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Copying Is Easy, Getting Caught Is Easier

In the digital age, copying someone else's words is easy, but getting caught copying is even easier.

When Melania Trump recently spoke at the Republican convention, she used some of the same words that Michelle Obama had used at the Democratic convention in 2008.

Within hours, news spread around the world with the claim that Melania Trump had plagiarized Michelle Obama's speech.

One of Trump’s aides said she unintentionally included sentences from Michelle Obama’s speech. But students and teachers at universities in the U.S. and elsewhere were shocked. They learn from their early years in school that copying another writer's words is wrong.

What is plagiarism?

The word "plagiarism" comes from the Latin word plagiarius. It means "kidnapper, seducer, plunderer, one who kidnaps the child or slave of another,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

We now use the word "plagiarist" to describe someone who steals another person's written work. That person could also be called a "literary thief."

Why is plagiarism a serious problem?

Virginia Unkefer

Virginia Unkefer

Virginia Unkefer is Manager of Academic Writing Services at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.

Unkefer says that when students first come to the university, they do not realize how serious the problem is.

"I think they don't realize how serious an offense it is. And until they're made aware that that offense is as serious as it is, they don't take it seriously at all."

She teaches new students the Latin root of the word plagiarism to tell them how serious it is.

"It means kidnapping. It's our own worst fear, to have that thing that we created stolen from us, and it's the same as our words. That thing that we created is essential to who we are, and when other people steal our words, it is as serious as if you were to steal someone's child."

Academics are especially aware of the nature of plagiarism, Unkefer says, because their work is essentially the creation of ideas and putting them into words.

"Maybe outside the university, where your currency is not your idea, maybe it seems silly to care about this so much. But inside the university where your ideas are who you are, we absolutely must protect them. That's why plagiarism is such a serious offense."

Consequences of plagiarism

American and Western European universities have strict rules about writing original work. These rules are often called honor codes.

At Stanford University, the definition of plagiarism shows that it includes more than just words.

Stanford's honor code says plagiarism is "the use, without giving reasonable and appropriate credit to or acknowledging the author or source of another person's original work, whether such work is made up of code, formulas, ideas, language, research, strategies, writing or other form(s)."

Harvard University's plagiarism policy tells students to give credit to the sources of ideas or information they get from discussions with professors and fellow students.

Harvard even warns students about copying themselves. That is, they cannot hand in the same work for more than one course without the permission of their instructors.

One of the possible punishments for plagiarism at U.S. universities is dismissal from the school. Students may fail a course or be given a letter of censure that stays on their school record.

Professors or researchers who plagiarize may damage or end their careers. At one university where Virginia Unkefer worked, a professor sent in a proposal for funding. The agency that gave out money found there was plagiarism in the proposal. As punishment, the professor could not apply for a grant for five years.

"It's incredibly serious, so I've seen a couple of people - their careers - ruined by it. This is why I don't ever want any student to try to do it, because it just becomes terribly serious further and further in your career."

Why do students copy?

The Honor Council of Georgetown University refers to some students who say they are showing respect by using another writer's words.

The students claim that previous teachers did not require that they cite the work of others when they wrote papers.

These comments show that in some cultures, copying written work may sometimes be accepted. But copying the words of another writer (without saying who wrote them) is not accepted in Western academic writing. Students must learn the rules of the universities they attend.

Unkefer agrees, based on her experience with writers in international universities.

"I think it is a culturally bound concept. The university systems in the United States and in Western Europe very much value originality and authenticity, and over the years have developed very stringent polices and attitudes about plagiarism.”

She says it is important, “to get people to understand how much we value originality, and making sure that we attribute sources."

Another cause of plagiarism is the stress students feel at having to produce written work on a deadline. Unkefer was working with a group of students who were caught plagiarizing. The assignment was difficult, so they copied work in order to finish it.

"I showed each student the report that we got back from the plagiarism detection software and I showed them what the problem was, and how they could remedy each problem. But once they figured out that, 'oh, you can find my plagiarism?' then they realized they couldn't get away with it."

The students did not get into trouble because it was not the final version of the paper. They rewrote the papers before the final draft. It saved them from possibly being expelled from the university.

Plagiarism is easy to find

Before the digital age we live in, plagiarizing was harder. You had to write out the words you copied. But now anything can be copied and pasted. In the past, teachers would have to work hard to prove that work was copied.

"But nowadays, all you have to do is run a paper though a plagiarism detection software, and you can find it like that..." (snap)

The plagiarism checking software programs used by many students and universities include Turnitin, Grammarly, Duplichecker, and iThenticate.

Unkefer confirms, "Nobody is going to get away with it."

How can students avoid plagiarizing?

The first thing students need to do is cite every source of information used in a piece of writing.

The second step is to use the plagiarism checking software. If they worked on a paper with other students, using the software is one way to make sure the other writers did not plagiarize.

What if your writing does not pass the test of the checker? It is possible you did not go through the process of putting what you heard or read into your own words.

Process writing means working on a draft and having someone read it and give feedback. That guides another draft. A good writer makes several drafts and gets more than one person to read an important paper. Unkefer admits that it takes more time than students like to spend on writing.

"It's a slow, slow process. There's no quick way to do it. Writing takes time. … There's no shortcut to good writing. It just takes a lot of time.”

I’m Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

Now it’s your turn. Do the schools where you live teach students how to avoid plagiarism? Write to us in the Comments section about your experiences with plagiarism.


Words in This Story

plagiarize - v. to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas

unintentional - adj. not done in a way that is planned or intended

detect - v. to discover or notice the presence of (something that is hidden or hard to see, hear, taste, etc.)

currency - n. something that is used as money

attribute - v. to say that words or ideas were created by someone else

censure - n. official strong criticism

cite - v. to quote; to write or say the words of a book, or author

stringent - adj. very strict or severe

shortcut - n. a quicker or easier way to do something


University guidance on avoiding plagiarism:

Georgetown University:

Stanford University:

Free Software to Detect Plagiarism:

Grammarly – checks for grammar, too



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