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Citation & Plagiarism: Some Thoughts

For the second issue of Revisions, we invited faculty, staff, and students to reflect on the topic of citation and plagiarism and to share their thoughts in response to the prompt below:

"Most writing, and certainly most academic writing, speaks into a conversation that is already underway. As writers, we engage the responsibility of providing proper forms of citation and avoiding the misrepresentation of someone else's words and ideas, while still producing new ideas within a particular discourse. Simultaneously, we must learn and practice varied concepts, conventions and mechanics of citation within particular disciplinary contexts. For all writers, the boundaries between our own ideas and language and those of others may be more blurred than merely mechanical articulations of citation and/or plagiarism may admit. For those entering the world of academic writing, learning to negotiate the boundaries between one's own ideas and language and those of others is difficult, yet necessary. What is it we do when we write in ways that use and build on other texts? Why do we do it? How do we learn how to do it and how do we teach it? Obviously, some forms of plagiarism can be characterized simply as cynical acts of misrepresentation, cheating or theft. However, we are still left with larger curricular, pedagogical, discursive and rhetorical topics such as how we understand and communicate our reasons for and the values behind citation; why plagiarism matters so much in academic life, in journalism, in public representations; how academic practices and values of citation may differ significantly from other nonacademic ways of interacting with sources; how curricular occasions for writing (e.g., kinds of assignments) may make plagiarism more or less likely; etc. Please comment on the related topics of citation and plagiarism-as a writer, teacher, and/or student"

Anastassiya Andrianova, Comparative Literature

What can we do as teachers of writing? On a recent job interview at a private university, my interviewer made a big deal about the inefficacy of revision: about the enormous amount of time it would take to grade not one but several drafts, as well as the nuisance of reading the same thing more than once, and more strikingly, about the difficulty of establishing exactly whose work you were reading. ¡§There are these Writing Workshops,¡¨ he said sardonically, ¡§where students can have their papers tailored.¡¨ I cannot see revision and plagiarism in such close affinity. In spite of the lingering reputation, Writing Centers are no longer the ¡§grammar powerhouses¡¨ where students come to get their papers ¡§fixed¡¨: they are places for students to get direction and discuss their writing with their peers, who are more experienced but perhaps less intimidating than their writing professors. It may be unfair to raise the grade of one or two students based upon revision, yet it seems absolutely just to offer this opportunity to the whole class by making at least one revision mandatory. It helps the students see writing as a meaningful process, which does not begin and end with their individual assignments.

No one writes in a void. Every time we pick up a pen, perhaps without even knowing it, we emulate someone whose writing we have read; we try avoiding cliches, yet end up slipping into someone¡¦s idiosyncratic witticism. Every time we speak about or teach writing, we draw a phrase or concept out of the bag of tricks we inherit from our teachers, be it our grade school teacher or Plato, in an ongoing discourse refined by our individual experience of language. Originality comes from one¡¦s individual perspective and particular way of experiencing the world, in a word, from one¡¦s style, which develops gradually out of an ongoing discourse with peers, teachers, texts, and traditions ¡V one revision at a time.

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Anna Brennan, Student

Plagiarism is wrong. It¡¦s unfair for others to have an advantage because they either stole someone¡¦s ideas or exact words. Since I wrote my first essay, teachers have been saying not to copy anyone else¡¦s work because it is cheating. If another text or idea is needed for a paper, all you need to add are citations or footnotes and a works cited page. However, as straightforward as it is not to copy someone¡¦s exact words, copying ideas is a lot harder to explain and punish someone for. Isn¡¦t it safe to say that anything we think has already been thought and probably written about before? Doesn¡¦t that mean we all plagiarize without even knowing it? I think it is too hard to say someone has plagiarized if only an idea is similar because there is no way to prove a person intentionally stole an idea.

It is hard to say why plagiarism matters so much. In life, in general, it could be just because people really feel it is another form of theft that should have consequences. For journalists and academics, plagiarism could matter so much because if we don¡¦t force people to think on their own they won¡¦t and, thus, the world will live with the same ideas we already have without anyone questioning anything and making new revaluations.

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Ann Cohen, Dean, Academic Support & Development

I believe strongly in assigning writing in my introductory American politics class. It should, I believe, be formal writing that challenges students to construct an analysis using evidence they gather from a variety of sources. As a consequence, I have typically spent time in class stressing the importance of a bibliography and citations to give credit to those sources for the information they use. This semester, heads nodded, as usual; pens were plied across paper to show they all understood that this is important stuff. This, I thought, was going to be a good semester.

As I plodded through the resulting papers, my optimism gave way to a sad realization. Many students write, not within a discourse but in a vacuum. The niceties of footnotes, endnotes, or text notes are mere forms without purpose. The guidelines for placing the citations appropriately are rules without substance. The light may have dawned for both teacher and students as I discussed the papers I was handing back. I explained my exasperation that footnotes were placed randomly (or not at all) with the result that I could not actually find or evaluate the source of the information they were providing. Puzzled looks telegraphed, ¡§Now, why would I want to do that?¡¨

Students know that they write for an audience. They even know that they may write for multiple audiences, serially or collectively. Are those audiences active at all? Are they following the argument the writer is assembling? Are they questioning whether the argument makes sense or is based on sound information? The idea that I, as the reader, was doing more than marking grammatical errors or checking off points like a modern debate coach put the use of citations in a different perspective. Perhaps, I have begun to think, discourse should be the activity that I model and not just the noun that I hope for.

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Robert Cowen, Mathematics

I had an unpleasant experience over fifteen years ago with student plagiarism and it kept me from assigning papers for a number of years (in math it is not required to assign students papers and only a very few instructors do it). More recently, I have been giving a course which teaches students how to do research in mathematics using computers and I have been requiring a term paper. Since this paper is based on the students' own research, usually on a problem which has not previously been investigated, plagiarism is not much of a problem. In addition, I work closely with the students, in selecting the problem, conducting the research, writing up the research, etc., so I know what they are contributing. I also teach them how to cite sources and caution them about plagiarism. I have come to feel that if the instructor is involved at every level of the paper, plagiarism becomes much less likely. It does, however, take a lot of time.

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Hugh English, QC WAC Director

What do we talk about when we talk about plagiarism? If one listens to how ¡§the College,¡¨ or ¡§the University,¡¨ speaks institutionally, or to how most faculty raise their concerns about ¡§academic dishonesty,¡¨ one might think that the issue of plagiarism could be fully addressed through enforcing CUNY¡¦s ¡§Policy on Academic Integrity¡¨ and through ¡§both [reporting] and [turning] over all academic cases to the Division of Student Affairs,¡¨ as an e-mail from QC¡¦s Vice President for Student Affairs urges, or by using detection software such as, which supplies an ¡§originality report¡¨ with each submitted piece of student writing. The CUNY policy aims ¡§to establish a culture of academic integrity across all campuses and incorporate it into the context of student learning. This spirit of commitment to academic integrity is founded upon and encompasses five essential values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility¡¨ (¡§The CUNY Policy on Academic Integrity¡¨). Let me be clear: certainly, there are instances of ¡§academic dishonesty¡¨ and great value in ¡§academic integrity,¡¨ and a need for academic consequences for the most cynical kinds of dishonesty and cheating. But there is so much more to think about when we think about plagiarism, so much more to raise in our conversations with students about plagiarism.

The ¡§so much more,¡¨ here, is the larger discursive context of citation: the multi-vocal, collaborative, intertextual, citational conversation that we value so much because it lies at the heart of how we make knowledge--the cumulative gestures through which knowledge is made, with each gesture building on the intertextual, collegial, professional conversations through which we make and share knowledge. When we speak as teachers, whether in our classrooms or in how we imagine our curriculum (e.g., our thinking about the place of research in General Education), we make opportunities to think about our students as participants--as knowledge makers--in the larger conversation. As we know, most writing speaks into a "conversation" that is already underway. Awareness of this "conversation" is sometimes consciously held and explicitly practiced (e.g. citation) and sometimes more subtle, perhaps below a level of conscious awareness (e.g., implicit intertextual connections when we write "like someone we have read," or when we articulate the "general" terms of a written discussion that started as someone's articulation and have since become "general" knowledge). As writers, we engage the responsibility of providing proper citation and avoiding the misrepresentation of someone else's ideas, while still producing "new" ideas within a particular discourse; simultaneously, we must also learn the differing concepts, conventions and mechanics of citation within particular disciplinary contexts. For all writers, the lines between our own ideas and those of others are often more blurred than some articulations of citation and plagiarism may admit. For those entering the world of academic discourse (or, if you prefer, of academic writing and conversation), learning to negotiate the boundaries between one's own ideas and language and those of others is difficult, yet necessary.

Rather than merely articulating plagiarism in moral or legalistic terms (¡§it¡¦s wrong,¡¨ ¡§it¡¦s dishonest¡¨), everything in higher education--from individual conversations with students, through particular classes with their own disciplinary forms and modes of citation, to the entire curriculum--could articulate plagiarism as necessarily and inseparably linked with citation, with why it matters so much to us, with how one does it, with how our understandings of authorship and citation have emerged historically and with how new media pose new challenges to these understandings. What¡¦s at stake in the conversation about plagiarism and citation is not merely whether or not our students follow our rules, but rather whether or not they are invited into an understanding of themselves as subjects in our discursive world, into a shared understanding of the larger knowledge-making conversation and their important roles and obligations in that conversation.

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Robert Goldberg, Computer Science

The following true anecdote involving a student happened to me years ago. It taught me to what degree a professor must explain to a student the importance of attributing to others work that they did not do and not to claim it as their own. A few years ago a student came to me the last week of class with a concern she had regarding the final examination. She was enrolled in an advanced class I was teaching and the student had expressed concern that she would not be able to express herself properly on the final examination since English was not her native language. After I assured her that only concepts would be evaluated and that I would take into full account her concern, she felt comfortable to take the examination.

That semester, I had assigned a final project that contained both a programming and a writing component. The project and its report were due the last day of class and I planned to complete grading this project by the time of the final examination - a week later. As I was reading the project reports, I came across a beautifully prepared report, written in impeccable English style. Imagine my surprise when I checked the label on the manila envelope and found that the label contained the name of the same student. Before coming to a conclusion, I decided I would do a simple test to determine whether the work was authentically the student¡¦s. I picked a random line from the report and typed it verbatim into the Google search engine. Sure enough, the first website recommended by the search engine had the entire report and code there, provided by a student at a different college who had worked on the identical research report. (I was not aware that another professor had assigned the problem I wanted my student to work on.)

On the day of the final, when the student completed her examination, I asked the student to meet with me on a different day. She did, and I spent an afternoon discussing with her the importance of being honest and that it was immoral to submit or even claim work that was not hers. She told me that she fully understood and gave me her word that she would never do this again. We agreed on a grade for the course and left the matter at that.

The next year I offered a different high-level course. The same student registered for that class. I expected that she would keep her word and, as such, I required for that class also, a final project with a programming and a writing component. I said to myself that perhaps she purposely registered for my class to prove to me that she had learned her lesson. The last day of class, she submitted her report and I was very anxious to read it. I was once again amazed to read an excellent report written in perfect English. "No way!" I said to myself. "She must have studied how to write properly over the year." Well, my quandary ended when I completed the report. A note was attached: "Dear Professor, I want to inform you that I copied all of the above report and code from Professor ... of the University of ... If you don't believe me, here is a link to his website." I guess one should add this anecdote to the X-Files of the "I thought I heard it all" department.

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Carrie Hintz, Assistant Director of Composition

There is no single solution to plagiarism, especially when it takes the form of deliberate academic dishonesty. There are, however, a number of ways to create a writing culture in the classroom (and beyond) that can reduce incidents of plagiarism--a culture that fosters good time management and planning, thoughtful editing, careful proofreading and a meticulous concern for citation. I hope that our students can begin to see themselves as part of a community of writers. Students might also reflect on the reasons we incorporate the words of another writer, which means thinking about the reason why we gather and read secondary sources in the first place. I work with my students on the many ways in which citations function rhetorically in their writing--as historical background, as foils for their arguments, support for their arguments, and so on. This work, I think, helps them see citation not as an artificial process but as an organic one arising from their own rhetorical purposes.

With the widespread use of the internet, our experience of textuality has shifted in several ways. Text and image on the internet are close at hand to students in a way that printed text is not, and they also somehow seem less material. Students need to hear more about how web text--and all text for that matter--is produced by actual human beings, which takes work. When I conceive of the unacknowledged use of another's words, it is not as just an encroachment on someone else's property, but on someone else's labor and craft--a labor and craft that demands full and honest acknowledgment.

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Marie La Torre, Tutor, QC Writing Center

Once a student came to me at the Writing Center nearly in tears because she was accused of plagiarism. She wrote a paper on cloning for English 110 and did not cite sources, because she knew all of the information from biology courses she had taken in China. I explained to her why her essay did not fit the parameters of the assignment. But was it plagiarism? Certainly, the facts stated in the paper were ¡§common knowledge,¡¨ and the opinions were her own informed opinions.

Everyday, we are influenced, even persuaded by the ideas of others. In fact, most of the knowledge we gain cannot be readily attributed to sources. For example, where and from whom did you learn the concept of sharing? This student had absorbed knowledge and could not distinguish where that information came from. The situation I¡¦ve described seemed more like a miscommunication than a misrepresentation. I wonder if other factors were at play. Is the difference in culture the cause? How could this situation have been avoided? This student¡¦s experience relates to a more complex question: why does simply writing something down give the author ownership, and can we really ¡§own¡¨ ideas?

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Melanie N. Lee, Tutor, QC Writing Center

Recently, my tutee¡¦s professor had told him to rewrite a paragraph that the student had lifted nearly verbatim from his art history book. My tutee asked me for synonyms. I replied that writing ¡§in your own words¡¨ was not exchanging one word for another. Putting his source book and term paper aside, I had him write what he recalled about that paragraph¡¦s topic. Next, I had him reread the passage in the book. Then, I put the book aside, and asked him, again, to write ¡§in your own words.¡¨

I encourage my tutees to discover what they truly want to say about a topic. Each college student, joining the discourse of written discussion, must recognize and release his or her own unique contribution. I often tell them that, in working on a research project, it is not about finding the one correct answer, but choosing a viewpoint or statement, and backing that up with data.

In college, we must distinguish our ideas from someone else¡¦s¡Xand, indeed, have our own thoughts to contribute. The higher we climb on the academic scale, the sharper and more original our ideas must be, and the more important it is to credit our resources.

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Sharon Mandel, Teaching Assistant and Student

Plagiarism is a very tricky thing. Memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins to refer to a unit of culture, have a much higher rate of change than the genes which they so otherwise resemble in terms of behavior. A meme¡Xfor example, a quote or slogan¡Xalmost by its very definition, is constantly changing; every time it is transferred from one brain to the next, it is altered subtly by the new host¡¦s ideas and views. Sometimes the transformation is very obvious, in the form of a changed word; other times, it is the context that is shifted. But that is what makes culture so unique¡Xthat it contains bits of everyone it touches, in the form of changes wrought on it. And if we attempt to stifle that process, by rigorously imposing rules of when and where and how something can be used, are we not attempting to stifle it? After all, when a person posts, or publishes, or announces on television¡Xis he not tacitly agreeing to contribute his words to the vast sea of culture? Has he not just made his thoughts public, so that they now no longer belong strictly to him, but to humanity as a whole? So why can we not make free use of this offering?

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Victoria Pitts, Sociology

Difficult, theoretical, or abstract writing is often the most difficult for us to put in our own words. My students sometimes 'adopt' the phrasing of the author they're reading for few reasons that have nothing to do with wanting to 'steal' someone else's ideas: a) they are intimidated by the writing and compare it to their own, and they cannot think of how to put it in their own words and sound as 'sophisticated', and b) they may not fully understand the passage enough to 'translate' it into their own words. It is important for students to feel comfortable with their own writing, and to feel comfortable 'translating' passages into their own voice. Thus, comprehension is very important. This is something that writing rings out: our level of comfort with, and comprehension of, the texts we read.

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Jonathan Schulhof, Student

Plagiarism is very serious. To avoid it, citations should be used even for remote references. However, it is OK to use someone¡¦s text in order to kick start one¡¦s own creative thinking. Of course this then draws a very fine line. If I were to take the ideas presented by someone else in their essay and then repeated them in my own, that, of course, would constitute plagiarism. On the other hand, if I read someone¡¦s take on a subject and it got me thinking on my own, and let¡¦s say, I decide on the reverse argument, I do not think this constitutes plagiarism. This creates a very gray area and I think that clearer parameters have to be defined. Maybe every source you ever saw that influenced you should be cited, but that is ridiculous. At what point is knowledge your own?

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John Troynaski, Director, QC Writing Center

I first learned about citation in high school when my history teacher assigned a term paper ¡§on an aspect of the American Revolution.¡¨ ¡§The bookstore has copies of Kate Turabian¡¦s manual,¡¨ he said: ¡§read it, and follow her guidelines or run the risk of getting an ¡¥F¡¦ for plagiarism.¡¨ When I became a college writing instructor, I vowed I would not follow such an offhand, fear inspired method of ¡§instruction.¡¨

Over the years, I tried diverse methods to help students understand the importance of correct documentation. As soon as I assigned the research paper, I would try different techniques to acclimate students to the intricacies of MLA¡¦s documentation style, from short, small group research projects, to in-class practice of writing citations and bibliographic entries, to practice summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. To my exasperation, the subsequent papers I received too often displayed problems that some would rank as plagiarism. The students just didn¡¦t seem to care.

As a Writing Center director, every semester I hear my tutors trying to help their clients understand that they need to attribute information in their research papers or put quotation marks around borrowed language. In staff meetings, tutors express their frustrations in these attempts. They experience what I did as a writing instructor, but from a different perspective.

As I reflect on those experiences, I conclude that by the time an instructor spends class time on only how to cite references and write bibliographical entries or by the time students find themselves at the Writing Center trying to ¡§polish¡¨ a research paper draft, it is already too late. I think the way to succeed with our students is first somehow to make them feel that they are part of the scholarly endeavor so that they feel they have a stake in it. Only when they feel that their thoughts, efforts, and language are respected will they take great care with the ideas and language of others: that they have more to lose than a grade if they don¡¦t carefully reference their findings as they make new knowledge.

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Volume 2, Fall 2004/Spring 2005 (Download pdf file, 958 KB)

From the Editors
Citation & Plagiarism: Some Thoughts
Some Observations on Quotation and Plagiarism
Plagio: A View of Plagiarism from Abroad
Lessons from Leo
Policing Plagiarism Online
Plagiarism, Property Rights, and Power