The Truth about Plagiarism, And How to Promote Authentic Writing

This is the first in a series of posts about plagiarism by Dr. Virginia Lamothe. The second post, “How to Prevent Plagiarism and Encourage Student Self-Expression,” is available here .

I’ll never forget the final papers from the first freshman seminar class I ever taught. Many of the papers were very good, some even so good that I invited the students who had written them to present their work at an undergraduate research symposium. But one paper made my heart drop out of my chest.

At first, in the beginning of the term, I thought the young man who wrote it was shy. However, I soon realized he was completely uninterested in anything the other students or I had to share in class. Discussions with him about his class absences had no effect. In class he would sit motionless, his gaze angrily fixed on me. His paper had nothing to do with the general topic: Popular Music and Culture, a topic universal enough for students to find freedom in choosing their own essay argument, but specific enough to know which section of the library to go to for sources. No, his paper was about terrorists in Pakistan.

When I picked up the paper, I kept skimming it for some reference to music of any sort. First page – nothing. Second page – nothing. Third page – nothing. Nothing in the seven-page paper was even close. Moreover, I realized the paper was written in a style vastly different from his other, shorter writing assignments. He was generally bright with a talent for writing, but these were not his words. One quick Google Search and there it was: a free paper offered on “”

I knew from speaking with supportive colleagues that plagiarism is not unusual. Many colleagues shared very similar stories about downloaded papers. But it was not the plagiarism that surprised me. Rather, it was what the student said at his Honor Court hearing to his peers on the panel. He said that he plagiarized because he felt he had no unique perspectives to share whereas the other students in the class did. He even said that if he did have an opinion, he would not have the ability to put it in writing.

Professors, like me, generally first assume that a student chooses to plagiarize because they are lazy or have poor time-management skills. However, it may be the case that we do not understand the problems behind plagiarism very much at all.

Problem Number One: Students need to find their own voice

The first thing we as professors need to realize is that students often choose to plagiarize because they feel they do not have a voice, or even if they did, it would not be “good enough” or “fit in.” That was certainly the case with my student. I should have taken a cue from the fact that he resolutely refused to share anything in class.

At his honor court hearing, before his peers, he quietly and sadly told them he could have written the paper if he wanted to, he just didn’t think he was as smart as the other students in the class. He chose to plagiarize because he believed the consequences of getting caught were far better than someone in the class “finding out he wasn’t smart.” At this, I had to leave the room and compose myself.

Candace Spigelman writes in her book Personally Speaking: Experience as Evidence in Academic Discourse (2004) that it is important for professors to help their students find their own voice early in the writing process. She asserts that students should learn how to present their opinions to support their arguments, and that they should feel free to use the first person “I.”  Spigelman states that creating an argument in writing is not necessarily antithetical to using personal experience, or using narrative. She suggests giving students examples of pieces written by other students that present opinions effectively.

I agree that it is far better to have a student write about a personal experience in an authentic way than for them to not find their voice at all.

Problem Number Two: Students want to better organize their time, but they don’t know how

I remember an eighth-grade writing teacher telling me, “Writing is just like riding a bicycle,” and, “You learn how to write and then you just do it.” I also hated that teacher.

Writing a complex argumentative essay that requires research is not as easy as just getting on a bike. There are many different types of tasks required to complete an essay: researching, writing, and editing to name a few. Furthermore, these tasks do not always happen in a linear order. We often need to go in loops and circles, double checking our research and re-writing after editing. Students may be good enough with their time-management skills to set aside an hour a day to work on a research paper, but do they always use that hour effectively?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. The result of this problem is often plagiarism. Chris Park writes in his article “Rebels Without a Clause: Toward an Institutional Framework for Dealing with Plagiarism by Students” (2004) that universities need to have more than just an honor code or penal system in place. Students need to be taught about the meaning of plagiarism, to really understand what it is, and how instructors detect it. They need to be introduced to proper citation methods, and to see why they are important. With preventative measures in place, there are fewer excuses for “accidental” or “unintentional” plagiarism.

As for creating this system of education, I am greatly indebted to our music librarian, Lina Sheahan, who runs two one-hour seminars with my freshman students. These seminars are required; students who cannot attend must make them up. Topics she focuses on are as follows:

  • What counts as a substantial research source?
  • Why should we believe a source?
  • What does it mean to have a source be peer-reviewed?
  • Why should we not rely on Google searches alone?
  • What kinds of sources, both digital and print, are available for use at our university?

In discussing each and every one of these questions, Lina and I make a point about how much time a student should expect to put into reading a journal article, taking notes, finding a book, watching a documentary, or writing a first draft while including citations.

Soon after these seminars, I hand out some “sample writing diaries” created by last year’s students that detail not only what research they did, but how they effectively used their time. Many of these diaries include entries like “had an extra hour before math – read an article I found on JSTOR” or “got out of class 15 mins. early – made a photocopy from library book chapter.” Luckily, none of the entries say “Stayed up late all night before it was due, emailed professor at 3:30 am, professor didn’t write back, copied Wikipedia.”

Penn State’s short article “Why Students Plagiarize” on their webpage Teaching and Learning with Technology (accessed February 2015) discusses the concept of “Economy of Effort.” Fundamentally, this means that if the professor structures the writing assignment in a way that plagiarism becomes more work than actually doing the assignment, the student is less likely to plagiarize.

Asking students to keep diaries is just one way I work to prevent plagiarism. In other, more advanced classes, I ask students to bring annotated bibliographies to class, and then to discuss them with their classmates before turning them in to me. Sometimes I have them bring two copies of their rough draft to class – one in order to receive feedback from me, and the other for receiving feedback from a fellow classmate. The “economy” of completing each of these tasks for course credit far outweighs the risk of choosing to plagiarize.

Virginia Lamothe
This post is by Virginia Christy Lamothe, a musicologist and Lecturer at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches courses in the history of classical and popular music. Her research focuses include teaching practices of higher education, music of the seventeenth century, and Tin Pan Alley and theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

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