Plagiarists: Expel Them or Educate Them?

Susan Blum, author and professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, presents lecture on plagiarism at RIC Faculty Development Workshop.

Susan Blum, author and professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, presents lecture on plagiarism at RIC Faculty Development Workshop.


Plagiarism has been the scourge of academia for centuries. Plagiarism is defined as “the practice of taking someone else's words or ideas and passing it off as one’s own,” according to the New Oxford American Dictionary. But should every culprit be punished? When does plagiarism become an opportunity for teachers to teach?

In a lecture at RIC’s 18th Annual Faculty Development Workshop, attended by almost 60 faculty, Susan Blum, author of “My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture” and professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, argued that there are in fact two types of plagiarism. One is deliberate and should be dealt with through punitive measures. The other is unintentional and should be dealt with by educating the student.

According to Blum, often there is a genuine lack of mastery of the rules of citation. She said, “Educators need to appreciate that there are many aspects of writing that are hard for students to grasp all at once. We’re asking them to find sources, craft arguments, employ evidence; use correct sentence structure, paragraphs, transitions and organization; create sources; and say something original.”

Blum recommended that teachers not only make sure that their students have the skills they need to complete each component of writing but that they discuss with their students the legal, professional, ethical and moral ramifications of plagiarism. “Explain why there are rules for citing sources,” she said. "If we can give students the reasons why we have these rules, they’re more likely to follow them.” 

Blum also recommended that educators craft assignments that call for originality. Though there is no such animal as a plagiarism-proof assignment, there are projects that are less likely to tempt such behavior. She said,

  • Avoid generic topics that require students to report chunks of information.
  • Force students to make sense of an issue by drawing on their own thoughts. Ask them, “If you were to study this further, how would you go about it?” Or “What else would you want to know about this and how would you find out?”
  • Make the assignment interesting and relevant to their lives.
  • Ask them to interview people within the context of the reading.
  • Consider project-based and collaborative assignments.
  • Diminish the power of grades by rethinking the goal of education.

For students, the goal is to achieve a good grade. For teachers, the goal is education/enlightenment. Faculty need to remember to place the goal of educating over the grade, she said.

Following the lecture, Blum engaged in a question-and-answer session. One RIC faculty member mentioned the globalization of information through the Internet. She said, “You can type a four-word phrase and get over a million responses. This has created a normalization of appropriation. Will there eventually be no such thing as intellectual property rights?” 

“There are some academics who do suggest that,” Blum answered. “From the highest intellectual standpoint, absolute originality is impossible. We do tend to say the same things, and there are only so many ways we can rephrase a statement in our own words. In fact, if we used our own words in everything we said, we’d have to invent our own language, which would cause us to become unintelligible to each other. And if we had to cite all the influences on our ideas, we’d have to footnote every one of our sentences. Though we have the goal of originality, it is not always easy to achieve.”

Nevertheless, educators must continue to teach their students the importance of giving credit where credit is due. It would also be judicious to use unintentional plagiarism as an opportunity to educate rather than as an academic death penalty, she said.