Saturday, April 4, 2009


My school recently experienced a rash of plagiarism, probably brought on by the pending ending of the grading period. This has prompted me to address plagiarism. There are plenty of books, web sites, and people suggesting that cheating is on the rise in America, so that is not my purpose. Instead, I would like to suggest that there are (at least) two different forms of plagiarism and (at least) two ways to respond to plagiarism.

The two types of plagiarism are "plagiarism of omission" and "plagiarism of commission." A student commits plagiarism of omission when she neglects to provide the proper documentation--fails to place quotation marks around a passage that is clearly taken directly from the source, provides no reference to the source from which the ideas came, or turns in a poorly organized "Works Cited" page. I call these acts plagiarism of omission because the student has left out important information giving credit to the source. Students make these mistakes out of confusion, a lack of understanding, and frustration--a natural part of the learning process.

Plagiarism of commission, on the other hand, is a conscious and deliberate act of deception. When one commits plagiarism, the intent is to deceive, to take advantage of another person's trust and to reap the benefits that may follow, provided that the deception is not detected.

There are generally two responses to plagiarism. The first and perhaps most common (at least at the secondary level of education) is to punish the student by denying credit for the work. In the clear case of plagiarism of commission, this is an appropriate reaction, although I will suggest that the perpetrator knew the risk he was taking and is probably not effected by the punishment. Without some required intervention, the student is likely to plagiarize again, knowing that the next teacher is not likely to catch him.

The second response is to turn the offense into a learning opportunity, allowing the student to correct the errors. A loss of some credit may be warranted--which is up to the teacher--but the student is allowed a chance to redeem her credibility, to learn the proper way to avoid plagiarism, and to develop a trust in her teacher as someone she can turn to for guidance in her learning. I suggest that this response is more appropriate when a student is suspected of plagiarism of omission.

Real learning is about taking chances, making mistakes, and correcting those mistakes. Certainly, a part of learning involves the decisions one makes to document correctly the information one includes in an essay and the consequences of those decisions. However, dropping the hammer of justice on every student who plagiarizes may inhibit learning. I suggest teachers consider whether a student is guilty of plagiarism of commission or of plagiarism of omission before passing sentence, and that teachers not allow a teachable moment to slip away because of righteousness.

One final thought: The information teachers present to their classes in handouts, PowerPoint presentations, and such are often taken from a variety of supplemental sources. To what extent does the teacher demonstrate a responsibility to document correctly the sources he or she uses? If we want our students to be responsible and to adhere to the rules protecting copyright, then we must be sure to demonstrate that responsibility at all times. here's a humorous look at plagiarism that I found on TeacherTube...

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