The Problem of Plagiarism: Asking Why – Part 3 of 5

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Courtesy of Creative Commons

In my last post, I attempted to investigate and complicate the way in which we commonly define plagiarism.  It is impossible, however, to discuss a more multifaceted understanding of plagiarism without then going on to consider how that understanding complicates our assumptions as to why students plagiarize. When we perceive plagiarism to very simply be cases in which students “steal” the words or ideas of others in order to pass them off as their own, we reduce the list of potential motivations down to laziness and deceitfulness.  Either a student couldn’t be bothered to complete her own work or she just wanted to cheat the system and get away with literary theft.  If, however, we are going to consider plagiarism as occurring over a spectrum, as we did in my prior post, then we must be willing to consider the corresponding spectrum of situations and rationales that might prompt students to engage in these different kinds of plagiarism.

In her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rebecca Moore Howard captures the danger in a simplistic rationale for why students plagiarize, saying, “by thinking of plagiarism as a unitary act rather than a collection of disparate activities, we risk categorizing all of our students as criminals.” It is not only demoralizing and harmful to minimize all our students in this way; it is also inaccurate according to the often-quoted-in-this-blog Keith Hjortshoj and his co-author Katherine Gottschalk.  In their own classroom experiences, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk found that instances of plagiarism did not “correspond with integrity among the students” (Teaching Writing 118).  Drawing from their time teaching, they recount many instances in which an ethical and motivated student committed some form of plagiarism.  When reflecting on the numerous occasions in which they had to respond to plagiarism in their classrooms, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk say, “while all of these cases involve misrepresentation, their motivations and implications can be entirely different” (Teaching Writing 118).

Several recent scholars and organizations have begun theorizing on what exactly some of these different motivations might be.  Based on their research, I have compiled a list of just a few alternative reasons students could have for committing some degree of plagiarism.

  • A General Lack of Ability: Jennifer Rabold has said, “I see plagiarism as an issue of students trying to enter the academic conversation unskillfully.”  For a motivated student who wants very much to succeed in an assignment, but who does not have the skills to do so, it may be easy to either intentionally or unintentionally rely too heavily or incorrectly on outside sources.  As part of the process of further investigating this idea, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA), Hjortshoj, and The Citation Project have identified a few specific skills-based pitfalls that students may fall into when attempting to incorporate outside information and voices into their writing.
    • Inability to Critically Read and Summarize Complex Sources: Work done by The Citation Project shows that, when citing sources in their papers, students summarized an outside work only 6% of the time, “indicating that they either could not or would not engage with extended passages of text.”  The Citation Project’s position on this is that plagiarism is unavoidable in situations where students are not able to critically read and interact with complex sources.
    • Lack of Established Personal Voice: When writing within the different academic disciplines, students are developing and exercising the ability to write using different voices and lenses required by the individual disciplines.  Students are being asked to write as experts in particular fields on particular topics, even though writing from that perspective and in that manner is very unfamiliar for them.  (I discuss this in more depth in my post on disciplinary literacy.) This lack of familiarity can cause students to lose track of where their ideas and words are original and where they borrow from outside sources.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk explain this by saying, “The difficulties novice writers face in establishing an authoritative voice and position can make the task of quoting and citing real authorities very confusing.  Many students therefore drift into minor forms of plagiarism because the approach they have used does not give them a sense of position from which they can easily distinguish their ideas and voices from those of other writers” (Teaching Writing 119).
    • Confusion Surrounding the Technical Mechanics of Citation: It doesn’t take much more than a casual thumbing through the most current MLA or APA handbook to establish that the list of rules governing correct documentation of the ideas of others is overwhelming for developing writers.  The WPA’s Statement on Best Practices for Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism acknowledges that “students may not know how to integrate the ideas of others and document the sources of those ideas appropriately in their texts.”  A student writer may be genuinely overwhelmed or confused when trying to understand the guidelines and, as the WPA reminds us, “error is a natural part of learning.”
  • Cultural or Language Difference: American school systems and academics have a very specific understanding of what is appropriate and necessary when attributing credit for ideas and words.  This understanding is not objective and it is not shared equally on a global basis.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk point out that “in some cultures… repeating what authorities say is almost a definition of learning.”  It is understandably difficult for students coming from an international or multilingual background to understand what it means or why they would be asked to “take an independent or original perspective, especially when they truly have learned from others everything they know about the subject, including the language required to discuss it” (Teaching Writing 119).
  • Time Constraints:  The modern American student has more demands on their time and attention than ever before.  A 2008 New York Times article reported that a high-performing high school had to enforce a lunch period after their students became so entrenched in extra-curricular activities, AP classes, and part-time jobs that they were skipping their midday meals.  The expectations on students to build resumes and accumulate accomplishments at an overwhelming rate have only grown since this article.  The WPA points out that students may make time-management or planning errors and “believe they have no choice but to plagiarize” in order to meet important deadlines.

This list is in no way meant to be comprehensive.  My only goal is to offer some different options to consider when thinking about why students fall into plagiarism.  While I emphatically acknowledge that blatant and intentional literary theft does indeed occur and demands response, I am attempting to advocate for the increasing number of student writers who authentically struggle with the ethics and complexities of citing sources.

In my admittedly limited experience and untested opinion, students are generally trying to learn, create good work, and live up to the expectations that are placed on them. The increasing levels of plagiarism in the academic system are much less an indication of decreasing interest levels and morality among students than they are of a sharp incline in the complexity of navigating outside sources.  The internet’s limitless access to an impossible range of sources makes choosing, interacting with, and incorporating those sources a very challenging task.  This challenge is layered onto the already-difficult undertaking of composing a piece of academic writing.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk identify that this process is, for almost all novice writers, characterized by “helplessness and confusion” (Teaching Writing 120).  Based on some of the research summarized in this post, it appears to be the case that this helplessness and confusion can fairly easily lapse into an incorrect use of the works of others.  I believe it is up to modern educators to remain sensitive to the variety of reasons students engage in different types of plagiarism.  This sensitivity is what leads to effective responses to plagiarism when it does occur, which is what I plan to address in my next post!


5 thoughts on “The Problem of Plagiarism: Asking Why – Part 3 of 5

  1. trodrigue says:

    This is wonderful, Danah. Thank you for this series. It’s such an important topic of discussion. Since you mentioned Citation Project research, I thought I’d chime in. You reference our pilot study above (here’s the link to the article in which we published our findings in case your readers want to check it out: []). When we discovered that such few students summarized and nearly every student plagiarized in some shape or form, we began to think about their reading abilities, as you note. As summary often reveals one’s understanding of a text (or lack thereof), we began to think that these students may have had difficulty comprehending the texts and we advocated for teaching critical reading practices. We did this study back in 2006 and so much has changed since then (or at least so much has changed in the way that I at least think about writing, reading and source use). Teaching critical reading practices now means teaching students how to read and understand print AND digital texts. It means teaching them how to engage with multimodal texts, how to gather meaning between and among modes as situated in a particular rhetorical situation. It means teaching them how to read rhetorically as well as the rhetorical nature of texts in general. It means teaching them how writing can help them understand, learn, and work through complex texts. It also means teaching them what plagiarism is and looks like in different disciplines and cultural contexts as well as in public writing (both digital and print). It’s a hefty responsibility for writing teachers, and this is where the WAC argument comes in. All instructors across the disciplines need to take part in teaching practices that prevent plagiarism and help students negotiate and work with texts in a way that’s appropriate for their rhetorical situation. This shared responsibility is so essential for teaching rather than policing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Danah Rae says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Tanya! And thank you for sharing the link to your publication! I have not actually read that article, so it’s now been promoted to the upper echelons of my list of things to read. I was actually drawing that 6% number from this interview with Project Information Literacy that we read for your class (, making this just another example of well-intentioned, but inadequate citing of sources! How relevant 🙂

    Your point about the dating of that study is extremely relevant, though, and something that I definitely need to reflect on a little bit. The sheer complexity of source awareness in the age of digital/multimodal texts is daunting and notably unfamiliar to most teachers who are instructing students on how to handle citing sources.


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