Choosing Our Definition

Before examining connections between plagiarism, digital spaces, and fear, it would be best to make sure we are all picturing the same acts when we claim plagiarism or technology fear. A good starting point is to consider the definition of plagiarism, which is not as simple as one might think; a quick look at plagiarism and academic integrity policies from several universities (check here, here, and here) makes it clear that there is no universal definition of plagiarism. Rebecca Moore Howard (1999), arguably the leading researcher on plagiarism and authority, states that "It is indeed an irony that a concept so apparently fundamental to the teaching of composition, a concept about which teachers become so animated and for which students have been reprimanded and even ejected from the academy, should remain an undefined, and perhaps indefinable, term" (p. 20).

Sandra Jamieson (2008) points out an additional layer of complexity in "One Size Does Not Fit All: Plagiarism Across the Curriculum," noting differences of not only citation and style sheets, but differences in writing choices that are discipline-based, and cautions that the rules-bound, legalistic approach to source use means that students "enter the disciplines like tourists, clutching their dictionaries and phrase books, and a compulsive fear of 'getting it wrong' makes them miss the whole point of 'it'" (p. 82). With that in mind and the additional consideration that plagiarism is not seen the same way internationally, scholars in rhetoric and composition who research plagiarism issues agree that a universal definition may not be possible or desirable (Howard, 1999; Dryden, 1999; Pecorari, 2008), with Diane Pecorari concluding that "it is not clear that textual plagiarism occurs more often in the writing of NNSEs, but there is reason to think that it may occur in different ways" (p. 16). Clearly, the debate over what is or isn't plagiarism is ultimately a local issue and is defined locally, whether the resulting policy is good, bad, or ugly.

Despite that, some consistent features are agreed on within national organizations centered on the teaching of writing, with the professional organization having the most pertinent claim being the Council of Writing Program Administrators. In Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices, the Council states that "In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else's language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source." They go further to note that "This definition applies to texts published in print or on-line, to manuscripts, and to the work of other student writers." This straightforward definition seems complete, but the issue is once again, more complicated. As pointed out in the Best Practices statement,

Most current discussions of plagiarism fail to distinguish between:

  1. submitting someone else's text as one's own or attempting to blur the line between one's own ideas or words and those borrowed from another source, and
  2. carelessly or inadequately citing ideas and words borrowed from another source.

Such discussions conflate plagiarism with the misuse of sources.

Ethical writers make every effort to acknowledge sources fully and appropriately in accordance with the contexts and genres of their writing. A student who attempts (even if clumsily) to identify and credit his or her source, but who misuses a specific citation format or incorrectly uses quotation marks or other forms of identifying material taken from other sources, has not plagiarized. Instead, such a student should be considered to have failed to cite and document sources appropriately. (WPA Council, 2009)

In this webtext, the term plagiarism will not include the kinds of citing mistakes that happen when students are either still learning citation conventions or omit elements of proper citation due to carelessness. It will also specifically exclude patchwriting (Howard, 1999), which, as Howard points out so well, is an expression of the natural learning curve for all would-be professional writers. As writing instructors, we want our students to be adept at citing, summary, and paraphrasing source materials, but it is not reasonable to punish them for not knowing in advance how to do what we teach. That only adds another layer of fear to the writing process. [Next: Defining, Part Two: Technophobia in the Context of Writing)