Plagiarism isn’t just an issue in the classroom, it’s increasingly becoming a major topic in the news cycle.
Whether it is stories about politicians being accused of plagiarism, novelists accused of plagiarizing much of their library or even school administrators being accused of plagiarizing their commencement speeches, there’s almost always plagiarism in the headlines.
However, these headlines can often feel very frustrating for teachers. Not only does a large number of these stories make plagiarism seem far more common than it is, the fact that so few cases seem to carry repercussions can give the impression that plagiarism is common and minor.
It can feel like a losing battle talking about plagiarism to students when they routinely see many of the famous and most powerful people in the world get caught plagiarizing without serious consequence.
But, as frustrating as these realizations can be, plagiarism news stories are still an excellent opportunity to talk with students about academic integrity. They can be especially useful in making the issue of plagiarism more real to the students and can open up a great dialogue about why it is wrong.
The key is in how to approach the story.
Discuss How the Plagiarism Was Discovered
One thing that every plagiarism news story has in common is that the plagiarism ended up being detected. Though it was often weeks, months or even decades later, the copying was spotted somehow.
News stories have a myriad of ways that plagiarism was detected from quizzical readers spotting similar passages, overlapping grammar mistakes and the use of plagiarism detection technology.
Students far too often think that avoiding plagiarism is as simple as turning it in and bypassing any checks the instructor may have in place. However, this illustrates the point that plagiarism can be caught at almost any time. History is littered with examples of student plagiarism being discovered after the fact, resulting in degrees being revoked and, in many cases, lost jobs.
Many times the most important part of a plagiarism story isn’t the outcome, but that it happened at all. Reminding students that plagiarism is forever can be a powerful reminder to students that might be tempted to take unethical shortcuts.
Talk About the Plagiarism Itself
Most handbooks and manuals give good hypothetical examples of text that is and is not plagiarism. However, hypotheticals can only get you so far.
Plagiarism news stories are an opportunity to explore real plagiarism cases. You and your students can look over the examples in the case, talk about what they mean actually investigate the case yourselves.
It’s a great opportunity to talk with students about questions like “Is this an example of plagiarism? Why or why not?” and “What are the odds that this similarity is a coincidence?”
Having students break down and investigate a case of suspected plagiarism can be extremely useful in helping them think about the issue more complexly. This takes them out of the mindset of someone simply wanting to avoid plagiarism and puts them into the minds of those investigating it.
This might seem like a minor thing, but many students report that they are unclear on what their instructors want when it comes to plagiarism. Giving them the chance to play investigator in an environment with no consequences may help them grasp the other side of the issue better.
Talk About the Ideal Consequences
Students, even at a young age, are already well aware that real-world consequences don’t always line up with what they should be in a perfect world. That being said, a real-world case of plagiarism is an excellent opportunity to discuss hypothetical repercussions.
For example, if a novelist is accused of plagiarism, what action should the publisher take? Recall the book? Cancel the publishing contract? Correct the plagiarism in later editions? The answer depends heavily on one’s views on plagiarism and the nature of the case itself.
This kind of conversation not only gets students thinking about the complexities of responding to plagiarism but also helps instructors understand just how seriously (or not seriously) their students are taking it.
It can also be great to ask questions such as “What would you expect to happen if this took place in a classroom?” or “How would this be treated differently if X was different?” Getting students to think about multiple hypotheticals can help frame plagiarism more broadly.
If desired, this can also be a great time to discuss the difference between copyright and plagiarism. That’s because, outside of the classroom, plagiarism often raises issues of copyright infringement that students may need to be aware of.
This is especially true in fields such as art, film, literature, and music where plagiarism carries not just serious consequences for one's career but potential legal repercussions.
It can be very tempting for educators to shy away from plagiarism news stories. While this is understandable since it can involve celebrities that are divisive or situations that seem to trivialize the act of plagiarism itself, they can be a useful tool in helping students understand plagiarism and why it’s important.
Real-world examples of plagiarism are a great opportunity to not only get students interested in plagiarism but to understand it more broadly.
The simple truth is that plagiarism is something that they will likely have to deal with in one way or another their entire lives. Though they might not have to use MLA or APA style once they graduate, any occupation that requires creativity has the potential for plagiarism issues and students need to be aware of that.
After all, addressing plagiarism isn’t just about preventing “cheating,” it’s about giving students the skills and understanding they need to excel in whatever career they choose.