Forms of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is defined as the use of intellectual material produced by another person without acknowledging its source. Some examples [1]:

  • Copying passages from works of others into one’s homework, essay, term paper, or dissertation, without acknowledgement.
  • Use of the views, opinions, or insights of another, without acknowledgement.
  • Paraphrasing another person’s characteristic or original phraseology, metaphor, or other rhetorical device, without acknowledgement.

An increasingly common form of plagiarism is copying and pasting papers or articles from the internet, or simply purchasing prewritten papers from online paper mills. Hundreds of these sites have been identified. Fortunately, this sort of plagiarism is also increasingly easy to detect. For further information, see the Teaching Guide page Detecting and Addressing Plagiarism.

In addition, new concerns have arisen around the issue of plagiarism in the writing of computer code. Instructors who deal with questions of source-citation in coding may wish to consult the guide on Academic Integrity in Code Writing developed by MIT.

Identifying the Causes

Many instances of plagiarism are unintentional. In many cases students don’t understand how to write in the ways people in a given academic field write, how to manage larger and more complex writing assignments, how to take good research notes, or how to interact fairly with other writers’ ideas in their own work.

Low Confidence in Writing Skills

Some students fear that they are not sophisticated or advanced enough to write successful papers, or that their English writing skills are lacking. Some want to sound more erudite than they feel they are and resort to using someone else’s words or ideas because they think these sound better than their own. Sometimes a student wishes to project a certain image or to impress the instructor. Many students are simply unused to the style of writing demanded in a particular discipline and don’t understand that this is a skill they can learn.

To address this, engage students in a discussion about the expected writing style of the discipline before their first assignment. What sections does a paper typically have? What kind of audience should they imagine writing to? Different disciplines require different writing styles, and even advanced students may be unsure about how to tackle an unfamiliar kind of assignment. Showing students sample papers can be helpful, but it is important to discuss them thoroughly so that students understand both their strengths and weaknesses. To clarify the requirements, show students the criteria you will use to evaluate their papers and have them use the criteria to evaluate a sample paper in class discussion.

The Working with Student Writing chapter of this Teaching Guide elaborates on several of these teaching strategies.

The GSI Teaching & Resource Center also offers consultation and materials to help GSIs address issues in student writing.

Some students will have greater difficulty with their writing than others. It also helps to familiarize students with the Student Learning Center Writing Program. Get to know the SLC’s services yourself so that you can tell students what to expect when they go there.

Unrealistic Expectations about Writing

Some students have gotten through high school, and expect to get through college, by writing papers in a single, desperate, last-minute effort. As their assignments become longer and more sophisticated, however, this strategy becomes far less effective. Nevertheless some students retain their belief that they can or should be able to write great papers in a single pass at the last minute.

Discuss the paper-writing process with students, from teasing out an idea via brief writing to outlining to drafting to figuring out what they really want to say. Explain the importance of writing drafts and ask students to bring a one-page draft of essay assignments with them to office hours or class for feedback. It is not necessary to grade each draft. Show them successive drafts of one of your projects. Often the requirement of a draft helps students recognize that their ideas take time and effort to develop and that their ideas are worth the investment.

A different unrealistic expectation students may harbor is that they are only allowed to use original ideas — that is, there is no legitimate way to interact with others’ ideas in their own academic work. Students who believe this may be tempted to cover up their reliance on other people’s work by not acknowledging their debts. As a GSI you can help them understand that in fact they are expected to learn from and discuss the work of other thinkers; they just have to give that work due credit.

Poor, Careless, or Passive Note-Taking

Particularly when writing a research paper, students may inadvertently commit plagiarism because their research notes are not precise enough and don’t distinguish the source material from their own thoughts or inferences. Students may lack the habit of using quotation marks or writing down adequate bibliographic information when they take ideas from a book or article. They think they will remember that something is a quotation or remember its origin when they come back to it later, but that information becomes lost. This problem can also occur when a normally careful student works from borrowed notes.

Some students read only receptively and take passive notes. Passive note-taking involves writing down an author’s words, or a close paraphrase, without thinking them through. Active note-takers think an idea through, record their own ideas, ask questions, and make connections with other ideas and materials they have come across. This intellectual activity provides a firm basis for developing their own ideas. Active note-takers are less prone to unintentional plagiarism because they record fewer quotations, and so can identify which ideas belong to which authors and distinguish those ideas from their own.

Students need to learn how to take useful and efficient notes in their work. Explain the difference between active and passive note-taking and the importance of including quotation marks and essential bibliographic information. Help them understand how active note-taking can improve ideas and save time, since they won’t have to go back to original sources again to make sure they got everything straight. Show them some of your own research notes, and talk about what has worked well for you.

It’s also extremely helpful to model good note-taking. Always cite your own sources in class and on handouts. Don’t photocopy illegally or post copyrighted materials on a website without permission. In class, note the sources you work with on the board — this sets a good example and helps students take clearer class notes. (It also sends the message that you are familiar enough with the literature that students are not likely to get away with intentional plagiarism.)

[1] Examples are from the Center for Student Conduct, Student Code of Conduct Violations.