But I didn’t know I was plagiarizing…

I’ve recently been assigned the task of developing an open-to-all workshop on avoiding plagiarism. It got me thinking about when I first heard of the concept of plagiarism. I don’t remember it being discussed much, if at all, in high school, but citing sources must have been mentioned at some point, because I asked for the MLA Handbook for my birthday that year (you readers can relate, right?). At any rate, the subject came up more often as I got farther along in college, along with firm warnings of the dire consequences of plagiarism (failing courses, getting kicked out of school, being branded a “cheater” for life, etc.).

Since plagiarism detection software such as Turn-It-In have become more common, I figured kids in high school these days would at least be familiar with the idea that plagiarizing is wrong. Until, that is, a recent library instruction session for an English Comp class. I made up a brief quiz for the students, in which they had to find and list the citation of an article in a literature database that they would consider using for a paper. I was completely floored by the number of students that asked me “What is a citation?” and “Why do you need these?”

I don’t think my plagiarism workshop assignment could have come at a better time. It’s clear that many students are not being instructed about plagiarism and the necessity for citing sources in high school, and perhaps even in the beginning stages of their college careers. There seems to be a very important need to talk about plagiarism, its consequences, and how to avoid it. This is especially true when even university leaders are facing accusations of plagiarism. Despite SIU’s president’s plagiarism being deemed “inadvertent,” this can’t be setting a very good example for students.

The March 2007 issue of C&RL News had a good article about the role of librarians in teaching students about plagiarism. I’d love to hear of encounters the rest of you have had with plagiarism-ignorance, and how you inform students of the importance of citing their sources.

2 thoughts on “But I didn’t know I was plagiarizing…”

  1. The Columbus State University just implemented a new program where all students taking Freshman English (a required course) have to take an online plagiarism tutorial. What really gives this teeth is that university officials have decided to make it a requisite for graduation. So theoretically, noone can make the ‘I didn’t know’ excuse in a few years. As I said, they just started the program last spring, but I’d be interested to see the results in a few years.

  2. There is a tendency to teach correct citation as an obligation, akin to having appropriate margins, line spacing, and font size. I believe most students don’t see citation as a need to satisfy in their own learning and if you look at student writing in an informal setting, e.g., student blogs, I believe you’ll find many of these with few if any links to other people’s work. This obligation approach to good citation is emphasized further, at least at large campuses such as Illinois, in that many courses don’t require a term paper or other smaller writing assignments. So students find writing for courses an unusual and in many cases an artificial exercise.

    Do Librarians get involved with student writing outside what is required for courses? That would be a good way to get students to think of citation as a way to make connections with other learners and given them a more holistic way to consider what they are trying to achieve with the writing.

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