April 11, 2006

On writing-3: Why do people plagiarize?

(See part 1 and part 2 in the series.)

Just last week, it was reported that twenty one Ohio University engineering graduates had plagiarized their master's theses. Why would they do that?

I think it is rare that people deliberately set out to use other people's words and ideas while hiding the source. Timothy Noah in his Chatterbox column has a good article in Slate where he points to Harvard's guidelines to students which state that unintentional plagiarism is a frequent culprit:

Most often . . . the plagiarist has started out with good intentions but hasn't left enough time to do the reading and thinking that the assignment requires, has become desperate, and just wants the whole thing done with. At this point, in one common scenario, the student gets careless while taking notes on a source or incorporating notes into a draft, so the source's words and ideas blur into those of the student.

But lack of intent is not a valid defense against the charge of plagiarism. That has not prevented even eminent scholars like Doris Kearns Goodwin from trying to invoke it. But as Noah writes, the American Historical Association's (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians' (OAH) statement on plagiarism is quite clear on this point:

The plagiarist's standard defense-that he or she was misled by hastily taken and imperfect notes-is plausible only in the context of a wider tolerance of shoddy work. . . . Faced with charges of failing to acknowledge dependence on certain sources, a historian usually pleads that the lapse was inadvertent. This excuse will be easily disposed of if scholars take seriously the injunction to check their manuscripts against the underlying texts prior to publication.

Noah cites many authorities that say that citing the source does not always absolve you from the charge of plagiarism either.

Here's the MLA Guide:

Presenting an author's exact wording without marking it as a quotation is plagiarism, even if you cite the source [italics Chatterbox's].

Here's the AHA and the OAH:

Plagiarism includes more subtle and perhaps more pernicious abuses than simply expropriating the exact wording of another author without attribution. Plagiarism also includes the limited borrowing, without attribution, of another person's distinctive and significant research findings, hypotheses, theories, rhetorical strategies, or interpretations, or an extended borrowing even with attribution [italics Chatterbox's].

Noah gives an example of this. In the original FDR, My Boss, the author Grace Tully writes:

Near the end of the dinner Missy arose from her chair to tell me she felt ill and very tired. I urged her to excuse herself and go upstairs to bed but she insisted she would stay until the Boss left. He did so about 9:30 and within a few minutes Missy suddenly wavered and fell to the floor unconscious.

Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book In No Ordinary Time writes:

Near the end of the dinner, Grace Tully recalled, Missy arose from her chair, saying she felt ill and very tired. Tully urged her to excuse herself and retire to her room, but she insisted on staying until the president left. He did so at 9:30 p.m. and, moments later, Missy let out a piercing scream, wavered and fell to the floor unconscious.

Is this plagiarism? After all, she cites the original author in the text itself, and the wording has been changed slightly. Yes, plagiarism has occurred says Noah, citing Harvard's guidelines:

If your own sentences follow the source so closely in idea and sentence structure that the result is really closer to quotation than to paraphrase . . .you are plagiarizing, even if you have cited the source [italics Chatterbox's].

The whole point of a paraphrase is to make a point more clearly, to emphasize or clarify something that may be hidden or obscure in the original text. Russ Hunt gives a good example of the wrongful use of the paraphrase, which he takes from Northwestern University's website The Writing Place:


But Frida's outlook was vastly different from that of the Surrealists. Her art was not the product of a disillusioned European culture searching for an escape from the limits of logic by plumbing the subconscious. Instead, her fantasy was a product of her temperament, life, and place; it was a way of coming to terms with reality, not of passing beyond reality into another realm. 
Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo(258)


As Herrera explains, Frida's surrealistic vision was unlike that of the European Surrealists. While their art grew out of their disenchantment with society and their desire to explore the subconscious mind as a refuge from rational thinking, Frida's vision was an outgrowth of her own personality and life experiences in Mexico. She used her surrealistic images to understand better her actual life, not to create a dreamworld (258).

As Hunt says:

What is clearest about this is that the writer of the second paragraph has no motive for rephrasing the passage other than to put it into different words. Had she really needed the entire passage as part of an argument or explanation she was offering, she would have been far better advised to quote it directly. The paraphrase neither clarifies nor renders newly pointed; it's merely designed to demonstrate to a sceptical reader that the writer actually understands the phrases she is using in her text.

I think that this kind of common excuse, that the authors did not know they were plagiarizing because they had used the 'pointless paraphrase' or because they cited the source, is disingenuous. While they may not have been aware that this kind of paraphrasing technically does constitute plagiarism, it is hard to imagine that the perpetrators were not aware that they were doing something wrong.

The lesson, as I see it, is to always prefer the direct quote with citation to the 'pointless paraphrase.' Changing wording here and there purely for the sake of thinking that doing so makes the passage one's own should be avoided.

POST SCRIPT: Discussing controversial ideas

Chris Weigold, who is a reader of this blog and also a Resident Assistant in one of Case's dorms, has invited me to a free-wheeling discussion about some controversial propositions that I have discussed previously in my blog as well as those that I will probably address in the future, such as:

  • Should military service be mandatory for all citizens?
  • Should everyone be required to work in a service-oriented job for two years?
  • Is torture warranted in some situations?
  • Why shouldn't Iran be allowed to become a nuclear power?
  • Should hospitals be allowed to refuse to keep a patient on life-support if the patient cannot pay?
  • Is patriotism a bad thing?
  • Are atheists more moral than religious people?
  • Why is killing innocent people in war not considered wrong?
  • If we can experiment on non-human animals, why not on humans?
  • How do people decide which religion is right?
or any other topic that people might raise.

The discussion takes place in the Clarke Tower lobby from 8:00-9:30pm on Wednesday, April 12, 2006. All are welcome.


Trackback URL for this entry is: A writer's obligations: ethics, law and pragmatism, Part 1: Law
Excerpt: Fair Use? In a former career, I designed the cover of this law book and drew the illustration of the column based on a design created by a colleague for another book in the series. Using the image to...
Tracked: October 20, 2006 04:17 PM


What an interesting take on what constitutes plagiarism! It never would have occurred to me that attributed paraphrases might count as plagiarism, or, indeed, that they might be "wrong" in any sense. What, then, of the scholarly research reviews that precede discussion of a new experiment? In such a context, the whole point is to retread old ground up until the point of departure for the new idea.

Also, what's your feeling about the self-plagiarism that happens when scientific writers recycle bits and pieces of old empirical articles for book chapters and whatnot?

Posted by Erin on April 11, 2006 11:43 AM

The may be some disciplinary variations here. I know what you mean about the scientific literature. Some of it is just standard boilerplate, setting the ground for the new stuff. But if you are actually taking the words from some other source, as opposed to merely covering very familiar ground, I think that you should use the direct quote.

The self-plagiarism case is interesting because I had to grapple with it. I had published several articles on the achievement gap and was approached by a published to expand them into a book. I was then confronted with what to do. Since I had taken considerable trouble to write the original articles, I did not see how I could make those parts of it really 'new.' I did not want to do the pointless paraphrase, either. But I also did not want to keep quoting myself and citing myself, as I would have done with any other author. Repeatedly quoting and citing myself would seem like shameless self-promotion.

After discussing with the publishers and other scholars in this field, I ended up putting an introductory disclaimer that some of this material had appeared in other places, gave the sources, and got permission from the earlier publisher to re-use it.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 11, 2006 01:42 PM

I think a lot of students paraphrase the way Goodwin does. Because they're asked to look through a few sources and then describe what was said. Which, too most students sounds a lot like they're supposed to paraphrase. Especially if you are building off someone else's research, you don't want you're introduction to be one big quote. But since you can't just straight plagarize it's a helpful compromise to just pseduoplagarize. I mean, imagine an undergrad, writing an article for some history class, say on the affects of privatization of water in rural villages. Of course all her information will be research from other author's, and maybe she'll combine it into something new, but if she doesn't she's left with one big block of other's work. Which if she wants any credit for she'd better paraphrase so it looks like she did something.

Posted by Bobby on April 12, 2006 02:57 AM


You make a good point. Instructors are partly to blame for this form of plagiarizm by giving the kind of assignment and short deadlines that beg for this kind of behavior. We really need to rethink that way we ask students to write. Russ Hunt in his article makes some good suggestions.

Ideally, we should give students enough time to read around the subject, digest it and form their own synthesis, and then write what they think, using the sources as supporting evidence.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 12, 2006 02:32 PM

A lot of kids just run out of time. They almost go mad. So they just, well...Plagirize. It is not good so we need to learn how to stop it.

Posted by Ariel Muffet on December 12, 2006 10:49 PM