Teaching Resources

Integrating Writing: Avoiding Plagiarism


One of the greatest frustrations for an instructor is to be in the midst of reading a student essay and suddenly and abruptly to hear a dramatic shift in the "voice"—the rhetorical style and vocabulary of the text—to the extent that the instructor senses that he or she is suddenly reading the work of another writer. After the instructor obtains proof of transgression, students are accused of stealing and must suffer the consequences: usually, a failed grade. If the instructor cannot find the proof, he or she calls the student into his or her office and tries to get the student to confess.

This kind of scenario seems more and more probable with students' unlimited access to information over the internet, information that is becoming increasingly difficult, in its sheer volume, for instructors to track down. Further, this mode of disseminating information frequently does not respect scholarly conventions for citation and thus provides students with examples that undermine academic policy and the spirit of a scholarly conversation and exchange of ideas. This kind of scenario describes, in short, plagiarism in its most blatant manifestation: using other writers' ideas words without giving them credit.

However, identifying, punishing, and preventing plagiarism is often not so clear-cut as the above scenario suggests. This notion of plagiarism assumes that texts are pieces of property, owned by a single author. The increasing emphasis on process writing, in the form of peer critiques, visits to the writing center, and multiple drafts of essays, can render the line between plagiarism and collaboration and the boundaries that define intellectual private property unclear at best for both instructors and students.


Rather than merely reiterating the university policy on punishing plagiarism, this section will attempt to address the mixed messages that a liberal arts curriculum can send to students regarding the production of scholarly writing by means of some specific guidelines on how to help students identify, and avoid engaging in, plagiarism. This section draws heavily from Lisa Buranen and Alice Roy's edited collection, Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999). All references throughout this section will draw from this source.

Giving clear guidelines regarding documentation conventions: Professional organizations such as the APA and the MLA provide clear guidelines that formalize documentation conventions in their handbooks. It is a good idea to order one of these handbooks as a required text in the course; students will inevitably need and use it throughout their academic careers and beyond and it is a waste of time to illustrate these conventions in class. However, do give specific direction in terms of the mechanics of quoting and paraphrasing, and allot time in class for students to practice. Often students plagiarize unwittingly simply because they have not yet learned or practiced the fine points of and strategies for giving credits to other writers for their words and ideas.

Designing Writing Assignments: Adjust your assignments so they change from quarter to quarter and address the kinds of conversations unique to this particular class. In her essay on "Competing Notions of Authorship," Sue Carter Simmons also points out the effectiveness of encouraging students to draw from their personal experience—and to use the personal I—in their essays. Students may feel more invested in their own authorship when they are given permission and encouragement to bring their own experiences and perspectives into the writing. Another suggestion Simmons makes is to cut back on the number of different writing assignments per course. Instead of launching multiple assignments, assign papers with several revisions. This way you can focus on each student's process of developing his or her own ideas. It is quite difficult to plagiarize a series of first, second, and final drafts of the same essay (42).

Articulating the difference between collaboration and plagiarism: One of the integral components of participating in an academic community is learning how to exchange ideas with other students or colleagues, and how to provide each other with constructive criticism. Rather than laying out a stringent anti-plagiarism policy (that reiterates university policy) on your syllabus or writing assignment and leaving it at that, describe how you understand the distinction between sharing and stealing. And keep this conversation open throughout the quarter as you approach new activities and assignments.

Encouraging collaboration in writing groups: In her essay, "The Ethics of Appropriation in Peer Writing Groups," Candace Spigelman raises the question of "how to negotiate the demands for legitimate appropriation and attribution while engaging in wholly collaborative and intertextual enterprise of peer group response and collective revision"(231). Spigalman underscores the fact that in the work of a writing group, the text comes to be seen and treated as "community property" (233) as peers offer criticisms, raise questions, and even suggest sentence-level as well as concept-level revisions. In the face of rigid statements issuing dire warnings about plagiarism, students may be confused about how to use these comments. It is a good idea to share your own experience with collaboration and the fact that professional writers rely on peer critiques all the time as a way of encouraging them to draw from such conversations. However, it is also a good idea, as Spigalman suggests, to ask students to write an acknowledgement page to accompany their essays, crediting ideas or language that came directly from peers. This will help students get used to crediting others' ideas (while recognizing that this practice does not have to diminish their own ideas) while also underscoring for students the communal nature of writing.

Debunking cross-cultural stereotypes: We often hear that students from other cultures have been socialized in ways that encourages practices that look like what instructors in the United States would call plagiarism—that, in different cultural contexts, these practices are seen as forms of respect. As Lise Buranen discusses in her essay, "But I Wasn't Cheating: Plagiarism and Cross-Cultural Mythology," recent research has shown that when students are confronted with a topic with which they feel uncomfortable or ignorant (regardless of their cultural background), they are more apt to rely on others' ideas. Further, this research has demonstrated that students raised in cultures outside of the United States can describe and define plagiarism to the same extent that students raised and educated in the US can. Recognize the fact possibility that we may identify plagiarism more easily when reading essays written by non-native English speakers because, in fact, it becomes more visible: the discrepancy in "voices" is more apparent. This does not mean that it non-native English speakers are more apt to plagiarize. (70).