Plagiarism: Caught between Academia and the Real World

An international student enrolled in a U.S. university presents her first speech for a introductory public speaking course. English is not her first language so writing and delivering the speech present for her problems not faced by students native to the U.S.

All students in the course also submit their speeches to the professor electronically so that the texts can be run through plagiarism detection software. This international student’s speech is flagged for two passages being over 40% unoriginal, word-for-word identical in many areas to a high-profile political speech easily found online.

In academia, students accused of plagiarism and then proven to have plagiarized face dire consequences—failing the assignment, failing the entire course, and/or expulsion.

Having taught high school English and then first-year writing for a combined 30-plus years, and having served on a university academic discipline committee, I have witnessed a wide range of problems with how academia defines plagiarism (including different bars for plagiarism from professor to professor in the same university), how professors detect and address plagiarism, and how students are taught and not taught the ethical and technical aspects of proper citation and use of sources in original writing.

The scenario above, however, has now been very publicly presented through the speech offered by Melania Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

While Melania Trump’s speech has become fodder for parody and humor as well as partisan bickering over whether or not it is plagiarism and whether or not it matters, several key aspects of this act of plagiarism in the real world is being ignored, especially as it informs how we treat plagiarism in academia at all levels.

Here is the ugly truth we in the academy fail to teach students: In formal schooling (and most scholarship), plagiarism is punished harshly, especially when the plagiarist is a student; but in the real world, plagiarism occurs quite a bit, especially in politics, and with very few negative consequences—mostly because the plagiarists are powerful people.

The significant gap between the consequences for plagiarism by a student in school and for powerful people in the real world offers some important lessons for both academia and the public.

In K-12 and higher education, students are subjected to a high level of focus on and scrutiny about plagiarism. However, much of that is about detection and punishment—while too little time is spent directly teaching students about the ethics and technical aspects of choosing, using, and citing sources for original work.

When Rand Paul faced multiple cases of his work, including speeches and publications, being flagged for plagiarism, his response is important to consider (and in many ways parallels defenses of Melania Trump’s plagiarism):

Paul has argued that his speeches aren’t meant to be meticulously footnoted academic papers. He has also noted that he cited the movies he talked about and, in the case of his book, that the Heritage Foundation study and Cato were cited in the endnotes. Heritage and Cato have both released statements saying they don’t take issue with Paul’s use of their work.

For students, this real-world situation seems to suggest that only in academia is plagiarism a big deal, and thus, the academia is over-reacting.

Ultimately, plagiarism in any setting is about attribution of words and ideas to others [1]. From Rand Paul to countless students, the ease with which words and ideas can be lifted from Wikipedia combined with seeing education as mere credentialing or seeing a speech as just a functional thing is a dangerous formula—if ethical considerations matter at all in either academia or the real world.

Melania Trump’s plagiarism deserves scrutiny [2], and plagiarism must remain a line not to be crossed in academic and scholarly work.

While the real world will likely continue to allow some people to skirt consequences for plagiarism, I believe the academy needs to think carefully about how we address plagiarism and the adequate citation of people’s ideas and words.

Here, then, are some guiding thoughts about what must be confronted about plagiarism in the academy:

  • Proper citation and plagiarism are ethical considerations; therefore, formal schooling needs to increase requirements for courses in philosophy (to know the body of thought about ethical considerations) as well as embedding greater time spent on ethics within all disciplines.
  • Students deserve honest discussions of how plagiarism and its consequences are about power as that intersects ethics. Inviting students to investigate real-world cases of plagiarism is an important gateway to their understanding what it entails as well as why they should be making ethical choices in their own education and beyond.
  • Formal schooling needs to reconsider the intensity placed on detecting and punishing plagiarism (including rejecting technology as a central device for the detection) and to place more time and value on teaching students how to gather, use, and cite sources for their work. Too often students are simply told their work is incorrect or plagiarized; too rarely are students then guided through a revision process that requires and allows them to complete their work ethically and properly.

The phrase “merely academic” is a damning one because it captures the gulf between what we do and profess in formal schooling as that is refuted by the real world. When students see the real world functions under significantly different norms than formal schooling, they are apt to tolerate (at best) schooling until they can be released into the real world—too often unmotivated to be critical of or to seek ways to change that real world.

If education is more than credentialing (and currently it may not be) [3], and if education seeks to be transformative for both the students and the society the schools and universities serve, that gulf must be bridged.

Our society and our politics are neither equitable or ethical.

Our schools and universities have a duty to address both—but we must do it through rich and robust teaching and learning, not mere detection and punishment.


[1] While writing a blog post a week ago, I compared edujournalists discovering topics to claiming Columbus discovered America, but as I was writing, I had a nagging feeling I had read that comparison in a slightly different context. I had, and with some searching, realized it was here—thus, adding the hyperlink to my blog post.

[2] The political justifications for Melania Trump’s word-for-word plagiarism reveal the failures of the academia to properly teach people about language use. The online software detection company Turnitin.com notes: “The likelihood that a 16-word match is ‘just a coincidence’ is less than 1 in a trillion,” and her speech had a 23-word match.

[3] See Cutting and Pasting: A Senior Thesis by (Insert Name), Brent Staples:

Not everyone who gets caught knows enough about what they did to be remorseful. Recently, for example, a student who plagiarized a sizable chunk of a paper essentially told my friend to keep his shirt on, that what he’d done was no big deal. Beyond that, the student said, he would be ashamed to go home to the family with an F.

As my friend sees it: “This represents a shift away from the view of education as the process of intellectual engagement through which we learn to think critically and toward the view of education as mere training. In training, you are trying to find the right answer at any cost, not trying to improve your mind.”…

If we look closely at plagiarism as practiced by youngsters, we can see that they have a different relationship to the printed word than did the generations before them. When many young people think of writing, they don’t think of fashioning original sentences into a sustained thought. They think of making something like a collage of found passages and ideas from the Internet.

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

My home university has taken another step in our quest to provide our students more effective and intentional first-year and sustained writing instruction during their time at our liberal arts institution. Once we moved away from the traditional English Department-based approach to first year composition and committed to a first year seminar format, just under a decade ago, we opened the door to having professors in any department teach first-year writing.

We are currently re-thinking the first year seminar model, but we are also taking steps to support better professors who have content expertise in the disciplines, experience as researchers and writers, but little or no formal background in teaching writing or composition research. This summer, then, we have begun a year-long faculty seminar on teaching writing.

Coincidentally, on the day this week we were scheduled to address plagiarism and citation, a session I was leading, I came across in my Twitter feed Carl Straumsheim’s What Is Detected?:

Plagiarism detection software from vendors such as Turnitin is often criticized for labeling clumsy student writing as plagiarism. Now a set of new tests suggests the software lets too many students get away with it.

The data come from Susan E. Schorn, a writing coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin. Schorn first ran a test to determine Turnitin’s efficacy back in 2007, when the university was considering paying for an institutionwide license. Her results initially dissuaded the university from paying a five-figure sum to license the software, she said. A follow-up test, conducted this March, produced similar results.

I have been resisting the use of Turnitin, or any plagiarism detection software, but my university and many professors remain committed to the technology. The growing body of research discrediting the software suggests:

“We say that we’re using this software in order to teach students about academic dishonesty, but we’re using software we know doesn’t work,” Schorn said. “In effect, we’re trying to teach them about academic dishonesty by lying to them.”

My general skepticism about technology was confirmed years ago when I was serving on my university Academic Discipline Committee where faculty often debated about whether or not students flagged for plagiarism by Turnitin had actually plagiarized (see Thomas, 2007, below). That debate turned on many issues being raised by the failure of plagiarism detection software, as highlighted at the University of Texas-Austin based on Schorn’s research:

  • Despite industry claims to the contrary, most plagiarism detection software fails to accurately detect plagiarism. Read more.
  • The Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Council of Writing Program Administrators do not endorse plagiarism detection software and have issued statements warning of its limitations. Read more.
  • Plagiarism detection software can have substantial unintended effects on student learning. It perpetuates a very narrow definition of originality and does little to teach students about the complex interplay of voices required in dialogic academic writing.
  • Plagiarism detection software transfers the responsibility for identifying plagiarism from a human reader to a non-human process. This runs counter to the Writing Flag’s concern for “careful reading and analysis of the writing of others” as part of the learning process.
  • Plagiarism detection software raises potential legal and ethical concerns, such as the use of student writing to construct databases that earn a profit for software companies, the lack of appeals processes, and potential violations of student privacy and FERPA protections.
  • Plagiarism detection software does not, by itself, provide sufficient evidence to prove academic dishonesty; it should not serve as the sole grounds for cases filed with Student Judicial Services.
  • Instructors who choose to use plagiarism detection software should include a syllabus statement about the software and its use, establish appeals processes, and plan for potential technological failures.

The fourth bullet above—where the authority for both teaching citation and detecting plagiarism is shifted from the professor/teacher to the technology—is the core problem for me because of two key issues: (1) many professors/teachers resist recognizing or practicing that teaching citation (and all aspects of writing) is an ongoing process—not a one-shot act, and (2) focusing on warning students about plagiarism and suspecting all students as potential plagiarizers (teaching plagiarism, a negative, instead of citation, a positive) are part of a larger and corrupt deficit view of scholarship, students, and human nature.

While plagiarism detection software is being unmasked as not as effective as using browser search engines (a free resource), we must admit that even if software or technology works as advertised, best practice always dictates that professors/teachers and students recognize that technology is only one tool in a larger obligation to teaching and/or scholarship.

Another related example of the essential folly of placing too much faith in technology when seeking ways to teach students scholarly citation is citation software, such as NoodleBib and the more recent App RefMe.

Despite, once again, many universities (typically through the library services) encouraging uncritically students to use citation software, I discourage the practice because almost always the generated bibliographies my students submit are incorrect—in part due to some of the harder aspects of APA for the software to address (capitalization/lower-case issues, for example) and in part due to students’ lack of oversight after generating the bibliographies.

Ultimately, then, if we think of citation software as a tool, and if students can be taught to review and edit generated bibliographies, the technology has promise (setting aside that some citation software embeds formatting that can be problematic once inserted into a document also).

Both plagiarism detection and citation software are harbingers of the dangers of seeking shortcuts for teaching students any aspect of writing; spending school or university funds on these inadequate technologies, I think, is hard to defend, but the greater pedagogical problem is how technology often serves to impede, not strengthen our roles as educators—especially as teachers of writing.

Some lessons from these failures of technology include the following:

  1. Be skeptical of technology, especially if their are significant costs involved. Are there free or cheaper alternatives, and can that funding be better spent in the name of teaching and learning?
  2. Be vigilant about teacher agency, notably resisting abdicating that agency to technology instead of incorporating technology into enhancing teacher agency.
  3. Recognize that teaching writing and subsets such as citation are ongoing and developmental commitments that take years and years of intentional instruction.
  4. Resist deficit thinking about students/humans (do not address primarily plagiarism, but citation).

Straumsheim draws a key conclusion from Schorn’s research: “In addition to the issues of false negatives and positives, plagiarism detection software fits into a larger ethical debate about how to teach writing.”

The ethics of teaching writing, I believe, demand we set aside technology mis-serving our teaching and our students—setting technology aside and returning to our own obligations as teachers.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2007, May). Of flattery and thievery: Reconsidering plagiarism in a time of virtual information. English Journal, 96(5), 81-84.

Statement on Plagiarism Detection Software (UT-Austin)

Preventing Plagiarism (UT-Austin)

Teaching with Plagiarism Detection Software (UT-Austin)

Plagiarism Detection Software: Limitations and Responsibilities (UT-Austin)

Results of the Plagiarism Detection System Test 2013

Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices (WPA)

CCCC Resolution on Plagiarism Detection Services (#3)

Why I Won’t Use TurnItIn to Check My PhD Thesis, Travis Holland