Why plagiarism is theft

Please do not plagiarize in my classes. When you copy material written by someone else and pretend that it is yours, you not only steal from them, you steal from everyone around you, and you even steal from yourself.

Defining the term

The Oxford English Dictionary first defines plagiarism as “the action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own,” and then as “literary theft.” The word itself descends from the ancient Latin noun plagiārius, which means a kidnapper or abductor. The OED cites references to plagiarism as a literary crime going back to the early seventeenth-century. Warnings of its consequences can be found in the early nineteenth.

“If an author is once detected in borrowing, he will be suspected of plagiarism ever after,” advised the writer William Hazlitt in 1820.

The University of California at Santa Cruz defines plagiarism as so:

“Plagiarism is presenting the words or ideas of someone else as your own without proper acknowledgment of the source.

When you work on a research paper you will probably find supporting material for your paper from works by others. It’s okay to quote people and use their ideas, but you do need to correctly credit them. Even when you summarize or paraphrase information found in books, articles, or Web pages – you must acknowledge the original author.”

Here is an example of plagiarism: suppose that I just took that last paragraph from UCSC’s definition and added it to this essay without a hyperlink attribution, or quotes, or a reference parenthesis, or a footnote/endnote. In fact, I’ll do that right now. Don’t forget that when you work on a research paper you will probably find supporting material for your paper from works by others. It’s okay to quote people and use their ideas, but you do need to correctly credit them. Even when you summarize or paraphrase information found in books, articles, or Web pages – you must acknowledge the original author.

There you are. I just plagiarized. I stole someone else’s words and made them look like I wrote them myself. I feel cheap and stupid even pretending to do it as an illustrative exercise.

How bad can it get?

I get a lot of really excellent, original papers from UCSC students. But I also get plagiarized work. I have received term papers in which the student just downloaded a bunch of Wikipedia pages and presented it as research. I have gotten papers about books in which the student copied sections from the introductory essay to the book. I once received a paper about a movie in which the student downloaded a bunch of comments from the Rotten Tomatoes movie site.

Mostly what I get are what I call “mix and match” plagiarized papers: a paragraph from some newspaper article, plus some Wikipedia, and maybe a section or two from one of those sickening “homework helper” web sites.

This kind of plagiarism is not difficult to find. I look at the paper, identify some suspicious sentences, do a web search, and pretty soon the copied sites are located.

What’s wrong with plagiarism?

Plagiarism is wrong because it is stealing. As every plagiarist knows, writing is hard work—hence the attempt to avoid doing it. Effective writing is even harder. When you copy someone else’s writing you are stealing their creative labor and pretending that it is yours.

But when you plagiarize, you are stealing from yourself, too. You rob yourself of the intelligence strengthening experience that comes with tapping into your own language skills and creativity to develop an original argument and supporting narrative. You also rob the people around you of any sense that their college experience is about legitimate learning. Student plagiarists often do their copying in the plain sight of other students, assuming that they won’t snitch to the lecturer or teaching assistants. This turns college life into an exercise in dishonesty. It transforms college from a growth experience into a game: how much lying can we get away with? This makes students who are really trying to learn feel like chumps. It makes me feel like a chump as well.

I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of plagiarism on the larger scale of wrongdoing and sleaze. Student plagiarism is a cheap little crime. I equate it with going to a yard sale and stealing some books or dishes while your neighbor is not looking, or siphoning gas from a car, or shoplifting from the local grocery store. But if students see that they can get away with it, what’s next? If they become doctors, why not rewrite a preoperative assessment report after a botched procedure? If they become lawyers, why not encourage their clients to lie on the witness stand? If they become accountants, why not help their companies jiggle the books by claiming their debt belongs to some paper Limited Liability Corporation?

After all, dishonesty worked in college, why not take it to the next level? That’s why I take a hard line on plagiarism at UC Santa Cruz.

Excuses and consequences

When I catch students plagiarizing in my courses, at minimum the paper fails. I don’t care if it’s just a paragraph or two. I don’t care if they changed a word here or there. If the copied sections are mostly identical to something out there, and there’s no reference to the original, it’s plagiarism and the paper fails. I have also dropped students a full course grade or even failed them for plagiarized papers, depending on the severity of the offense.

I summon the student to my office. There I show him or her the paper and the plagiarized materials. I ask the student to sign an academic dishonesty form. Then I send the paper and my documentation to the Provost of their college. The student meets with the Provost and there are further consequences, ranging from an academic warning to outright suspension or worse.

During these unpleasant office conversations, I often receive the following three excuses:

1. I plagiarized because I was stressed out and panicked.

I get this a lot. Students tell me about family problems, that they took too many courses this quarter, that they’re working nearly full time to make ends meet. I totally sympathize.

Here’s the solution: before you panic, talk to us. Talk to me or talk to your teaching assistant. You’d be amazed by how many student term paper crises I fix in a ten minute office conversation. We really are here to help you. Talk to us first.

2. I plagiarized because I was afraid I wouldn’t write a good paper.

Plagiarism won’t improve your paper. Most plagiarized papers have a disjointed cut-and-paste quality. They read sort of like those newspaper headline letter clipped kidnapping notes you see on TV and in the movies. It’s more important that you go through the process of figuring out what you think and writing it out than that you produce what you think is a super polished paper through stolen content.

And, as I’ve mentioned earlier, if I catch you plagiarizing, you’re in huge trouble.

3. I plagiarized because I’m not interested in this subject and it doesn’t matter to my life.

I get this too, especially in my non-history major historical survey courses. “I want to become a software engineer,” some students will tell me. “I don’t care about what happened in the United States in the 1930s.” Obviously, I can make the case for the value of the specific subjects that I teach, but here’s the thing: part of why you are studying at a university is to master the skill of grappling with subjects that don’t interest you.

As it happens, over the course of your life, you will probably encounter far more complexity than you presently expect. A key aspect of what college is about is getting you used to thinking about anything, so that when anything happens to you, you have some intellectual skills for dealing with it (besides, of course, resorting to dishonest shortcuts like plagiarism) The 1930s, for example, saw the worst economic downtown that the modern industrial world has ever encountered. The story of how that happened and how the world recovered from it is obviously very relevant to the boom/bust prone tech industry sector.

Your university education is about exposing you to a world of unexpected things. Make the most of it by taking everything seriously. Don’t make the least of it by stealing—from your courses, from your fellow students, and from yourself. Please don’t plagiarize. It hurts you and everyone else. Don’t put your whole college career at risk.


UC’s Academic Misconduct Policies
UC’s plagiarism resources guide

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