Yesterday I had The Talk with two of my classes—my first-year writing seminar and my upper-level writing/research course.

Doing so proved to me once again that you can’t have The Talk too often with young people. Students were under-informed, misinformed, and worst of all, filled with fear.

The Talk, of course, for these classes was about plagiarism.

Two students in separate classes shared what I think is far too common with the emphasis on what to avoid, plagiarism, (a deficit perspective) instead of what to do and why, scholarly/academic citation—one having been “terrified” by a seminar on plagiarism when they were first-year students and the other struggling to express their concern about teachers being too “harsh” (a recognition that their experience with citation was mostly about avoiding punishment).

Despite the differences in class levels, these students were equally hesitant to answer basic questions about the purposes of citation and what constitutes plagiarism; they offered tentative and incomplete answers when I persisted in coaxing responses.

We tended to agree, eventually, that what constitutes plagiarism is a complicated issue. Students, unlike teachers and professors, were quick to argue that citation errors are not plagiarism, and students also place far more emphasis on intent (which among my colleagues is typically rejected out of hand).

The purpose of The Talk yesterday was to help students make some distinctions about reasonable expectations for citation in academic settings as opposed to intimidating students into not plagiarizing. My questions revolved around the purposes of the bibliographies included in cited essays as well as the basic expectations of in-text citations.

In other words, I wanted students to feel more empowered with increased confidence in terms of knowing they were not plagiarizing even when they remained uncertain about the formatting expectations of the style manual they were being required to use (my students typically are using APA in my courses but have backgrounds in MLA).

Approaching citation at the conceptual level (and avoiding the negative approach of “don’t plagiarize”) seeks to help students understand attribution in academic settings.

Some of the key concepts I emphasized include the following:

  • Recognizing that the primary purpose of the bibliographies included in cited writing is to provide enough information so that a reasonable person can locate the source with a minimum of effort. I urge students to start with what information is essential for that purpose and then to attend to the tedious formatting requirements of that information next.
  • Understanding that in-text citation is required to identify appropriate attribution of other people’s ideas and words. I have found that students often focus on attribution for words (quoting) but aren’t as apt to voice the need to cite ideas. (Note: Students are well aware that blunt plagiarism—passing off an entire essay as your own when it isn’t or pasting huge sections of text from Wikipedia into an essay as if they wrote it—is wrong; therefore, they see plagiarism as a situation about intent and characterize most concerns raised by teachers/professors in their cited work as citation errors, not plagiarism.)
  • Recognizing that the primary purpose of in-text citations is to include the essential information required by the style sheet assigned so that a reasonable person knows which source in the list of references is being cited. Here, the issues of citation at the conceptual level overlap with style sheet formatting so we discuss the different thresholds of major citation systems (APA focusing on author name and year as opposed to MLA using only the name).

The discussion of citation at the conceptual level seemed to help students feel more confidence as most of them faced the unfamiliar waters of APA, but we also had to confront the elephant in the room—what I call the gauntlet of academic citation.

I shared with students the harsh truths about plagiarism in higher education.

First, I explained my experience on my university Academic Discipline Committee, where many years ago I came to the realization that my university has no official definition of plagiarism and that professors vary significantly in their definitions of plagiarism as well as how they identify and punish plagiarism across campus (some religiously using Turnitin.com and others never reporting even blunt plagiarism).

Regretfully, this discussion brought students back to fear, but I think they need to be aware of the unpredictable landscape of citation in college so that they can better advocate for themselves. I specifically urged them to seek out an advocate if they find themselves in situations where they think plagiarism is being misidentified in their work.

Next, I explained to students how systems such as Turnitin.com work (another tool for variation in how plagiarism is addressed in different professor’s classrooms) and that these systems are expensive but not as effective as simple Googling.

I also addressed the student’s concern about many professors being too harsh by admitting that academic citation during college is often much more severe than in the real world (where plagiarists become president or serve in the senate) and far more complex than in the real world.

For me, after 37 years of teaching high school and college students writing and the gauntlet of academic citation, I recognized yesterday that we adults fail the citation/plagiarism talk the same way we fail the sex talk—by focusing on what not to do and instilling fear instead of understanding in young people.

This new recognition sits now beside a long-standing Truth I practice and preach about teaching all aspects of writing; there is no one-shot inoculation (or even two-shot inoculation in our age of Covid-19) because writing and the technicalities of citation are complex, things we gradually acquire even as there is simply no finish line.

Instilling fear in young people is a dis-service to them as well as the lessons we hope to teach and the good we believe we are doing for them.