. Student plagiarism doesn’t surprise or shock me. It doesn’t raise my heart rate. And perhaps most surprisingly, it doesn’t make me think any less of the student who has plagiarized. In fact, I now expect plagiarism, I anticipate it, I even provoke it. I want it to happen. And it always does, because I create assignments that virtually require it. Now, you may be reacting to my saying this in the same way that others have in the plagiarism workshops I have facilitated for 15 plus years: with shock. After all, teachers—especially writing teachers—aren’t supposed to encourage plagiarism. Just the opposite, in fact. But once we begin to view plagiarism not as an atrocity, an evil misdeed, a crime, but as a mistake, an error in judgment, a lapse, a misstep, a miscalculation, then, knowing how important trial-and-error and revision are at all levels of learning, we begin to recognize that plagiarism can be an opportunity for learning.

This new perspective on plagiarism requires a new mindset about plagiarism. As Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets suggests, teachers often see their students’ intellect and abilities as “fixed”: difficult, if not impossible to change, and unequivocal. That belief has long informed teacher and administrator responses to student plagiarism. I am suggesting in this blog post that we open ourselves up to a new understanding of our students and their plagiarisms: a “growth” mindset that views students’ intellect and abilities as dynamic and capable of improvement and views student plagiarism as a potential developmental tool.

If you read even the least bit deeply in the scholarship on plagiarism—that is, the reasonable, research-based scholarship on plagiarism (not the overheated rants, the irresponsible, anecdotal “case studies” of individual teachers’ individual classes, or the misleading “scholarly” articles that misrepresent research findings)—if you read the genuine scholarship on plagiarism, you come away with the following conclusions that deepen our understanding and complicate the traditional fixed perspective of student plagiarism:

1. Not all student plagiarism rises to the level of academic dishonesty.

In Crisis on Campus: Confronting Academic Misconduct, Wilfried Decoo notes how challenging synthesizing and integrating source material can be, even for the most experienced scholars. “[A]t what point,” he asks, “does a rephrased sentence become ‘sufficiently different’ to be allowed? One can easily understand why students can get confused. On the one hand, the message says ‘read the passage and then express it in your own words;’ on the other hand, ‘paraphrasing [can be] plagiarism’” (p. 121). Decoo suggests that, in practice, the quantity of plagiarized material should be a major criterion in determining how we view specific cases of plagiarism (p. 129). Does it really matter if one paragraph in a 20-page article includes enough overlap of language to be considered plagiarism? Does that amount of plagiarism really rise to the level of academic dishonesty?

We might also ask ourselves whether an accusation of academic dishonesty is truly warranted if there is evidence that the student writer has made an effort to adapt—that is, to integrate—the source material to fit into her writing and not mindlessly adopt that material. Glynda Hull and Mike Rose argue that plagiarists making the effort to adapt source material (rather than simply adopting it) are doing what successful non-plagiarists do, just less successfully: “Interact with the text, relate it to your own experiences, derive your own meaning from it” (p. 150).

2. In some “real-world” contexts, plagiarism is not only acceptable but is expected. Brian Martin calls this “institutionalized plagiarism.”

Plagiarism is as tied to context as every other aspect of language use. In our everyday conversations—and lectures and classroom discussions—we frequently give information without citing its source(s). Moreover, there exist contexts where plagiarism is not only acceptable but is expected and encouraged. Audience expectations and intellectual property conventions of the community in which the language use occurs determines whether adopting source material and expression without citation is acceptable or not. “Institutional plagiarism” frequently occurs and is accepted without even the lifting of an eyebrow in most daily business communications and in other bureaucratic contexts. For example, if a company employee were to try to compose a quarterly report with original language and organization, her supervisor would probably take her aside and explain that to be more efficient, she should simply adopt the organization and language of past quarterly reports.

Some might argue that “institutionalized plagiarism” is acceptable because the language and forms being plagiarized are “common knowledge.” That may be the case in some instances of institutionalized plagiarism but not in every case. Too often, we decontextualize common knowledge, thinking of it as facts every child learns in school or as information that exists in at least five (or whatever number of) credible sources, as some textbooks have defined it. In fact, content alone does not define knowledge as “common.” Common knowledge is that which is presumed to be ubiquitous or, at least, widespread within a specific community—that is, in context. Not all institutionalized plagiarism fits that bill.

Consider, for example, the annual reports that a company will publish and distribute to its investors and creditors and auditors and public officials and anyone else who might be interested. Annual reports are notoriously templated. They follow the same organizational structure every year. They almost invariably use a similar vocabulary, the same phrases, the same sentences in many instances. Yet, no one accuses the authors, often anonymous or named in the fine print, of plagiarism. No investors divest themselves of holdings in a company because its annual report is institutionally plagiarized.

3. Students often (indeed, very often) unintentionally plagiarize.

Intent is the stumbling block for any easy conclusions about plagiarism. Some would like to believe that all plagiarism should be disciplined in the same way, either because there is no such thing as unintentional plagiarism or because all writers should know better and not make plagiaristic mistakes. This policy may sound good in theory, but in practice, it is untenable, as empirical research has shown.

To date, the most compelling of this research is Miguel Roig’s work from the late 1990s. For a 1997 study, Roig developed a “Plagiarism Knowledge Survey” that included an original passage followed by six different paraphrases of that original passage. Two of these paraphrases were identified as not being plagiarism by four independent judges from English and Psychology departments. The Survey asked 231 undergraduate students from two private colleges to identify the paraphrases they thought were not plagiarism and those they did think were plagiarism. 72% of these students correctly identified the two correctly paraphrases versions, but nearly 50% of these students also identified other versions as correctly paraphrased. Roig concluded that the findings of his study and those of subsequent studies represented evidence that many students probably do unintentionally plagiarize, because they simply cannot distinguish correct from incorrect paraphrasing.

Further compelling evidence for unintentional plagiarism comes from focus group and ethnographic research. Lori Power, for example, conducted focus groups and individual interviews with undergraduates at a small Maine university and found that these students generally misunderstood what constituted plagiarism, the same conclusion that Susan Blum comes to after her ethnographic study at a large Midwestern university.

Research also suggests that cultural differences can cause international students to plagiarize when writing in the U. S. Joel Bloch points out that plagiarism as conceived in Western academic cultures can be strikingly different from non-Western understandings of acceptable integration of source material. The debate over whether Asian cultures encourage literacy behaviors considered plagiaristic in Western cultures has provided important insights. For example while students in non-Western cultures are not taught to cheat, the pedagogies of early education in these cultures does appear to include a substantial amount of imitation and a significant delay in assigning the production of original texts. Chris Shei believes that the Asian emphasis on imitation leads to “integrated borrowing,” where the writer embeds source material in original writing without proper acknowledgment, resulting in “patchwriting” (see below).

It is also true that students, hurrying to complete written assignments, can be careless in their note taking, their integration of source material, and their citations. Research as well as anecdotal evidence from teachers has revealed lots of examples of unintentional plagiarism due to carelessness.

4. Student plagiarism also can be “developmental”—that is, a stage in the student’s development as a writer.

Developmental plagiarism typically occurs when a novice writer tries to sound like the experienced writers within a particular community, profession, field of study, or discipline she is trying to enter. In order to make the transition from community outsider to insider, the novice writer will go through the general stages of all learning: observation, imitation, repetition, trial-and-error, revision, and retrial, incrementally progressing into the target community. In fact, it is difficult to imagine many circumstances where any writer (even experienced writers, successful in other communities) doesn’t, at least to some degree, fall into mimicking the language of the target audience’s community, thereby opening herself to possible plagiarism.

Rebecca Moore Howard has shown that “patchwriting”—weaving the language of one or more source texts into one’s own text without adequately citing the source(s)—is a common form of developmental plagiarism. As Diane Pecorari notes, patchwriting “is virtually inevitable as writers learn to produce texts within a new discourse community, and is a beneficial part of the learning process” (p. 5).

Given that developmental plagiarism can be a stage in writerly development, I don’t think I’m out of line suggesting that teachers might facilitate this development by giving assignments that invite the use of patchwriting as a way to introduce discussion of citation, plagiarism, and revision. Revising a patchwritten text presents a good introduction to the importance of revision. Involving imitation as it does, patchwriting is also a good way of building vocabulary and learning writing conventions.

Inherent in the view that student plagiarism can be developmental is the understanding that learning to produce academic writing is itself incremental and developmental. In fact, Susan Peck MacDonald has identified a set of milestones in the development of a student writer moving from learning generalized academic writing into novice approximations of disciplinary writing and ending with expert, insider discourse.

5. Even intentional plagiarism can be a learning opportunity.

We need to acknowledge that there are reasons why some students plagiarize intentionally. And I suggest that we, at least temporarily, bracket our biases in order to determine if any of these reasons might amount to extenuating circumstances that should moderate the punishment for plagiarism. We, as teachers and administrators, might also ask ourselves, What educational benefit does punishment for plagiarizing serve? Does it reduce the amount of plagiarism overall? Does it rehabilitate the plagiarist? In fact, there is little evidence that punishment for plagiarism has any real benefit. It certainly is not an educational gesture.

As teachers and administrators, we need to understand the primary reasons why some students intentionally plagiarize. Much of the irresponsible anti-plagiarist bluster depicts intentional plagiarists as corrupt and devious, but the truth is that students who plagiarize are not motivated to plagiarize by some inner malevolence. Rather, they turn to intentional plagiarism typically as a solution to life problems or to obstacles to their learning that they see no other way of resolving. Here are the more frequent such problems/obstacles:

  • Difficulty handling pressure to succeed, whether from parents or themselves or because of financial aid;
  • Difficulty balancing schoolwork and/or personal ethics with peer pressure;
  • Inadequate time management;
  • Difficulty dealing with workload pressure and cognitive overload;
  • Inability to self-motivate, perhaps combined with having a fixed (rather than a growth) mindset and low self-efficacy (that is, little confidence in one’s ability to accomplish a particular task); and finally,
  • Disregard for citation. Several recent studies, including Blum’s ethnography, suggest that many college students’ views on authorship and plagiarism differ dramatically from those of their teachers. Blum concludes, “Students’ cultures are driven by more informal principles and values informed by sharing and remixing” (p. 5).


Research has shown plagiarism to be much more complicated than traditionally thought, such that traditional attitudes, policies, and responses to student plagiarism simply have little or no justification. Certainly, the amount of intentional plagiarism needs to be reduced, but years of punishment for plagiarizing students has not had that effect. Unintentional plagiarism needs to be addressed with better ways of teaching students how to synthesize sources and integrate source material into their writing. And research strongly suggests that developmental plagiarism may well be inevitable and best addressed with imaginative ways of raising student awareness of it and understanding of how to address it. For me, the implications of years of responsible research on plagiarism are clear. We need to address plagiarism not as criminal activity but as educational opportunity.

Additional Resources for Understanding and Addressing Student Plagiarism (Click to Download PDFs)

  1. The Learning to Write Continuum (2 pages)
  2. Forms of Written Plagiarism (1 page)
  3. Patchwriting (5 pages)
  4. Investigating Student Plagiarism Responsibly (4 pages)
  5. 50 Ways of Addressing Student Plagiarism Pedagogically (7 pages)

Works Cited

  • Bloch, Joel. “Plagiarism Across Cultures: Is There a Difference?”Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching 3.2 (October 2007): 139-151.
  • Blum, Susan D. My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2009.
  • Decoo, Wilfried. Crisis on Campus: Confronting Academic Misconduct. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.
  • Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. NY: Random House, 2006.
  • Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarisms, Authors, Collaboration. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing, 1999.
  • Hull, Glynda, and Mike Rose. “Remediation: Toward a Social-Cognitive Understanding of Problematic Reading and Writing.”Written Communication 6.2 (April 1989): 139-154.
  • Martin, Brian. “Plagiarism: A Misplaced Emphasis.” Journal of Information Ethics 3.2 (Fall 1994): 36-47.
  • MacDonald, Susan Peck. Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1994.
  • Murphy, Richard. “Anorexia: The Cheating Disorder.” College English 52.8 (December 1990): 898-903.
  • Pecorari, Diane. Academic Writing and Plagiarism: A Linguistic Analysis. NY: Continuum, 2008.
  • Power, Lori G. “University Students’ Perceptions of Plagiarism.”Journal of Higher Education 80.6 (November/December 2009): 643-662.
  • Roig, Miguel. “Can Undergraduate Students Determine Whether Text Has Been Plagiarized?” Psychological Record 47.1 (Winter 1997): 113-22.
  • Shei, Chris. “Plagiarism, Chinese Learners and Western Convention,” Taiwan Journal of TESOL 2.1 (2005): 97-113.

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