The Truth about Plagiarism

By Patricia B.M. Brennan

Although as faculty we have very specific expectations regarding attribution and documentation when writing as professionals in our academic disciplines, we have different expectations for ourselves when writing in other contexts. What does this reveal about the nature of plagiarism in relation to student writing? This short commentary provides some context and discussion of the differing reasons for documentation in student academic writing as opposed to faculty disciplinary writing and the true nature of student plagiarism.

1) The Catalyst (How I came to start this)

While heading home from campus in my car recently, I caught a news story on the National Public Radio (NPR) program All Things Considered dealing with the internet and cheating by college students (1). This is a topic about which I felt I had some knowledge as I have read widely on this issue in order to maintain the Plagiarism and Academic Honesty page on the Adams Library website. But the longer I listened, the more annoyed I became, especially after the reporter, John Ydstie, broadcast a quote from Donald McCabe, Director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Rutgers University. McCabe’s point was that students’ attitudes, as influenced by wide-spread public moral collapse typified by the Enron scandal, lead them to feel: a) what’s the big deal about a little plagiarism?; b) there are no defined standards regarding the use of internet-resident information and c) they may dispute any standards that the professoriate or their college or university attempt to impose in this arena.

At first, I thought, “what colossal hubris!” Everyone who hasn’t been marooned on a desert island without a satellite hook-up knows that using other people’s words and ideas without attribution is plagiarism and plagiarism is theft! But after some extended discussion of my initial annoyance about this radio report with a learned colleague, I came to the opinion that the situation was perhaps not as cut and dried as it might have first appeared.

In keeping with the spirit and intent of Issues in Teaching and Learning as I interpret them from the publication guidelines, I intend this essay to be a preliminary presentation of some ideas on students’ understanding of plagiarism and their resistance to the professoriate’s attempts to impose standards in this area, prompted by this latest entry in the long list of journalistic and academic commentary about plagiarism.

2) Plagiarism past (an excruciatingly brief outline)

Anecdotally, appropriating the ideas or exact expression of another is ancient practice, originating when oral transmission was the norm and written texts the exception. Oral transmission benefits from the practice – get the piece “right” by reproducing it exactly as you heard it with all the rosy-fingered dawns and other indicative phraseology. Even as written text increasingly froze a writer’s words and ideas in time, plagiarism was not viewed as the compositional ‘dirty linen’ it has become for us.

Thomas Mallon in his excellent historical overview Stolen words: forays into the origins and ravages of plagiarism notes: “Jokes about out-and-out literary theft go back all the way to Aristophanes and The Frogs, but what we call plagiarism was more a matter for laughter than litigation.” (2)

But how did we progress from joke to ‘dirty linen’? In the western world, a varied panoply of social, cultural, and economic factors pertain, yet scholars from diverse fields appear to agree on the change in perception of the writer, propelled by the technology of the printing press and the rise of literacy, as a key factor. From an intellectual (whether ecclesiastical or secular) who viewed the works/words of others as part of a common pool of thought and expression from which all could draw, an author emerges whose works belonged to him/her individually as a personal possession to be defended against misappropriation because they are a valuable, saleable commodity. The fluid, usually hand-written text of the intellectual commons rapidly (from the point of view of the history of writing) gave way to the fixed, printed text of the author (not merely writer), a professional with a reputation and livelihood to protect.

How quickly did this transition take place? The Oxford English Dictionary (online edition) may be of some help:

1) The action or practice of plagiarizing [ah, the seeming circularity of lexicographers!]; the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one’s own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another.

But more indicative than the definitions, of which this quotation is the primary, are the dates and nature of the quotations establishing earliest usages. The very earliest, 1597, comes over 100 years after Gutenberg, followed quickly by a 1601 quote from Ben Jonson [Poetaster IV iii]: “Why? the ditt’ is all borrowed; tis Horaces: hang him plagiary.” From the 1646 Pseudodoxia epidemica or, enquiries into very many received tenents, and commonly presumed truths by Sir Thomas Browne, the OED provides: “Plagiarie had not its nativitie with printing, but began in times when thefts were difficult.”[p.22] And by two centuries after Gutenberg (1681) we see Samuel Colvil haranguing his reader in The Whiggs supplication [p.14]: “Nought…but plagiary stuff, By which they purchase praise and money.”(3)

Sir Thomas may be correctly reminding his reader that plagiarism was not fathered by printing, but they do have a family relationship which is implied by Colvil’s quotation. Writing as a profession or livelihood, “to purchase praise or money”, would have been impossible before the advent of movable type printing. Once fixed in place in multiple, saleable copies, words and ideas became things of monetary value, not merely intellectual value, that their creator could own. From ancient times through the Renaissance writers and intellectuals would not have understood this paradigm.(4) By the time of Browne and Colvil in the mid-1600’s the idea that the writer (or at least the publisher/printer) was the owner of the ideas and the expression committed to paper was a current in the intellectual stream of Europe. To refer back to Mr. Mallon, we are no longer laughing and we are soon to be litigating.

This western idea of writer as creator and owner of words and, by extension, ideas, transmogrified from what might be called a moral or social convention [Nice writers, real writers, don’t do that] to a position of civic authority by the establishment of author-focused copyright as a legal property protection. By the early 18th century, Alexander Pope is dragging people into court (5) and publicly hoisting lesser wits and plagiaries on literary petards like The Dunciad for stealing from his work and others. “The eighteenth century was hot for attribution.” (6) So views on plagiarism became bound up with the codification of a legal right, as opposed to admonitions about a moral duty. Yet the moral ‘wrongness’ of these practices developed in tandem with the commercial/professional role of the writer as purveyor (for money) of a product (ideas in words) and the fixing of property rights for that product in the writer by law. The legal, criminal terms associated with copyright violation – reproducing the words of others without acknowledgment or permission is THEFT; using the expression of others without attribution is STEALING – charges the atmosphere surrounding plagiarism, making it a struggle to discuss the one without using the vocabulary of the other.

3) Plagiarism present (on to modern times)

In order to better understand and more effectively explain the faculty's insistence upon proper attribution we should make the attempt to step away from the legal/commercial rhetoric of property and its theft and consider the expectations we have as faculty for the manner in which we write in varying contexts and the bearing that has for our expectations for student writing.

As college professors we write and contribute ideas in at least two major realms. The conventions of the academy in general and our disciplines in particular thoroughly inform all our scholarly writing. Conscious plagiarism of ideas or expression is anathema. Even unconscious plagiarism is a blot on the academic escutcheon: not because it is illegal but because the scholar is recognized by originality of thought and, secondarily, of expression. If nothing new is expressed, how has knowledge been advanced?

But consider: when we write and contribute ideas in our other academic life as college faculty and members of professional bodies, we more often than not follow a different model with different expectations. We compose memos; we contribute to self-studies; we write committee reports, curriculum outlines, and course syllabi, etc., etc. Yet in how many of these writing situations do we either acknowledge all of the sources we have used in developing our ideas or document the materials we, and others if it is a collaborative work like a committee report, have consulted and assimilated? The numerous examples which cross our desks and stuff our inboxes both print and electronic show that it happens infrequently, if at all. (Even then, it is usually done not to acknowledge a source, but to lend authority: we consulted the standards on X; I am familiar with study Y; we understand that method Z has been discredited.) I would argue that it is not necessarily a bad thing, this lack of documentation. The object of this kind of writing is rarely originality – it is synthesis and organization of information gathered from a variety of sources into a coherent whole upon which action(s) can be taken , decisions made, or conclusions drawn.

And is that not the essence of what we ever hope to see in the vast majority of undergraduate papers?

And is that model of written expression not the one with which the vast majority of students are most familiar? They are not socialized to the writing standards of the academy. They are socialized to the writing standards of journalistic, life-style publications like Time, Rolling Stone, and the Providence Journal; of broadcast journalism like CNN, ABC, and WPRO; and of electronic journalism like CNN (again), MSNBC, and; as well as popular fiction, endless commercial junk mail, and internet chat. The sporadic attributions that do occur in these sources are tangential at best: “a source was quoted…”, “the latest report from the Surgeon General states…”, “a recent poll shows…”.

4) Plagiarism – the answer?

However, when they write in our realm, we expect students to demonstrate to us through documentation – stylized attribution – both the sources from which the ideas they use derive and the sources from which the exact words of someone else have come.

Inevitably, students say: “Why?” even when they do not actually voice this question.

Some not untruthful answers, none of them particularly adequate or helpful, boil down to: “Because I said so”, “It’s required”, or “You could be flunked if you don’t.”

The false answer endorsed by the NPR report and reproduced in hundreds of student handbooks and course syllabi is what generated this essay in my mind: “Because whenever anybody writes in any context, this is what they should do because if they do not, they are unlawful/dishonest/cheating/stealing the work/intellectual property of others. In many settings, it is acceptable to paraphrase, borrow, cobble together without formal attribution or frequently without any attribution at all.(7) Students know this by their own experience. Such attribution(s) is rarely explicitly given. When given, it is often serves other purposes: to lend authority, to discredit an argument, to lend legitimacy to a conclusion. By providing students with untruthful or half-truthful answers to that question, we undermine our ability to convince them that such requirements are necessary, reasonable, and appropriate.

5) Plagiarism – the truthful answer

The truthful and helpful answer?: “Because when you are a student, the faculty are trying to help you learn:

1) to form your own ideas in the context of others’ ideas

2) to support your ideas by the synthesis and organization of information, evidence, data and by the use of logical argument, and

3) to develop your own voice for expressing your ideas in a clear, eloquent, and convincing way.

In evaluating your student writing, we as your teachers must be able to separate your own ideas, analysis, and expression from those of others, both to help you develop these skills and to assess your developing mastery of these skills (and perhaps to assess a grade). If you present the ideas and voices of others as your own, we cannot tell anything about your development. That is why you must clearly distinguish which parts of your papers come from you and which from others. Just as we would be judged most harshly if we submitted a paper for presentation or publication as an original contribution to knowledge – one of the three pillars of our role as faculty – but presented the discoveries or analyses of others as our own insights, you will be judged most harshly if you submit the undocumented ideas and words of others as your own.”

The questioning of this practice, that spoken or unspoken “Why?”, is not generated by the surfeit of recent public moral lapses although such a general climate hinders discussion about acceptable conduct no matter how reasonable. It is a reaction to an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of plagiarism in the context of student writing. The nature of teaching and the evaluation of learning necessitate that we be able to discriminate between the expression or insight of the student and those of others. Thus, in the context of student learning, it becomes clear that representing the ideas and expression of your sources as if they were your own is misleading the professor and becomes a form of plagiarism – even if such uses in other contexts would be acceptable because no claim of originality or authorship is being made and no one’s commercial interests are being infringed.

The other major themes of that recent NPR report – the seeming ubiquity of the internet and the use of internet-resident material in student work and its relation to plagiarism– raise another whole set of complex issues related to authorship, attribution, and documentation. I hope to address these thorny issues in a future essay.


1) “Internet and college cheating”, Narr. John Ydstie. All things considered NPR. WGBH, Boston. 21 May 2002.
See also
segID=143717 . Viewed 15 August 2002.

2) Mallon, Thomas. Stolen words: forays into the origins and ravages of plagiarism New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1989, 4.

3) “Plagiarism.” The Oxford English Dictionary: OED Online 22 May 2002 and “Plagiary.” The Oxford English Dictionary: OED Online 22 May 2002 . Viewed 15 August 2002 [on-campus access only].

4) Feather, John. “From rights in copies to copyrights: the recognition of authors’ rights in English law and practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” in Woodmansee, Martha and Peter Jaszi (eds.) The construction of authorship: textual appropriation in law and literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994, pp.191-210; Rose, Mark. “The author in court: Pope v. Curll (1741)” in Woodmansee, Martha and Peter Jaszi (eds.) The construction of authorship: textual appropriation in law and literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994, pp.211-230.

5) Palmer, Tom G. “Intellectual property: a non-Posnerian law and economics approach” in Moore, Adam D. (ed.) Intellectual property: moral, legal, and international dilemmas. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Little field, 1997, 188; Boorstin, Daniel. The discoverers: a history of man’s search to know his world and himself. New York: Random House, 1983, 530; Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The printing press as an agent of change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, 122.

6) Mallon, ibid., 10.

7) Ironically, for a perfect example of this, consult the sections on plagiarism from the RIC College Handbook and the RIC Student Handbook which are linked to the Plagiarism and Academic Honesty page on the library website,
facultyres/acadinteg.html . The College Handbook quotes directly from Harbrace guide to the library and the research paper by Donald A. Sears [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984] in defining types of plagiarism, but gives only a page number (which is incorrect) and informal attribution. The Student Handbook, the plagiarism text of which has clearly been appropriated from the College Handbook, gives no attribution at all but does tell students to see Sears if they want more information about this topic! Is this blatant thievery of the worst sort? Not in this context. Sears can hardly be credited with originating these definitions or giving them particularly creative or unique expression. Neither are these handbooks meant for public consumption beyond their utilitarian purpose on campus. We may even be safe under the Fair Use provision of Section 107 of the Copyright Act…but don’t get me started on that.

Copyright © 2002 Patricia Brennan

The Truth about Plagiarism, Issues in Teaching and Learning, 1:1, 2002.

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