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On plagiarism

Years ago now, when I worked at the Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan, we hosted a large conference called, “Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism,” to place “plagiarism in dialogue with notions of originality and imitation” (3) [1]. In the years since, as I work with departments to integrate writing across the disciplines and with graduate students and faculty to publish in their fields, I find myself continuing to think about how we can do a better job teaching these three cornerstones.

One of the reasons that I continue to think, write, and talk about originality, imitation, and plagiarism is because no matter how strongly we feel about plagiarism—and people definitely have strong opinions about it—it is not always such a clear-cut issue. On occasion, writers plagiarize on purpose, but I think more often, they do not. They simply may not know the rules, which are essential for those writing in new situations: ESL and first-year college students, people writing in unfamiliar disciplines, students writing for teachers who do not create writing assignments that prevent plagiarism or that outline required citation practices, and staff and administrators new to the type and style of writing a new job may require.

For the most part, writers believe that plagiarism means using another’s work without giving credit to the original author. This is true: Using words, ideas, computer code, or any work by someone else without giving proper credit is plagiarism. Without doing so, it is just taking what is not yours to take. However, I really do believe that the reasons for plagiarism are not usually nefarious. Students may fail to acknowledge their sources because of a failure in teaching the rules; because it is easy to forget who said what when sifting through an ever-growing mountain of research; or because they come from countries in which quoting without citing an expert is a way of acknowledging the greatness of that expert’s ideas. These days, it may also be that intertextuality is simply fundamental to their knowledge base. Much of what they do technologically is some form of cut-and-paste, across platforms, sources, and genres. How then can we encourage students, so accustomed to digital sharing, to understand citation practices, free use, and the legitimate ownership of ideas?

As graduate students can attest, nothing is more daunting than writing a dissertation that claims to be “an original contribution to knowledge,” while at the same time they are tasked with situating their own ideas within both the current and relevant research on their topic. A graduate student performing the largest literature review of his or her academic career may be overwhelmed and not know how to organize and synthesize the findings. When I am consulting with writers going deep into the literature, I begin by instructing them to be organized, to create spreadsheets of sources and themes, to note all the citation details upfront. I show these writers how to use the university library’s citation system, to choose the appropriate style (be it MLA, APA, CBE, etc.), to decide between Zotero, Mendeley, or EndNote. I remind them that once they begin the process there will not come the time nor will they have the inclination to go back and find sources that easily could have been documented from the start.

If we haven’t already, we need to reframe how we teach writing and how we define and discuss plagiarism. I categorically do not like Web-based, commercial, plagiarism detection services that perpetuate an obsession with finding plagiarism and, in the process, destroys the trust between teacher and student because students are guilty until the service labels them not guilty. Instead of policing, we can help writers understand how different genres, contexts, and disciplines use citation practices to honor and situate our work within the good work of those who have written and researched before us.

We can teach the basic rules and citation practices by integrating into our teaching more thoughtful writing practices that include drafting and peer review, workshopping, and meetings with the instructor. We can create plagiarism-proof assignments and scaffold the writing assignment across the semester by asking students to turn in thesis statements three weeks out, and then an outline two weeks out, and then a draft for an in-class writing workshop, and finally, a polished paper on the due date. And even then to allow for revisions.

Furthermore, could the problems sometimes inherent in plagiarism be as simple as teaching integrity and responsibility so that students, colleagues, and peers honor the ideas that have come before? Is it as simple as recognizing creativity and originality and placing such innovation in high regard? I would like to think that our undertaking as teachers, writers, and consultants is to encourage others to work honestly and creatively, amidst the challenges posed by new technologies, litigation, and the demands of teaching generations of students to think, question, discover, and invent.


[1] Caroline Eisner and Martha Vicinus, Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 3.

Eisner, Caroline. Avoiding Plagiarism (blog), April 25, 2011, /

Caroline EisnerCaroline Eisner is a certified professional co-active coach and has extensive experience working with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates on all aspects of their writing projects. She has owned Eisner Consulting LLC since 2012 and works with professionals across organizations to communicate strong, precise, and engaging messages. Her previous experience includes positions as Executive Director and Academic Coach/Consultant at Academic Coaching and Writing (ACW), Associate Director of the Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan, and the Director of the Writing Center at Georgetown University. Caroline co-edited a collection of essays, Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age (UM Press 2008). Caroline received a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in English from Middlebury College, and a PhD in British Literature from George Washington University.