I’ve been working on a doc for my undergrads in Intro to Literary Studies and Intro to Writing about Lit that will explain why plagiarism is a big deal, why you shouldn’t do it, and why your teachers sometimes lose their marbles when they suspect you of it. There’s a bit at the end that goes beyond the usual tautological reasoning (“Don’t plagiarize because it’s wrong”) and gestures to the ways in which plagiarism affects teacher-student collaboration. Here’s a draft.
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Perhaps Overly Detailed Statement Regarding the Definitions, Effects, and Institutional Mores of Plagiarism

by Mark Sussman


In this class, and likely in every class you will take at Hunter, you are expected to submit work that is wholly your own. You are also expected to demonstrate that you have mastered the material at hand, which means you will often be quoting and paraphrasing the work of experts. So, turn in work that is 100% original, but make sure that original work borrows from the work of other people. Hmmmmmm …

This seeming contradiction can make the rules of plagiarism and academic integrity sound confusing, if not downright impossible to follow. It can also obscure the rather complicated reasons plagiarism is treated so seriously, despite the myriad ways in which social media has made sharing, reposting, regramming, retweeting, and other forms of appropriation acceptable and normal.  But I am going to try to explain things as clearly as I can.


What is plagiarism?

The most simple definition of plagiarism is appropriating someone else’s writing or ideas without attributing them to the original author. The effect of this is to make it seem as though you are the originator of what are, in reality, someone else’s words or ideas. So for example, if I write, “Othello shows us that, as T.S. Eliot wrote, ‘[N]othing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself’” (244), I have attributed the quote and idea to their author and cited the source. Everything is fine. But if I write, “Othello shows us that nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself,” I have committed plagiarism, because I took Eliot’s words and passed them off as my own.


What is originality?

When you hear your professors (at least your English professors) say they want you to produce “original” work, they mean “original” in a very specific sense. They mean that you should produce a piece of writing and analysis whose argument and thesis statement are the product of your own research, writing, and thought. All the writing in your essay should support that thesis statement and argument, which are original in the sense that you formulated them yourself after examining and analyzing the evidence at hand (the text, other scholars, etc.). They don’t mean that every word or idea in your essay has to be yours. Learning about what others have thought and said about the texts you study is a crucial part of writing about them in an informed manner. You are expected to read, cite, and quote from outside sources in order to learn what other writers and thinkers have said about it.

But your professors do ask that when you use someone else’s words or ideas, you give credit to the original source by using a standard system of citation (like MLA). At the undergraduate level, they don’t even ask that you argue something that no one has ever argued. They only ask that you come up with the argument on your own — if someone somewhere happens to have had the same thought and you don’t know about it, that is understandable in most cases. You’re all still learning how to do this, no one expects you to have comprehensive knowledge of your subject.

So essentially, all of the rules surrounding citation, attribution, and plagiarism are there to prevent you from doing one thing: taking credit for other people’s work, whether accidentally or purposefully. The reason style guidelines like MLA, APA, and Chicago are so intricate and infuriating, and the reason your professors get all worked  up about them, is because they are central to making sure credit is given to people who earned it. Professional scholars dedicate their lives to producing new knowledge about the world, and it matters that they receive credit for their work.


Ok, but why is that important?

You may ask what difference this credit makes in the context of a college class. You’re not trying to “steal credit” for writing or ideas in a professional context, like a journalist who passes off someone else’s reporting as his own. By borrowing an elegant formulation or a slick analysis from someone else, you’re only trying to create a better essay, which is, after all, what your professor told you to do. So no harm, no foul.

No. That attitude misconstrues why your professors think citation and giving credit are so important. The reason they furrow their brows when you misplace a comma in your works cited and get unreasonably upset and prosecutorial when you borrow a few sentences from a website is because they are trying to train you to think of citation as a matter of ethics, as a matter of fairness and rightness. Failing to give proper credit in the proper way is, in the context of academic institutions, wrong in the same way that stealing money from your neighbor is wrong. In that sense, not citing a source is a categorically different error than, say, writing “its” when you mean “it’s” or messing up a plot point in Othello. From their perspective, failing to credit your sources looks like a failure of character.   


This doesn’t sound like we’re talking about writing anymore … 

Like it or not, your English professors are trying to train you not only to be a certain kind of writer and thinker, but to be a certain kind of person, the kind of person who doesn’t steal from their academic neighbor and who looks down on anyone who would. Your professors will not really say this to you because, frankly, the idea that we’re trying to impose our own morals and character on you really weirds most of us out. The reasons for this are complicated, and I’m happy to go into them later. But trust me, it’s true. They want you to experience moral revulsion at the very suggestion of not citing your sources, just like they do. And when you don’t give credit where it’s due, your professor starts to ask themselves whether something is going on. They start to ask themselves if they have a thief on their hands. Not a “rule-breaker,” but a thief.


That sounds harsh.

It is. In my experience and that of most of my teacher friends, most plagiarism is accidental. Some plagiarism is intentional, but done out of desperation, fear, and anxiety. A very, very small amount of plagiarism is done in a calculating, sneaky, underhanded way. The problem is, all of those kinds of plagiarism look the same when you find them. When you’re confronted with a paper that contains plagiarism, you don’t know if you’re dealing with a) someone who simply doesn’t know the rules and has accidentally broken them, b) someone who is having real problems in the class, and perhaps in life, that can be addressed in an honest conversation, or c) a total sociopath.

At that point a wall of suspicion imposes itself between teacher and student. The suspected plagiarist’s behavior is dissected, his or her papers are examined with a fine-tooth comb, and a perceptible chill hovers over the teacher’s dealings with the student. Everything the student says and does is colored by the possibility that it might all be part of some elaborate con (English professors tend to be suspicious — it’s actually part of their training). You never really know if you’re dealing with an honest mistake or an attempt to deceive and manipulate.

So plagiarism is about your teachers’ feelings?

Yeah, kinda. There are reasons why plagiarism is a crucial issue for professional scholars, and why scholars and journalists who have been found to plagiarize in published work are essentially kicked out of the profession and shunned. Again, I’m happy to discuss that later. But in the context of the classroom, even the appearance of plagiarism, never mind flagrant, sociopathic theft, can fracture the one-on-one communication that’s necessary for teachers to really improve their students’ writing and work. You will simply learn more if there is a one-on-one component in your courses, and that is almost impossible to have when your teacher is constantly asking themselves if the sentences they are reading are yours at all. So if the appeal to ethics doesn’t do it for you, consider the quality of instruction you would like to get for the ever-increasing tuition you pay.


So let’s say you think I’m plagiarizing. What happens?

What happens is I call you into my office and I point to what I think are instances of plagiarism. I ask you whether or not you admit this is plagiarism and whether you have some reason why it looks like there’s plagiarism present. Then I refer the matter to Hunter College’s Academic Integrity Official, who will initiate a process that could end in a warning, expulsion from Hunter, or anything in between, depending on the severity of the offense. You can either officially admit to the accusation or contest it, in which case there will be a sort of hearing held to determine what will happen. You can read all about this on Hunter’s Academic Integrity website.


Ok. Got it. Don’t plagiarize. But I’m worried that I might accidentally plagiarize. How do I not do that?

  1. Keep track of your sources. You will probably accumulate many sources you would like to quote from. As you start incorporating quotations, and especially as you start paraphrasing, it will become surprisingly easy to lose track of what you thought of and wrote and what someone else thought of and wrote. Keep a doc that has only the material you’re getting from elsewhere and the citation information for that material so you can double-check.
  2. Cite as you go. Do not tell yourself you’ll insert in-text citations later because you’re on a roll, and you don’t want to stop writing to check a page number. Take a second to do it as you’re writing or you may forget.
  3. “Borrowing” language from a website without attribution is plagiarism. Taking language from any source (including a website) and changing around a few of the words to make it look slightly different but not citing it is most definitely plagiarism. It’s tempting, but don’t do it. It’s very easy to spot.
  4. Err on the side of caution. If you’re not sure if you should cite something or not, cite it. I’ll let you know if it’s something you don’t need to cite.
  5. If you have questions about how or whether to cite, ask me. I promise I will not be mad. In fact, I will be happy that you are taking these issues so seriously!