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About Plagiarism - Instructor vs. Student

What is plagiarism? The American Public University System states that passing off ideas as one's own, when they are not, is plagiarism. It is stealing, and it is lying about the stealing. Virtually every college in America and nearly every high school passes out a student handbook that that utilizes this definition, and very few of them provide a reference for the definition of plagiarism. Common knowledge does not have to be referenced. Does this mean that the definition of plagiarism is common knowledge? The Congressional Quarterly Researcher reported that 90% of the college students understand that plagiarism is wrong, but still dozens are expelled for committing the act. The issue is so pervasive that the Congressional Quarterly Researcher devoted an entire special issue to review of the topic. The news reports are full of high school students, college students, authors, composers, and famous journalists who are reported to have plagiarized.

The Philosophy of Plagiarism

As I began this paper, I used the example of the plagiarism of college handbooks, or of the possible plagiarism of handbooks. I truly believed it was my own idea; I've never heard it expressed before. But as I continued my research, utilizing Google, I opened a document that (SURPRISE!) contained examples of college handbooks and how similar they are. Pecorari apparently had the same idea: she produced a Power Point handout showing similarities in handbooks. One of the slides is reproduced on the next page.

Examining the slide, show in the figure below, some questions come to mind. Is it enough to say that materials come from "a small university in the east of the US"? Is that really crediting the writers correctly? According to the APA handbook, it is not (American Psychological Association).

Plagiarism Definition

Figure 1. Example from Pecorari (slide 5, pg. 3)

Consider for a moment that I have quoted Pecorari, who quoted an example from two (unidentified) universities. From a technical standpoint, in order to prevent this quote or usage from qualifying as plagiarism, I would need to go to the source. The problem is that I might find a small university in the east of the US who uses these exact words, and even a state university in the US Pacific Northwest who uses the quoted text, but that still might not be the original location. Given the nature of the topic, it is in fact unlikely that the universities came up with that original idea. Who is to say what source truly came up with the idea first? Universities have been around nearly as long as society.

Taking the Idea a Step Further

Lest we believe that this idea is ridiculous and that the idea of something being "borrowed" in multiple layers of plagiaristic usage is farfetched, let us move the discussion to religion. I am a Christian, and I believe the Bible. However, if we search on [similarities between Bible and Quran], there are 68,000 results that purport to show documents relating to the similarities between the Bible and the Quran. There are 292,000 results that show similarities between the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and 97,300 that show similarities between the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Quran. I find it difficult to believe that they all show different similarities, and there are very few solid references in the documents which I reviewed. How could we possibly know who had the idea that there were similarities first? It is likely that it was a little old man, back in ancient times, who sat on his heels staring into the fire and muttering "I know I've heard that somewhere before." However, we can't reference him, because we don't know who he was (or even if he was a he).

We must also consider that either the Bible, the Quran, or the Book of Mormon are plagiarized off of each other. If 292,000 authors are correct and there are clear similarities, then someone plagiarized. If they plagiarized, then God did not deliver the messages directly to the individuals who purport to have written them down, unless He picked a Muslim, a Christian, and Joseph Smith to give the messages to. It seems likely that God, wishing to avoid the possibility of Heavenly plagiarism, would have told them "I'm giving this to your Christian brothers also, and someday to Joseph Smith, so write that down, because otherwise mankind will one day consider this a sin."

A Serious Discussion

I have made every effort to present this subject with levity, but the issue is clear: how do we, as students and professionals, distinguish between what is an original idea, and what is not and is really an idea produced by someone else? Is it necessary to go to the internet and search each time we have the urge to say, "Wow! I have an idea!" to someone? During the course of writing my academic papers, I have discovered that it is quite common to find materials referenced inside the materials that I plan on using for my references. If I go "to the source" inevitably there are references for that material. In actual practice, the student could sit for all afternoon merely tracking down references embedded in references.

This is not how school, or getting an education, was intended to be. Before we have had the internet, we could concentrate on learning the general principles. Part of the journey was in experiential learning, following a process, considering the possibilities, and reaching a conclusion that solved a problem. Today, this is not the case. A written document, given to the instructor, is to show what we have learned. When the instructor asks us a question in class, we are allowed to give the answer without verbally stating the reference for everything. Verbally presenting something without reference should be no different; ethically, it is the same thing to fail to present a verbal reference as it would be a printed one.

Here's an example how it works:

Compare that to this:

Plagiarism - Summary

How far will be take this business of citation to prevent "plagiarism"? Consider this example, from the University of Bedfordshire:

....it makes good educational sense for students to make use of all resources available to them, including tutors, mentors and colleagues in preparing their work, the safest course is to be punctilious about acknowledging any assistance received as well as citing sources as above. Such acknowledgement should also include an indication of its nature, such as:

- "Thanks to Fiona Bountiful (Mentor) for information on the implementation of competence-based assessment for politicians;

- and to Bill Gates for Microsoft Word's spelling checker" (Atherton).

It is my sincerest hope to avoid plagiarizing documents during my academic career. From a practical philosophical standpoint, however, it cannot be done. I will merely site as accurately as I can, and hope that someone sitting on a beach in Costa Rica reading documentation from his iPhone does not jump up and say "But that was MY idea!"


American Psychological Association APA Handbook. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Atherton J (2011) Doceo; Assignment Presentation Guidelines.

Congressional Quarterly Researcher Combating plagiarism. Congressional Quarterly Researcher 13(32) 773-796.

Essay Brand. Can Students Outsmart Plagiarism Scanners? Online: https://essaybrand.com/research/dodging-plagiarism-scanner-outsmart-word-detection-68/.

Essay Scam. Plagiarism Checker and Detection Tools - Stop Using Them. Online: https://essayscam.org/truth-plagiarism-detection-tools/.

Pecorari, D. (2009) The intertextuality that dare not speak its name: Constructing plagiarism as a textual crime. Presentation to Malardalen University, Sweden.