The Tree of Plagiarism

gita6We Christians often like to say that all sins are equal in the eyes of God.  In a certain judicial sense, I suppose that’s true.  Yet qualitatively our sins carry a vastly different set of weights to them.  Lying versus mass murder?  Pride versus betrayal?  Breaking the Sabbath versus cheating on your spouse?  These might be “equal,” but we certainly know which ones have greater consequence and have larger effect.

In the academic world there is no greater sin, I think, than that of plagiarism.  The willful adoption of someone else’s work as your own is such a betrayal of the intellectual enterprise that it disrupts the whole idea of education.  It shows an utter lack of respect or understanding regarding what the whole process of learning is about.  Sad to say, all of us in the world of teaching see it happen from time to time.

In the past week or so, I have unfortunately encountered three different examples of plagiarism in my students’ work.  Though I cannot be sure that each of them did so with such intent, it seems hard to believe that they did not realize at least something improper about copying word-for-word from the Internet.integrity

It is frustrating, because I believe that 1) students should clearly realize how wrong this is (and therefore stop) and 2) they should be smarter than this.  Do they think I am not going to be able to figure out that they didn’t write something that was clearly written by someone else?  That I can’t simply Google key phrases and be directed right to the place from which they’ve stolen significant parts of their assignment?  And if it is from Wikipedia?  All the more shameful.

Plagiarizing on a Bible paper?  In a ministry class?  These things make even less sense to me…and sadden me all the same.  It takes some effort and, frankly, guts to be so brazen.  If students would only use such chutzpah to write their own words, things would be much better.  I often tell students that if they write something–ANYTHING–they are likely to get at least a “50” on their work…and that’s a lot better than the “0” they get if they are caught cheating.  At least a bad paper you write yourself leaves you with your dignity and self-respect.

Girl, at table, having trouble studyingPlagiarism is disappointing and frustrating to see…and in our digital age it is hard to get away with it.  Between the forces of Google and the power of software applications like Turnitin, students should simply know better.  Plus, guess what?  I have a PhD.  I’m fairly clever.  If you steal things from Wikipedia, I’ll figure it out.  If your writing takes a bizarre turn in the middle of the semester, I’ll know.  If you and your roommate submit the same paper?  My software will flag it immediately.  Between my own academic sense and the help of the computer age, I’m pretty good at detecting these things.

If you’re thinking of plagiarizing, don’t.  If you’ve run out of time for an assignment, just hand in something.  Anything.  But make sure it is in your own words.  And if you can’t get by in college without stealing other people’s work, you need to change your ways now…or come to the realization that you probably don’t belong here in the first place.

That is all.


12 comments on “The Tree of Plagiarism

  1. Seriously, can’t they just learn proper citation? Giving credit is a necessity in the arena of higher education. Cite early and often.

  2. Kathy S says:

    Please stick to your guns in giving them a 0. This is especially true in a *ministry* class! Did you hear about the case at Harvard where half the class was caught plagiarizing? (citation:

  3. crgardenjoe says:

    Amen. I have not had very much direct copying, but I teach people who want to be professional writers, and there is among students a common and way too relaxed view of using other people’s work. Perhaps they see it too much, especially in today’s “echo” internet environment.

  4. In the past three years I have twice caught students plagiarizing directly from previous students of mine, simply because of an awkward phrase or awkward spelling they used, which I could remember having seen before.

    I get a little too much enjoyment out of catching students plagiarizing––if they actually did the assigned reading on the Synoptic Problem, they would realize Bible profs are kind of wired to notice these kinds of things.

  5. Mary Jo says:

    You’ve seized such a wonderful teaching moment by calling your students out. Unfortunately, this lesson needs to be brought forth and discussed in classrooms at all levels the more technologically advanced we become. I’m not convinced students understand the “depth” of the lesson. It extends so far beyond simply getting caught and receiving a zero. Therein lies the beauty of a true research paper done in one’s own soul-filled words!

  6. Andy Wong says:

    Is plagiarism not punishable by immediate expulsion? Every university I’ve ever attended had that rule (and I never bothered to test it).

    • I think some colleges have honor codes that might expel for plagiarism, but the college I work at (Carroll College in Montana) is a lot more lenient. Personally, I’ve had a variety of degrees of plagiarism. One student this semester used a paragraph taken from the internet, and I just gave them a zero for the paper. Last semester a student took the majority of their paper from the paper of a student who had previously taken my class, and I automatically failed her for the course. I suppose a second serious offense could result in expulsion, but I don’t know for sure.

      There’s also a *ton* of plagiarism that may not be intentionally dishonest, like when students use whole sentences from their sources with proper footnotes but without quotation marks. Very annoying to figure out how to deal with cases like that.

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