Plagiarism can be defined in multiple ways, but the most basic definition refers to the act of representing another person’s work as one’s own. Derived from the Latin root plagiarius which means “kidnapper,” plagiarism involves stealing another person’s ideas, words, or results without appropriately assigning credit, effectively passing the work off as one’s own creative output. In defining plagiarism, it is useful to examine the multiple forms that plagiarism can take. Forms of plagiarism include blatant plagiarism, technical plagiarism, patchwork plagiarism, and self-plagiarism. Blatant plagiarism is a deliberate act intended to deceive others; in this case, a person copies work and knowingly omits citation or giving credit to the original source. Technical plagiarism occurs when someone unintentionally fails to give proper attribution to borrowed material due to a failure to follow accepted methods of citation through a lack of knowledge or understanding of prevailing acceptable attribution guidelines. Patchwork plagiarism refers to a practice of sampling pieces from multiple sources, putting them together with minimal changes, and then presenting the product as a new contribution. Finally, self-plagiarism is substantially reusing one’s own work. Examples of self-plagiarism include submitting largely similar papers to multiple outlets, recycling portions of previously published work in new work, and making slight additions to previously published data in order to rework the data and submit it as a new piece of research.
[Page 1256]This entry examines the concept of plagiarism including the history, impact of technology, and implications for research and higher education.
Prior to the invention of the printing press, writers were encouraged to take and build on other people’s work, grounded in the Greek concept of mimesis or imitation. Using other people’s work was seen as complementing or paying homage to people and works that were seen as great in a given field. Spurred in part by the printing press and the protestant reformation, the growth of authorship as a profession started to change the way people viewed using borrowed material. Rather than focusing on mimesis as a standard of spreading and celebrating singular ideas and styles, notions of originality and individual thought became more central to the creative process. Starting in the 1700s, newly passed copyright laws made plagiarism an important issue for authors and publishers, and the use of borrowed material was not only discouraged, it was illegal. Plagiarism could increasingly affect an author’s ability to make a living and was therefore increasingly policed.
Despite copyright laws, plagiarism continued to be a growing problem at many colleges and universities. As universities began enrolling more students, the focus on oral presentation as a primary assessment of student achievement gave way to written work, and students saw plagiarism as a viable reaction to the increased writing loads. In addition, until the late 19th and early 20th century, there were no agreed upon standards for citing work, so much of the plagiarism that occurred was unintentional. Plagiarism continued to plague schools, news organizations, and other organizations throughout the 1900s, and with the advent of widespread Internet use in the 1990s, plagiarism was impacted by the ease and access of information.
Digital technology and the Internet have contributed to an environment that supports plagiarism. Sometimes referred to as “mouse click” plagiarism, technology has impacted how ownership of information is perceived. First, because people are used to freely using and downloading material found on the Internet, they become desensitized to the ethical issues of using that material as if it is their own. Second, the Internet provides access to so much information researchers start to think there just isn’t anything new to contribute, so they end up using someone else’s ideas. Finally, the rise of Internet-based “paper mills,” which sell papers and essays to students over the Web, feed into a consumer mentality that says you own what you pay for, which blurs the lines of intellectual property. The paper mill problem is compounded by the speed and ease of access which make these paper mills an attractive prospect for students.
While technology may exacerbate the plagiarism problem, it also makes it easier to spot plagiarism. By searching the Internet for quotes or sections of a work in question, publishers, editors, and instructors have a quick and vast resource to identify whether the submitted material exists in an original source by another author. Just as paper mills have popped up to supply a demand for prewritten work, digital commercial services to help educators identify plagiarism have also multiplied to meet a demand for resources to fight the continued issue of plagiarism in the modern classroom. While some argue that it is essential to utilize such services as a response to digital plagiarism, there are others that maintain the real problem is digital literacy, and therefore the only real way to change the plagiarism trend is to educate students on how to identify, sort, use, and cite various Internet sources. The conversation among educators on whether energy is better spent policing and punishing plagiarism or trying to build students’ skills to avoid plagiarism in the first place is ongoing.
One of the biggest implications of plagiarism relates to the ethical expectations of academia. It is worth noting that plagiarism is not a clear-cut issue with hard lines between right and wrong. Researchers have a long tradition of borrowing from the thoughts and ideas of others, and most research is built on a body of work produced by others over time, as commonly evidenced in literature reviews that are a standard expectation in most research reports. The lines between grounding one’s work in a field of existing research and plagiarizing can get blurred.[Page 1257] There are even some who would argue patchwork plagiarism is a valid way for budding scholars to explore a new system of writing and vocabulary as they work to build their own voice in a field. Others argue that the concept of plagiarism is tied to an ideology that prioritizes a creative individual capable of manifesting original thoughts and ideas autonomously, which discounts an alternative ideology that says people are products of the culture and society in which they live, and therefore can only really create thoughts and ideas through what they know from others. Although plagiarism is a complex and multifaceted concept, there are some common implications concerning research integrity, education, and policy.
Despite arguments that plagiarism could be a valid form of pursuing and honoring research, it is largely regarded as an unethical practice due to the scholarly implications of using another person’s work without appropriate attribution. In the realm of academic research, people are evaluated on their contributions to the knowledge in the field. Part of that evaluation is based on how many times one’s work is cited, who it is cited by, and in which outlets it is cited. When someone’s work is plagiarized, opportunities for credit are taken away. In addition, in borrowing another person’s work, one misleads the people researching a topic, who look up and work through multiple sources that are essentially the same or based in the same data. This creates unnecessary effort for researchers and may give the impression that the plagiarized idea or research represents a more significant part of the literature than it really does. Research integrity is based in trust and honesty, and plagiarism impacts honest contribution to scholarly knowledge and how those contributions are credited.
Beyond the broad implications of plagiarism on research integrity and ethics, plagiarism also has an effect on education, particularly as it relates to growing instances of plagiarism among students. Student attitudes about and knowledge of plagiarism as well as teacher attitudes and responses to plagiarism are key issues. Students plagiarize in four main ways: (1) taking material from another source and handing it in as their own; (2) submitting work someone else has written; (3) copying parts of other works and citing without quotes to give the impression that the content has been paraphrased rather than taken directly from the source(s); and (4) paraphrasing without proper citation. Students often do not see plagiarism as blatant cheating, but rather as a lesser offense, and may plagiarize for many reasons including poor time management, lack of understanding, improving grades, negative attitudes toward teachers and /or tasks, and perceptions that they can get away with it.
Unlike students, instructors and schools often view plagiarism as a serious offense, and invest time and energy into trying to identify acts of plagiarism and assign consequences. Teachers can identify plagiarism through direct document comparison, searching a key phrase on the Internet, using commercial detection services, or identifying an uncharacteristic style of writing in a student’s work. Acknowledging and identifying the presence of student plagiarism has spurred educators to explicitly address plagiarism, which often results in the development of formal policies.
Plagiarism is increasingly impacting policy decisions at schools and universities, both on institutional and instructional levels. To combat the growing problem at schools and universities, honor codes have been established as a way to begin a dialogue about academic integrity, and to appeal to student’s sense of ethical responsibility when making choices about whether or not to plagiarize material. In addition to policies designed to refocus students on ethical decisions, many schools have developed policies on plagiarism that seek to clearly define what plagiarism is and outline procedures for dealing with plagiarism. These procedures usually address detecting, reporting, adjudicating, and punishing acts of plagiarism. Professors and instructors regularly add academic honesty statements to their syllabi, and many schools require that such statements are included in every syllabus to ensure students are aware of plagiarism policies and consequences.[Page 1258] Policies on plagiarism tend to favor a catch-and-punish approach rather than an education and skills–based approach to the plagiarism issue, and again there is some debate on whether or not the catch-and-punish approach is more effective than a policy approach that sets guidelines for educating students on what plagiarism is, building skills to avoid it, and creating assessment measures that discourage it.
See also Citations to Research; Copyright Issues in Research; Ethics Codes and Guidelines; Fraudulent and Misleading Data; Internet Research and Ethical Decision Making; Literature Review, The; Research Ethics and Social Values
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