Plagiarism has always been considered important but has become a much bigger issue since students can now get a wealth of information or even purchase papers off the internet. Harsh punishments for plagiarism are now coming under fire, however, since some students are claiming they didn’t understand their misuse of material constituted plagiarism. A simple analogy illustrates the logic of this argument about unintentional plagiarism.
Imagine that the first day teaching your freshman-level college class, you announce that the most important thing the students do this semester is learn to use except correctly. You read aloud from the syllabus that each student has a copy of, reading the portion that says students who don’t use except correctly in a paragraph at the end of the semester will fail the course.
This is a word some students have difficulty with, especially with confusing it for accept. But you have required books for the course that explain the meanings and the differences, and there are lots of other resources available. It is also a word students are familiar with at this point in their academic careers; there should be very few who have never heard the word except.
Through the next several months, you spend time discussing except, how to spell it, how to use it, how it often gets confused. You give quizzes and homework assignments involving the use of except, urging those students who make mistakes to get some tutoring assistance or other help since this concept is vitally important. You remind the students that they will flunk the course and have to retake it if they can’t use except properly in the final paragraph. It makes up several questions on your mid-term exam, but you let the students use their dictionaries or any other materials they want to since it is the application of the concept (the use of except) that is important rather than the memorization of it.
The instructions for the final paragraph also emphasize that except must be properly used in the paragraph. This is an outside assignment, so students are urged to finish the paragraph early and get some help proofreading, looking particularly at the use of except. Of course, they are allowed to use any resource materials they find helpful. After three months of preparation, the paragraphs are handed in. One-third of the class has misused except.
Plagiarism in the college classroom works along the same principle. This analogy is built around a college research paper course, but all college courses that require any kind of writing should list a plagiarism policy on the syllabus. There is probably a campus policy that is published a number of places including the student handbook students are required to become familiar with.
Although class time in the research paper course may be spent on discussing argument, logic, and even grammar, proper documentation is stressed. The purpose of a research paper class is to teach how to put together a research paper, start to finish. That, of course, includes proper documentation; students are taught how to paraphrase, format and properly cite a research paper.
Plagiarism.org claims that on every written assignment, around 30% of the students have probably plagiarized. Colleges and universities are attempting to crack down on the problem that has been exacerbated by the internet’s easy availability, but these stricter rules that sometimes include expulsion have given rise to a new term: unintentional plagiarism.
This term unintentional plagiarism is meant to represent the times in a paper when students paraphrase but stay too close to the original, when there is no references page included, when ideas are not cited unless they are quoted, and the like. It doesn’t matter if these errors are unintentional or not; they are plagiarism.
The bottom line is that students are taught what plagiarism means from a young age in American schools. These concepts are re-taught in high schools and again in college writing courses. Students who have instances of unintentional plagiarism in their papers obviously have not grasped the concepts required to pass a research paper course, so they should take the class again, just like those who improperly used except.