Plagiarism: Another perspective on an old problem

Plagiarism:  Copying someone else’s creation and claiming it as your original work.

The symptoms are spreading

Plagiarism is a hot topic these days.  No sooner did k-12, college, and university students gain unfettered access to the internet then they began to copy and paste to “mash up” (in popular terminology) their essays, reports, and projects.

Plagiarism is rife:  A fermenting brew of “mashed up” writing is being submitted for grading every single day across thousands of institutions.  Condemnation of this practice is almost universal, with cries of teacher frustration and anger echoing throughout the halls of education institutions.   Punishments are being meted out swiftly and with harsh penalties.

Not just teachers are upset:  Principals and post-secondary leaders are having to respond to statistics that alarm their stakeholders.  “Plagiarism up 700%” reads one article from the University of Nottingham’s official student newspaper, Lead (January 20, 2010).

And it is not just students being condemned:  In Febuary 2010 the President of Malone University was accused of plagiarising material for a speech he gave, resulting in his immediate “retirement”  (

Solutions to the symptoms

Solutions to the symptoms  are available and well-known:  Warnings to students on plagiarism, lessons on referencing the work of others, stronger punishments, and lots of meetings between teachers and institution leaders.

Private companies are ready to offer solutions to the spreading plagiarism problem.  For example, students at many institutions are being required to upload their written work to centralized private computer systems that use clever algorithms to compare papers between students and across a sea of papers turned in from other member institution.

Treating the symptoms or curing the problem?

So here I am, after teaching for 20 years, tentatively sticking my hand in the air to offer another perspective on the issue. A perspective that may not be that popular with many teachers and institutions. But perhaps it might shed some light on an old problem that is now surfacing in the form of rampant plagiarism.

Point #1:  Plagiarism is a symptom, not the problem itself.

For a physical ailment such as lung damage resulting from smoking you can treat the symptoms – steadily deteriorating lungs – with medicines, special equipment, and exercise.  But the underlying cause, smoking, has not been addressed unless the person stops smoking.  Stop smoking and you dramatically reduce the chance of lung cancer and your physical condition generally improves.

In much of our education system today, plagiarism is a symptom. If smoking caused lung damage, cancer and eventually death, what, then is the cause of the symptom called “plagiarism”?

Point #2:  The ailment that causes plagiarism also causes other unwanted symptoms.

If you ask the typical student who is caught “copying and pasting” why they didn’t do their own writing, they will give you a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to:

  • not feeling the assignments were relevant, useful, or authentic.
  • not feeling they having enough time to produce all the written submissions required.
  • not feeling the teacher or institution cared at all about them or what they are writing.
  • not feeling the system is focused on their individual learning.
  • not feeling the institution and “system” is designed to do anything but take their money and give them a degree.

From this list, you can see that there are related symptoms, including challenges of student engagement, relevancy, authenticity, human focus, motive, dehumanization, and more.

Point #3:  The cause of the plagiarism is not __________ (the internet, Wikipedia, lazy students, television, alcohol, drugs, a corrupt society, …)

This is where I get into trouble with many of my faculty peers, teachers, administrators, parents, and others who feel strongly about the issue of plagiarism. With others, this is old news and I get a pat on the back and cheerful “Good stuff! Keep going!”

I believe the cause of the plagiarism problem, and the other symptoms noted above, is in the education system itself – in the structure, systems, curriculum, course outlines, and in the classroom itself.  Not outside it.

When I was doing my MBA degree, we learned about W. Edwards Deming, a famous statistician, teacher, and consultant whose thinking was at first not embraced by American manufacturing firms, even though Deming was American and had come up with his very useful ideas about quality manufacturing while in America. Instead, he was heartily embraced by Japanese businesses, who took his methods and created quality products that ultimately surpassed American-made quality.

The core of this story was a fascinating and telling observation that a Japanese car company in the 1980’s had only person at the end of the production line checking quality.  American car companies at the time had dozens of people.  The Japanese had “built-in” quality control – the process itself produced quality vehicles,  a concept that Deming brought to Japan. You didn’t need lots of people at the end of the line checking and fixing production problems. You worked hard at creating quality processes and the quality of the final product took care of itself – you didn’t need to check it because the process was high quality (source of this story not known).

Education is not a manufacturing process. Nor is it a business – well, not at all institutions anyway.  But the lesson from Deming and Japanese car manufacturers stuck with me and when I look at teaching methods  that don’t result in plagiarism and those that do produce plagiarism, I see a marked difference:

Those teachers who construct authentic, current, engaging, relevant, human supported, and original learning experiences witness little or no plagiarism.

Our systems are the problem, not our students

In summary, the cause of the plagiarism problem is not outside of the education system, but within it.  We instructors need to move away from learning experiences that do not engage our students in authentic, relevant, constructive, and original challenges.

If you want students to be engaged, motivated, committed, self-directed, and hard-working then you need to craft different learning experiences for them than those that lead to plagiarism.

A final word – when copying and pasting is the goal

Breathtaking is the only word I can use to describe a new way of looking at writing and plagiarism:  What if  “mashing up” is the point of an exercise? What if copying and pasting is not only “legal”, but the goal.  Imagine this:

“Your goal is to quickly research, collate, and construct a summary of changes in the music industry in the last 10 years into a 1000 word document. Copy and paste all you like: Mash up any writing you find into a coherent document that summarizes the changes well.  Include any relevant diagrams, photos, or other media you find that help you explain the changes you uncover. “

Well.  That is something to think about.