By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

The approaching end of a term or an academic year brings an increase in temptation. Final exams loom. Papers and projects are due. The nerves become frayed. The urge to find relief by cutting corners can be hard to resist. It’s one thing to find some means of being more efficient, or some source of vital intelligence about how to navigate the process better. It’s another thing altogether to try to beat the system via academic dishonesty.

The internet has made plagiarism easier than ever, and the convenience of accessing information and transferring it from one place to another has left some students unsure of what is and isn’t permissible. The truth is that very little has changed in the realm of definitions and principles:

Plagiarism involves presenting someone else’s work as your own.

I once borrowed from the library a book by a South Korean martial arts master, and while I was at it I picked up a book about South Korea in general, published by that nation’s tourism ministry. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the dietary recommendations in the former volume had been lifted verbatim from the latter, without attribution. Nothing subtle or furtive; the grand master really went high, wide, and handsome with his thievery. You almost have to admire somebody that brazen.

That’s an extreme example, but in principle it differs not a whit from looking over someone’s shoulder during a test or copying a passage from a book or article without crediting the author.

Plagiarism is about ideas, not just words.

Much mischief occurs in the realm of paraphrasing. Most students realize that if they write, “It is frequently a misfortune to have very brilliant men in charge of affairs. They expect too much of ordinary men,” they must enclose that statement in quotation marks and attribute it to Thucydides. Far fewer realize that if they write, “It’s often bad to have really smart leaders, because they expect too much from the rest of us,” they still need to give credit to Thucydides.  

In 1987, British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock said the following in a speech:  

“Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Why is Glenys [here he pointed to Mrs. Kinnock] the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?”

A few months later, U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden delivered himself of this oration:

“I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright?”

Other, similar, indiscretions subsequently came to light, and the Biden campaign came to an ignominious end. Inasmuch as Kinnock was one of the most famous political leaders on the planet, the misdeed was easily detected. Nowadays we have the internet, and it’s nearly as reckless to sift and scoop a little verbiage from the chairman of the Spent Casing, Arkansas, sewer board as it is to pick the rhetorical pocket of the British opposition leader. 

Plagiarism is a form of theft, Part 1.

It really is. Literally. Plagiarism isn’t like when the coach says, “If you’re lazy, you’re stealing from yourself and you’re stealing from this team and your family and your country and God.” Plagiarism is like when you take money from your mom’s purse or steal a harmonica from the music store and keep it forever (we’re talking to you, John Lennon), or when you siphon off your employer’s money into your own bank account. Plagiarism involves taking something from someone else and treating it as if it were yours.

Plagiarism is a form of theft, Part 2.

Dictionaries differ regarding whether plagiarism necessarily means that the true author is an unwilling victim. I recall walking past a men’s dormitory and seeing, through an open window, a naked fellow snapping a towel at a girl as she sat at a keyboard and snapped back, “I’m not going to write this paper for you if you don’t stop that.” For whatever reason, she was willing to be exploited intellectually, and probably in other ways also, though one cannot say with certainty; perhaps they were brother and sister. In any case, I suspect they deserved each other.

A similar situation exists with students who charge fees for writing papers for other students, and with professional essay-writing services, a.k.a. “paper mills.” Whether the actual writer is a willing accomplice or a victim, any grade above zero is a form of theft, and colleges treat it accordingly. If one student intentionally writes for another, both are punished. Essay-writing services are not so easily disciplined, but our crystal ball tells us that their time is coming. We’ve already looked at Scams, Scandals, School Counselors, and Us and Under the Table and Over the Top: The Other College Admissions Scandals, and we expect one day to bring you tidings of “paper mills” coming under federal indictment for illicitly helping students obtain and retain financial aid.  Which brings us to…

Plagiarism can be a crime.

Strictly speaking, when someone commits his or her words and ideas to paper (or screen), a de facto copyright exists. Most published work of book length and a large percentage of scholarly articles are formally copyrighted. While it’s highly unlikely that an author would sue a student for plagiarizing on a test or paper, that could change if the author has reason to believe that the thief has advanced himself or herself, financially or otherwise, at the expense or to the detriment of that author. This becomes much more of a possibility in the higher echelons of graduate school, where original research and publication are involved.

Plagiarism is becoming more easily detectable.

Tests and classwork are a difficult arena in which to police plagiarism, but teachers now possess increasingly sophisticated tools for combating plagiarism in work produced outside class. Plagiarism-detection software has proven to be popular and effective, and its developers are hard at work on new variants to counter the efforts of programmers who have created synonymization programs to assist plagiarists.

A final caution…

Sometimes you really, truly can blame the computer. The formatting of a document can be deranged by copying and pasting or even by routine saving. Just going from Google docs into Word or WordPress can create problems. For example, a block quotation rendered without quotation marks—which is standard practice—may lose its indentation when you modify or transfer content. It then appears as a normal paragraph—and without the quotation marks that would identify it as someone else’s work. All you can do is proofread carefully and stay vigilant.

The Coaching Educator has amassed a decade of experience helping students with college admissions and financial aid, but that’s not all we do. We also provide advice and support that promotes academic success all the way through college. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Photo Credit: Brooke Cagle

Recommended Reading About College Admissions, Scholarships, and Academic Success

Carroll, Rebecca M., and Paul Culp. “Scams and Scandals in College Admissions,” The Coaching Educator, audio podcast, http://tce.local/podcasts/, accessed 23 April 2019.

Culp, Paul. “Not So Fast: When Colleges Rescind Acceptances,” The Coaching Educator, 31 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/31/not-so-fast-when-colleges-rescind-acceptances/

Culp, Paul. “Scams, Scandals, School Counselors, and Us,” The Coaching Educator, 16 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/16/scams-scandals-school-counselors-and-us/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Commandments (And Then Some) for College Success,” The Coaching Educator, 19 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/19/ten-commandments-and-then-some-for-college-success/

Culp, Paul, “Under the Table and Over the Top: The Other College Admissions Scandals,” The Coaching Educator, 25 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/25/under-the-table-and-over-the-top-the-other-college-admissions-scandals/

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