The risk of plagiarism

by Lexi Foldenauer
HORIZON Reporter

By now, we all know what plagiarism means – to plagiarize is to cheat, and so forth and so on. But is it possible to plagiarize without even knowing it? Like when a simple citation error is made, or when a teacher makes their own assumption about the truthfulness of a student’s work?

Linda Lambert, a librarian at Whatcom Community College, recalls a time when she was wrongly accused of plagiarism by a professor, during an English 101 course during her early college years.

“My teacher handed an essay back to me with an F on it because he said I had copied it,” she said. “He wrote that it sounded “too advanced” for a college freshman.”

Lambert says she had pulled a few vocabulary words from a column in Reader’s Digest called “Improving Your Word Power,” which she assumed was her professor’s reason for questioning the paper’s authenticity.

Though Lambert was able to salvage her grade after bringing in a copy of the article, similar accusations can occur on college campuses daily. Dr. Anne George, a French and humanities instructor here at Whatcom, offered some insight.

“I think a lot of students do not realize when they are lifting material, they are sometimes not aware that lifting, let’s say, two or three sentences, constitutes plagiarism,” said George. “But, just like in everything, there is a grey area.”

This so-called grey area describes the point in which a student enters plagiaristic territory, freely and knowingly.

Today, thanks to the Internet, it is simple to gather information for a wide variety of subjects. These tools make it much easier for college students to conduct research, as well as put papers together.

Contradictory to its use for research, however, the internet has also made it that much simpler for students to take information from other sources and falsely claim it.

Trish Onion, Vice President for Educational Studies at Whatcom, recalled about a dozen cases of plagiarism on campus within the last year. In a typical year, Onion says she deals with about ten to 12 students who have plagiarized papers in some way, ranging from minor to more serious situations.

“A lot of time students just make a mistake,” said Onion. It is only when a student presents what is known as an intent to deceive, like copying and pasting large amounts of information without citing it, that they will face more serious consequences.

Onion used a diagram called a “plagiarism continuum” to represent the range of severity in cases. The continuum ranged from unintentional to intent-to-deceive; each scenario resulting in a different outcome for the student.

Instructors at Whatcom are encouraged to include a brief statement about their personal tolerance regarding acceptable work, as well as the actions that Whatcom Community College takes when plagiarism occurs.

If a student makes significant citation errors in a paper, an instructor will usually either give them the chance to redo it, or give them a zero percent for that assignment, said Onion. When a teacher finds the writing in a student’s paper to be suspicious, they will first investigate.

If the paper’s information is proved stolen, a couple things happen. First, the student is contacted by their instructor, and a meeting is arranged for the student to review the material with both the instructor and Trish Onion.

“Part of my role is to uphold the student’s rights as well as responsibility,” Onion said. The student then leaves with a formal warning, but if there is an additional case of dishonesty, the student can later be faced with suspension.

“Instructors give their heart and soul to teaching and helping students to change their lives,” said Onion. “When a student is dishonest, it’s a real disappointment to instructors.”

So, knowing all of the outcomes of plagiarizing, why do so many college students continue to do it? “Maybe students are afraid that they won’t have any ideas of their own, and are stressed,” said Nick Santini, a student at Whatcom. Santini opts to take a five minute break when feeling anxious about a paper, then come back when he feels refreshed to take it on again.

Sherri Winans, English teacher at Whatcom, is close to celebrating her twenty-first year of teaching. Winans speculates that with all of the technological changes, it has become easier for students to just copy and paste, instead of focusing on their original ideas.

“I think that’s when the problem comes in, when we rely so heavily on the other sources,” she said. Along with teaching English, Winans also directs the Writing Center. She strongly recommends it as a helpful resource when feeling desperate and strapped for time on a paper. Factors like: paraphrasing, messy note-taking, and quoting, can result in problems for students, Winans said.

The Writing Center, located within the Learning Center, provides tutoring in the areas of both APA and MLA citation, along with a variety of other areas in writing. Fully equipped with computers, work tables, tutors, and handbooks in both APA and MLA formatting, the center helps students learn how to cite their sources properly. Along with helping to cite your sources, the tutors are available to assist students with anything from a resume to a personal statement for a university application.

Winans, who has been directing the Writing Center for about 10 years, says the one factor that makes it so helpful to students is that the tutors work one-on-one in any area which the student may be struggling in. She explained that the tutors will first have the student give as much information about what they are writing as they can, and follow with formatting later. This allows the student to start getting their thoughts down, and discover their own creative ideas, which is crucial to developing strong original work.

Whether you are hurriedly trying to meet a deadline, or are stressed about perfecting your resume – the Writing Center can help. If you don’t have the time to make it there in person, there is an online resource available as well. While there is no way to fully prevent occurrences of plagiarism, colleges and universities everywhere will continue to educate their students on the ramifications that come along with the act, and also ways to avoid it altogether.


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