The Worst Case of Plagiarism

At a recent faculty workshop on Avoiding Plagiarism, Alicia Andrezejewski and Carrie DiMatteo led the participants into a seemingly straightforward, but surprisingly thought-provoking free-write exercise. The prompt read:

Write about the worst case of plagiarism that you have encountered in your own classroom, or heard about from another instructor in your discipline. Make sure to think about the assignment the students were responding to.

In this post, I’d like to revisit this prompt.

For me, the worst instance of plagiarism by one of my students was not simply an instance in which the student copy-pasted entire excerpts of text and presented them as his/her own. Rather, the worst case of plagiarism I’ve ever encountered involved a difficult situation in which copy-pasted experts were embedded within an otherwise original essay that demonstrated the student was engaging with course material in an independent way. That is, this student was treating the course material in a scholarly way, but was not articulating the concepts with which he was wrestling in a way that demonstrated he understood them on his own. The dilemma I faced was how to reward his engagement when it was buttressed by academic dishonesty…

My approach to Writing Across the Curriculum privileges writing as a tool for learning. I care more about my students learning, than I do about academic writing proprieties. Learning is a process aimed toward independent critical thinking that involves wrestling with complex ideas in new and challenging ways. In the end, I was more concerned with my student’s engagement with the material than I was with his unoriginal definition of (well-known) concepts—here I’d like to remind that plagiarism is oftentimes more an indicator of lack of self-confidence when participating in academic discourse than anything else. Thus, I plan to work with the student to re-write those portions of his exam that are not his own so as to cultivate his ability to appropriately paraphrase authors when he engages with course material.

-Albert de la Tierra