Are You Plagiarizing?

Plagiarism is a vital problem in academic work, since the academy is a culture of both honour and honesty. (Don’t get me started on how dishonorable or dishonest the academy can be—I’m talking about ideals here.) Without honour and honesty, we can’t do our work since so much of it depends on trusting each other to tell the truth, including truth about our sources.

There’s an old joke that “stealing from an author is plagiarism; stealing from ten authors is research.” But it’s not funny. Stealing from anybody is stealing, and multiple thefts merely compound the crime.

But plagiarism is a multifarious phenomenon. And many people plagiarize without knowing it, especially those educated in certain parts of the world in which even higher education is largely a matter of unquestionable authoritative teaching and rote learning.

So are you plagiarizing? Here is a test you can take that includes helpful commentary to diagnose any hidden propensity you (or your students) might have to plagiarize.

0 Responses to “Are You Plagiarizing?”

  1. Stephen

    Should I be as amused as I am that this is from the University of East Anglia, whose climate research division recently faced ethics problems?

    • John Stackhouse

      Yes, the irony didn’t escape me, either. 🙂

      Still, it’s a pretty good test in terms of bringing to clarity a number of issues that crop up each term in my teaching.

  2. Dave W

    This is from a note I wrote someone else on this topic.

    “In their study, “cheating on written work” referred primarily to copying sentences from an online or paper source, but it also included turning in work done by someone else

    I graduated in engineering in 64. In 2nd year we had a math problems lab that took 20 to 30 hours a week to solve one problem out of five or six.
    The grad students who ran the course had no idea how to solve the problems or even where to start. Usually 5 or 6 of my friends divided up the problems and each solved one and then we all traded. We all spent long hours in the library reading and scanning math books in order to find a hint on how to solve our designated problem. Doing this one learned a great deal and not just about the specific problem, so it was a very valuable course, just a huge amount of work. I always tried to understand the solutions I was copying, reworking as I went. I would be highly surprised if anybody solved all the problems by himself.

    I’m sorry but I just don’t consider what we did as cheating maybe the professors did, I don’t know or care.”

    Unreasonable workloads set by profs can and will result in shared work. In the early days at Uniwat the profs were very committed to making a name for an upstart twobit university in the corn fields of Waterloo. Yet the course was very valuable as I learned a great deal. In later years the difficulty of the problems was decreased considerably. On the other hand getting essays from the net is totally unacceptable.

  3. Ben

    This is crucial to me as an english teacher. I’ve taught at some of the top high schools in my state and even then I’ve had students turn in a copy and paste job from wikipedia. Ridiculous. Thanks for the link.

  4. dan

    Given that I’m working on a thesis with you, you should be happy to know that I scored 100% on that quiz. You might be a less happy to know that I do have a lot of questions around the idea philosophy behind plagiarism and intellectual property rights (IPRs). To be honest, I don’t really buy into the thinking that a person can ‘own’ an idea. I really do side with the anarchists on this point (and on a good many others, atually). However, I continue to cite all my sources religiously because I think it is worth knowing where related conversations are occurring and what is being said by others. Good citation is actually a gift to the reader and — even when we ignore the issues related to IPRs — it is still beneficial to engage in it.

    On a personal note, I don’t really care about ‘owning’ anything I write. In my own research, I’ve often first thought of things on my own and then later found a scholar who made the same argument. In that situation I always cite the scholar because I’ve got no way of proving to a committee that “Hey, I thought of that before I read it” (I’m sure you hear that a lot!) and because I don’t particularly care to make that point anyway.

    • Glenn Runnalls

      with dan (i think) i am unconvinced that IPR is anything more than a social convention that has probably outlived its usefulness. i strongly suspect that those agencies, groups and civilizations that cling too tightly to IPR are likely to find themselves uncompetitive in this next millenium. that being said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other legitimate reasons for calling for proper citation especially in academic contexts.


      • poserorprophet


        Ha-Joon Chang makes a similar point about the efficacy of IPRs in his book, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, although he is more concerned about the ways in which IPRs are used by wealthy and powerful nations in order to prevent the development of poorer and weaker nations.

        However, questions of efficacy aside, my personal perspective on this matter is more influenced by anarcho-communist approaches to economics and the issue of private property (in fact, I’m reading some Proudhon right now — who is famous for, amongst other things, asserting that ‘property is theft’… and who is building a pretty convincing case).

        • Glenn Runnalls


          i strongly suspect (using McLuhan) that when it comes to global politics, IPR will be a hinderance for the “developed” nations in the next “economy.”


  5. Paul

    While teaching philosophy and world religions there was not one semester that went by where I did not have at least one student (young or older adult) who plagiarized. Despite that fact that each syllabus meticulously outlined what the school’s policy was and what I meant by it, students still committed this error. Moreover, I spent the first 30 min of the first class of each semester going over the syllabus line by line and even said that “if I suspect you are ‘borrowing’ from another’s work, I will find it since I’ve worked in IT and understand web technologies.” Still, it made little difference. In fact, one semester turned up a paper with plagiarized content from my mentor’s publications from Denver Seminary, the content of which I was intimately familiar.

    What saddened me the most was virtually every student caught plagiarizing showed little or no concern over the fact that they were cheating themselves out of a good education and compromised their intellectual capabilities. Of course, in a secularized, postmodern culture, if there is not truth there can be no lie!

  6. Dave W

    “What saddened me the most was virtually every student caught plagiarizing showed little or no concern over the fact that they were cheating themselves out of a good education and compromised their intellectual capabilities.”

    Well said! You will note that in my discussion of the math problems lab, I actually did the work required on one problem. It really taught me how to use the library to help in the search for a hint as to how to solve the problem I worked on and also to think in mathematical terms. Copying never gives you that. Some people in the class probably simply found people willing to let them crib their solutions and learned very little from the course and IMO that was a big loss to themselves.

    Of course some sorry profs also do not encourage learning but rather memory work. I recall one prof in 3rd or 4th year who simply put the six or eight main problems he taught as examples in the course, on the exam. Students with good visual memory skills simply reproduced the solutions and did very well. Others who could actually create the solutions did not do nearly as well as there was simply not enough time to solve the problems from first principles.

    The internet has given people the idea that news, entertainment are all essentially free. If things continue it will not be long till we have no newspapers, fiction etc. I subscribe to certain sites not because it gives me more access but because if all of us just take their news for free then the source will go out of business. For the same reason I but hardcover books from one or two authors I really like. Engineers have saying that is very applicable, “There ain’t no such thing as a Free Lunch”. TANSTAAFL seems to have been first put down on paper by Kipling who I like as an author, although science fiction, which I was reading in high school, was where I first ran into the idea. Look it up on the web.

  7. Paul

    Dave W:
    Your comments remind me of an exercise that, though I was unable to implement since i left teaching, would have immense value to the students and would have encouraged them to see the value in library time.

    After spending about 4 hours in the library finding sources in philosophy that spoke to questions that I raised, each student would receive their own unique set of 10 questions to answer and they would have to record, along with their answers, the entire bibliographic info for each answer and turn it in at the end of the semester for extra credit. And, all of the questions addressed were beyond the scope of the class lectures and texts.

    Another idea (HT: Doug Groothuis) was to have students develop a glossary of terms that were new to them throughout the course and use those terms in no less than 3 sentences, then turn it in for extra credit (must have no less than 20 entries).

    I suppose there is value in using sample math problems to show the ways in which mathematical operations function, but not on a test!

  8. Paul McClure

    Thanks for this resource Professor Stackhouse! I’ve passed the quiz along to my colleagues in other departments and members of the student-run Honor Council at my school.

    As you pointed out, most cases of plagiarism are careless (at least the ones we have here at Episcopal HS are), but as I caution my students, careless plagiarism is still plagiarism.

  9. Peggy

    I found that cohort learning among adult students greatly increased everyone’s learning. We each did our very best on all the homework … and then we met before class and discussed our answers. When we did not agree with the conclusions, we each described the methods we used to work out the problems. This was a fabulous exercise and resulted in true understanding of the problems.

    This is vastly different from the mindless copying that often happens in traditional undergraduate courses (with students younger than 30 years of age).

    I also resonate with the person who found that they frequently came to conclusions that were later confirmed by an author not previously read. I think this is another kind of problem (separate from the brazen copying without notation) … along with what Tolkien called “the mould of the mind”, which is the reading and experiences that collect and break down and mingle in the mind, out of which new thoughts grow … sometimes without remembering the source of the various components.

    I am going to take the test now….

    • Peggy

      …and am happy to report that I am not in danger! Only missed the one about common knowledge, which was one of a couple of gray area kind of questions anyway.

  10. Larry S

    I did ok but had read Peggy’s remarks about common knowledge so overthought it and got it wrong. So I’m foot noting her here. Even though my reading of her comment messed me up.

    • Peggy

      Larry … so sorry to mess you up, bro. Bummer. Not the kind of footnote I want to show up in, eh? ;^)


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