Lawyers Defending College Students Against Alcohol, Drug, Sexual Assault, Plagiarism and Other Violations in Colleges, Universities & Courts

Hidden Dangers in Plagiarism

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Coming from a sea town just north of Boston, it is fair to say we have an overwhelming amount of sailors, seamen and general oceanic folk. There’s a metaphor I was taught in grade school about how to navigate life vis a vis the parts of life that hurt you the most aren’t visible, unless you already know about them. It compares this idea to launching your vessel in the harbors, the water looks good and the sun might be shining, but there are in fact rocks that, should you hit, will sink you.

So what does this have to do with Plagiarism? Everything. In reality, the type of plagiarism that, I would argue, most people think of when they hear the name is not the most common form of it. That type of plagiarism is something along the lines of taking a previously written paper, or chapter from a textbook, and merely slapping your name on it. It is extremely intentional and very easy to avoid. However, the danger is in the rocks below the water.

For college students, being accused of plagiarism is one of those hidden rocks.  Being accused of violating a college or university academic integrity code for plagiarism can result in punishments as severe as expulsion.  But many college students don’t even know how a college plagiarism violation can be committed because they don’t know their college’s definition of plagiarism in their academic integrity code.  Most students never wonder as they are writing a paper “have I committed plagiarism?”  Consider the most basic understanding of plagiarism; don’t take someone else’s work and pawn it off as your own. If a college student believes that intent is a key element of plagiarism, then the answer to the question of “have I committed plagiarism?” would almost always get answered “no.”. However, many universities disagree. Although every university has their own individual policy on plagiarism and academic honor codes or academic integrity codes (or at least they should), a surprisingly large amount of those policies don’t require intent to be a part of the plagiarism equation. This is where the rocks beneath the waves come into play.

At my university, the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the code of academic integrity defines plagiarism as “intentionally or knowingly, … giving false or misleading information regarding an academic matter.”  But at other schools in the Washington, D.C. area, such as American University, the definition of plagiarism lacks the requirement of being “intentional.”  The American University Academic Integrity Code defines a college plagiarism violation as “the representation of someone else’s words, ideas, or work as one’s own without attribution.”  Notice that this definition doesn’t include the word “intentional” so whether the plagiarism is intentional or unintentional doesn’t matter!

So what if a student makes a mistake?

Anyone who has ever attended school can attest—it is about making mistakes. That is how the brain learns. However, at many universities there is zero room for error with citation. There are already multiple types of academic styles in regards to citations, some more confusing than others. For the purpose of illustration, we can take MLA format. If a student errs so far as to put information from a source in quotation marks, but forget the proper parenthesis with the author’s last name and page number, many schools will bag them for plagiarism. In terms of paraphrasing, the waters get even murkier. Some schools require a string of words to be in an exact order, for an extended amount of time to be considered plagiarism. Other schools consider any sequence of words ‘too similar’. With that said, subjects that are extremely common among first year students, or any common requirement course typically have the largest class sizes. Is it realistic to expect that out of a couple hundred students, no two of them might have extremely similar theses given the same prompt?

In addition to the obscurities of campus policy on plagiarism, there are some more examples of judicial action some might find surprising. For instance, you can in fact be charged with plagiarism of a paper you have written. Given that you submitted a paper in any way or format, you are responsible for citing yourself if you quote, paraphrase or draw on your past ideas too similarly to that which you had before. This is obviously ridiculous — how can you steal your own intellectual property? Nevertheless, it’s the way that it is, and students must learn how to adapt to this reality.

So here we have some of the few rocks underneath the waters of academia. Plagiarism is extremely pertinent due to the harsh, and often career ending, effects it has on students. Expulsion is by no means out of the picture — in fact it’s very common. Just know your school policy, and watch out for the rocks under the water!

About the Author

James grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts before moving to Washington, DC to pursue an undergraduate degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University. His degree is concentrated in both International Security Policy as well as Middle Eastern Studies, supplemented by learning both the MSA and Eastern dialects of Arabic. James is a member of the Varsity Men’s Heavyweight Rowing team at GWU, and has competed on the national stage both in university and in high school. In his free time, James pursues his career as a musician. James began interning for WGW in February 2017. He assists in legal research for college student defense cases and writes for a blog about the college disciplinary process run by Ashley Wilson.