Plagiarism: The Bastard Child of Education

Hello, kids.

As an educator who has spent years harnessing his craft through education and experience, there is nothing that irritates me more than when a student plagiarizes. I'm sure I'm not alone in this sentiment. We learned how to write papers and create independent thought for our assignments. I would like to take the stance that perhaps not everyone received the same education, so thus, I present a take on what plagiarism is and how to prevent it.

When a student is given an assignment, the purpose for that assignment is to encourage critical thinking and thought development. Educators are not looking for a rehashing of someone else's work. Educators want their students to tackle their way through a new thought process. I have always told my students that I would rather read their best effort, whatever that may be, than someone else's work.

Plagiarism is, essentially, the passing off of someone else's original thoughts as your own. Over my career, I have seen two kinds of plagiarism: blatant and, perhaps, unintentional. I will not waste this time arguing why plagiarism happens. Although, as I compose this, I am led by the belief that some people just were not shown how to write a paper.

There is nothing wrong with using someone else's ideas for support. Let me clarify that. If you cite that you borrowed information from a source, you can use this material to help prove a point. Phrases such as "According to (such and such a source)..." and "as demonstrated by (so and so)" are perfectly acceptable. It draws attention to the fact that these ideas are not yours. It is okay to use this intermittently. They should not become your entire paper. Remember, the point of education is to help you develop your own thought process.

So, let's use some of my own wording to demonstrate a point. Earlier I said,

"Over my career, I have seen two kinds of plagiarism: blatant and, perhaps, unintentional. I will not waste this time arguing why plagiarism happens. Although, as I compose this, I am led by the belief that some people just were not shown how to write a paper."

Now, let's say someone else likes this idea and wants to use it to demonstrate a point he or she is trying to make. If these words in their exact order appear in a student's paper without any citation, that student has plagiarized. If my words are so brilliant that someone needed to use them, he or she could say, "According to Matt Cogswell, 'Over my career (etc.).' That quote should also be included in the citation page, but that is not the purpose of this at the moment.

Now, let's look at this as an example within a student's paper:

I have seen two kinds of plagiarism. One type of plagiarism is blatant and, perhaps the other types have been unintentional. I will not waste this time debating why plagiarism occurs. Although, as I write this, I am led by the belief that some people just were not shown how to write a paper.

Was this person successful in avoiding plagiarism?

No! This 'person' has just taken my words and ideas and reworded them to make it sound original. This is plagiarism, my friends. Changing a few words of an original quote is still plagiarism.

Again, there is nothing wrong with borrowing some ideas if you cite where they came from. However, to make the assignment truly yours, students need to rewrite the idea. I know you're already sick of my original words, but let's look at them once again and then I promise to never show you this combination again.

Over my career, I have seen two kinds of plagiarism: blatant and, perhaps, unintentional. I will not waste this time arguing why plagiarism happens. Although, as I compose this, I am led by the belief that some people just were not shown how to write a paper.

If I, as someone else, were to use this idea, this is what I would do. I would read the sentences a couple times to get the gist of them. Then, I would cover the information (close the book, say), so I was not tempted to copy any of it word for word, and then I would write down what I remember.

Sometimes people plagiarize on purpose, and sometimes people do it without meaning to. [Thought process: he said something about arguing why plagiarism happens, but I'm not going to explore that idea, so I'm not going to write anything down.] Some people just don't know how to write a paper.

How's that? It has the same basic concepts, right? I would still reference the original writer though because I did take it from someone else. This is called paraphrasing. Effective paraphrasing happens when you summarize the idea without using the exact words of the original speaker or when you avoid intentionally changing some words to make it sound original.

I know I completely side-stepped what citations are. Maybe another night...

I also have some suggestions to help you avoid ever going near the horrible land of plagiarism. Once people go there, it takes a lot of effort for me to ever trust them. You don't want to lose the trust of your educators. So, here I offer some tips:

1) Truly understand the assignment. Ask what you are allowed to do and what you are not allowed to do, in terms of research.

2) Never use Google to locate a fun, easy way to do your assignment. This maddens me so much that I would lose my usual cool were I to extrapolate on this heinous act. This also happens to be one way educators can find your "original work."

Instead, brainstorm what you know about a topic before you ever decide you need to "research." Create a simple web where you visually branch out ideas in your own words. You will find so much good material just by doing that first. The more you feel you own the assignment, the less likely you are to cheat because, my friends, that is what plagiarism is - cheating. You are cheating your educators, but more sadly, you are cheating yourselves.

3) Create more than one draft of your assignments. The more you embrace your own style of writing, the better it is going to become. You may find that you yourself have already proven a point in your writing. If you then find something someone else has written that supports your thoughts, bravo! Include it if you wish; just introduce it as not your thoughts.

4) Let someone else see your paper and make suggestions. Someone else trained in grammar will be able to notice the common mistakes many people make. (See my other Hubs!)

5) Read your drafts carefully. If anything, ANYTHING, does not sound like you, figure out where you went wrong and change it.

When you turn in a paper, you are non-verbally saying, This is my work and my thoughts. Enjoy. It is hard to enjoy the thoughts when it is clear they did not come from the student.

I hope this has proven helpful to you. Until next time...




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