Dear students: Citing your sources incorrectly is not plagiarism

There’s a unit in the course I teach where I present students with a set of what I call(1) “information creation scenarios.” These are hypothetical situations, many adapted from real life incidents that have made the news, in which I ask the student to imagine themselves in the shoes of an information creator for whom something has gone terribly wrong: a social media post that’s gone viral in a bad way/for bad reasons, an original piece of art that they created and shared online that’s become associated with a hate group, etc. For each scenario, they have to explain what they could have done differently to prevent the situation from happening in the first place and what strategies they would use to try to fix the situation after it happened. It can be a fun challenge.

One of the scenarios I give my students relates to plagiarism. It goes like this:

Imagine that you write a research essay for a course in your major in which you are expected to cite a certain number of sources. Though the required citation style is one you are familiar with, you are still learning about the proper format and placement of citations in a research essay. Knowing this, you do your best to follow the rules for citing your sources. You refer to trustworthy websites like Purdue OWL(2) for help and also visit the Writing Center and the library for advice and helpful resources. You use all of this information to create your reference list and you are careful to include all of the sources from which you pulled information. You hand in your paper confident that you have done your best to properly cite your research.

 A few weeks later, your professor hands back your essay and you are devastated to learn you failed the assignment due to plagiarism. Your professor highlights several passages in your paper with quotation marks but no in-text citations to indicate where the quoted information came from. There is another passage with no quotation marks and no citation which the professor feels is too close to the wording from one of your sources to be considered your own original work. This is why you failed the assignment on the basis of plagiarism.

In my experience teaching students about plagiarism, what this scenario describes is, for them, a huge fear. Nobody cares about intentional plagiarism because intentional plagiarism is, by definition, committed only by those who know that they are cheating and are presumably prepared to face the consequences if they’re caught. Getting a failing grade due to unintentional plagiarism even when you’ve tried your hardest to do the right thing—to many students, that’s a much bigger reason to worry.

Except.

Is the professor in the scenario right to accuse the student of plagiarism?

Personally, I think not.

I wrote this scenario in response to a number of encounters I’d had with professors who seem to like to throw around the word “plagiarism” in order to scare students into citing their sources properly. Probably they’re tired of seeing misplaced or poorly formatted citations in their students’ work (who isn’t?), so they threaten students with failing grades for incorrect citations, calling it plagiarism.

This drives me insane. If you ask Google to define plagiarism, here is what it gives you: “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.”

The student in the scenario is not attempting to pass someone else’s work or ideas off as their own. In fact, they are quite diligent in their attempt to cite the sources they use. It’s just that, despite the effort they put into getting it right, their citations are inadequate. Bad, even. They’re misplaced. They’re incorrect.

But they’re not absent.

Therefore, in my opinion, this can’t be plagiarism.

Because no matter how poorly the student cited their sources, they did, in fact, cite them. Plagiarism is not defined as “poor citation.” Plagiarism is defined, basically, as not citing at all. So while the professor would be justified for taking off points or even failing the student for poor citation (assuming citation was a big enough part of the grade to justify this), calling it plagiarism is wrong.

When I tell students this, they are shocked. To them, the only option in a scenario like this is to basically try to negotiate with the professor so that their GPA isn’t harmed—maybe offering to do extra credit or some sort of make-up assignment. It doesn’t occur to them that what they should do is challenge their professor on the idea that they plagiarized at all.

Granted, the professor is an authority figure and students are understandably hesitant to challenge someone with power over their grades, especially within their major. But the point is to help students understand that unintentional plagiarism does not come from incorrect citation—it comes from an absence of citation. So as long as they are citing their sources, they are acknowledging that the ideas or words they are using are not their own and therefore they are not plagiarizing.

This isn’t to say that students shouldn’t try to cite correctly. Obviously, that’s the ideal, at least for anyone who wants to be in line with the conventions of academic research papers. But citing is hard to get exactly right 100% of the time, even for experienced scholars. And really, correct citation doesn’t matter in the long run. The chances that students will need formal citation after they leave college is, for many of them, pretty low. What matters is the understanding that when you use someone else’s work or ideas, you should give them credit in contextually appropriate ways, whether that’s a citation or a simple attribution or something else.

But I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. While I did purposely try to write the scenario to help make this point as part of my teaching, I can see now a few places where what it describes might be construed as plagiarism on the student’s part, like not including quotation marks or a citation for something where the wording is too close to the original source. Presumably, the information is paraphrased and the source is listed in the students’ references at the end of the paper, but still. As an instructor, I might call that out too, though my first stop would not be to fail the student for it. I mean, I’d at least give them an opportunity to fix it first.

So while I understand why professors are tired of seeing poor and even lazy citations in their students’ work, I do wish that they would stop unnecessarily terrifying students with the specter of unintentional plagiarism.  It does happen but not like this and students should know that as long as they are acting in good faith, they have nothing to fear.

*

(1) This is kind of an obscure reference but I’m going to make it anyway: If there isn’t already, there needs to be a GIF of Patricia Hodge as the mother on Miranda that can be used in situations like this. After watching that show a thousand times, I can’t read the phrase “what I call” without hearing it in her voice. Such fun!

(2) This scenario was written before Purdue OWL was bought out by Chegg. I don’t know that the many, many ads that now cover the site necessarily tank its credibility as a source for citation guidance but I definitely recommend it to students a lot less unreservedly than I used to.

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