Plagiarism vs. Real Life

Students, perhaps especially ESOL students, seem to really struggle with plagiarism.

Every semester in every syllabus, academic integrity rules and consequences are described in detail. And every semester, there are students who wind up living with the very serious consequences of being caught plagiarizing.

Why does this keep happening? And how can we prevent it, or at least a lot of it?

I think that there’s some actual cheating. But I think there’s also some genuine confusion. Our students begin as plagiarism outsiders, and it’s our job to help them become insiders. To lead them successfully on this path, I think there are barriers we have to break down. One barrier I perceive is a difference in expectation.


Real Life vs. Citations

In many situations I can think of from my own life as an American in the USA, attribution expectations are informal, conversational, and optional. For example, labels at pot luck dinners do not typically include the original author and source of the recipe, unless it’s called “Auntie Ruth’s Baked Beans” or something like that.

Even in my own work as an adjunct instructor at several different schools, attribution is not strictly enforced in many situations. The syllabus I write borrows heavily from department templates and real examples from previous semesters. I have never been asked to make a list of the older syllabi I use, put anything in quotes, or in any way document the evolution of the original syllabus to the newest iteration I created. Many departments also pool teacher-made activity and lecture resources for each course. Though the creator’s name is usually on the work, other instructors are expected to simply use the materials during class as they see fit and without attribution.

Overall, the prevailing attitude in our class preparation is that there’s no need for each individual teacher to reinvent the wheel. It feels a lot like sharing book recommendations or learning a new game.

Writing academic papers, by contrast, demands that each individual student reinvent the wheel, or else suffer rather severe punishment. Incredibly detailed attribution is expected in order to build up individual professional reputations as well as a trail of the evolution of ideas and conclusions. The sheer number of rules and guidelines bring to mind law firms and accountants, and the steep punishments feel like the IRS (or INS, in our case) is watching.

That’s really different.

Embrace That It’s Unique

Our students might be stumbling over the fact that we’re asking for a level of attribution that seems to them to be equal parts unnatural and impossible.

No criticism is meant here – it is what it is. I accept that this is the culture of academic writing, and that it serves to protect intellectual property rights. I must support my students in learning it thoroughly.

But as we writing teachers spend more and more of our lives immersed in this culture, we get more and more accustomed to it. It starts seeming normal to us.

It is not normal. It is not universal. It is not intuitive. 

As we try to get our students to join us aboard the Academic Integrity train – perhaps using slides prepared by another teacher several years ago followed by an activity idea suggested by the department chair who found out about it during an observation of a new teacher – we need to step out onto the platform and realize: plagiarism avoidance is kind of weird and obsessive.

That might be a more realistic starting point than a list of crimes and their punishments.


Photo Credit: Dawn Huczek on Flickr

You’re reading Plagiarism vs. Real Life, originally posted at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s