Plagiarism – Define It, Spot It, Avoid It!
By Jennifer Cummings, M. Ed. – A Note from the Teacher
Does your student complete book reports by copying from the back cover of their reading book?
Does your high school sophomore finish research papers lightening-fast by cutting and pasting text and pictures from the Internet? Did your elementary school student finish their report on fish by copying pages from their favorite book at home? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to take a few minutes and learn more about the topic of plagiarism. Some people believe that if information is used in an educational setting, such as a classroom, that it is okay to ‘borrow’ others’ words, but it’s not – and it can land your child into a lot of trouble if they choose to do it.
Plagiarism is taking someone’s work as your own, and not giving credit to the author or creator of the original work, whether it is in the form of words, pictures, songs, or other media. This can apply to many different things that students may use in their school life, from written words in a school library book to scientific graphs taken without recognition from an online source. While there are ways to appropriately use quotes and some information from original sources, if your child is using someone else’s work as their own, without giving appropriate credit, then they are plagiarizing.
It is tempting for many kids to ‘cut and paste’ from different sources as they try to create a report, book review, or other school paper that they need to write. First, it is certainly easier and faster than learning about a topic and writing about it in a new way. Second, many students believe there is nothing wrong with using information found online, and that if it is posted online it is free for everyone to use. Finally, lots of students simply are not directly taught what is and is not acceptable, and this can cause confusion and mistakes.
Unfortunately, not knowing what plagiarism is or how to avoid it can have serious consequences for students who are caught in this form of cheating. Though school policies differ, depending on the policies of individual districts and the grade level, the results of submitting plagiarized work can include: failing on the assignment, failing for the subject area, or in the case of some colleges (or even employment!), expulsion. Often there is a zero tolerance policy for plagiarism, leading to harsh penalties for even the first offense. Simply put- copying someone else’s work is not only unethical, it’s just not worth the risk!
And today’s students may be more likely than ever to get caught if they choose to plagiarize schoolwork. Teachers can visit any one of a number of online sites, type in the sentence or phrase they believe may be copied, and in just a few moments have the original source identified, whether it is a book, article, or webpage. Once one part of an assignment is identified as plagiarized, continued investigation often follows, and so do serious consequences.
So as a parent, how can you recognize when your child may be plagiarizing? Here are a few tips to follow:
1. Read your child’s report or papers before they hand them in. If the paper seems to have been completed too quickly for its length (A 22-page paper in one night? Really?), has printing of varying fonts or sizes throughout, or has professional-seeming graphics or graphs that aren’t cited to another author, take a second look with your child to make sure everything is their own.
2. Are there any citations or works cited pages giving credit to authors of books that were used for research? Although there are several different ways of giving credit to people whose work you have referenced, every one of those methods has basic requirements of listing the author’s name and the copyright date, and sometimes the name of the original work, where it was published, and by whom. If your child has a paper that has been completed and there are no citations used anywhere, they need to go back and check to make sure all of the work is theirs alone.
3. Can your child give a reasonable definition for all of the words they used in their work? In an effort to get good grades, sometimes kids plagiarize work so they sound more knowledgeable on the topic than they really are. In their effort to impress, they can take other experts’ work as their own, using technical language they truly don’t understand. If you read through your child’ paper they should be able to know what all of the words mean. Curious how your 3rd grader can completely write about the fixation of nitrogen isotopes into soils through utilizing crop rotation of legumes, but they can’t tell you what an ‘isotope’ is? Take a closer look at where their information came from before allowing them to hand in the work.
But how can you help your child avoid plagiarizing, even by accident (which is sometimes the case!) as they work? Try these strategies to help:
1. Never encourage your child to use cut-and-paste from books or online sources to complete assignments, even homework. Even though it may not seem like a big deal to use a few words copied from a website, this can just lead to copying more work for bigger projects later.
2. Have a writing reference book in the house to use in case there are questions about the proper way to give credit to another author in an assignment. Many large book retailers have multiple reference titles available that are appropriate for home student use and reference the current requirements to reference work. Need a suggestion? Ask your child’s teacher or the book retailer for assistance.
3. Have your child handwrite a rough draft of their paper before typing it. While you are sure to hear complaints when you put a pencil and paper in their hand (‘What??!! That’s the old fashioned way!!’), it is easier for students to resist the temptation of cutting and pasting from online sources when they handwrite. Still want your child to type a rough draft? Disable web access on that machine while they write to fend off temptation.
4. As your child does research for an assignment, have them take notes about what they learn and where the information is from on a separate piece of paper. Then, when they write their own assignment, have them only refer to their notes as needed. If they need direct quotes or more specific information they will still have the sources listed in their notes to follow up with and they can still list their sources on a works cited page at the end as needed.
5. When an assignment is given, ask the teacher for the format they would like used for citing work from other sources. That way, if the teacher has not had this important discussion already, it will give them an opportunity to bring it up to the whole class. Not sure if something is plagiarism? Ask if your child can stay for an extra help session with the teacher to go over the do’s and don’ts of writing and researching.
Ultimately the decision not to plagiarize assignments is your child’s responsibility, but parents who educate themselves can help to be part of the solution. By beginning the discussion at a young age and teaching proper research techniques early on, you can help to discourage future difficulties. Prevention is important!