Why plagiarism is so hard to understand: the skill of original thinking [UPDATE at end: IGN reviewer]


Everyone knows what plagiarism is – you claim work that isn’t yours. It’s simple. It’s stealing, and we all know what that looks like, right? Strangely, not so much. 

As a teacher at two large universities, I’ve encountered a good deal of plagiarism – not every class every semester, but at least once a year I come to the familiar realization that a student’s work is not their own. When I’m on a larger teaching team, one of my colleagues usually has a case of plagiarism. The frequency suggests that I’ve missed a good number of cases.

While we as teachers would hope -and typically expect- that plagiarism is simple and intentional, that when we confront a student with the evidence they will come clean, this is not particularly common. Most students who have submitted copied work as their own genuinely did not realize that what they were doing was considered cheating. Because most plagiarism is not taking another piece of writing and reproducing it word-for-word. Instead, plagiarism typically represents a failure to understand what original work is, and indeed how assignments are structured within a pedagogical framework. Students often think they are submitting original work because they have at times been asked to paraphrase or summarize, or because they have been encouraged to work with a classmate or refer to an expert and they don’t yet understand what the point of those exercises is or where the line is between attributed reference and stealing. Ultimately, plagiarism always comes from anxiety that the student’s own thoughts are not sufficient, but whereas it’s rare for students to actually panic and fully insert someone else’s work into their own, it’s extremely common in my experience for students to believe that there simply isn’t more to say on a given topic and that “work” is artfully regurgitating someone else’s thoughts. I have previously been in teacher trainings where this distinction was played off as a cultural difference, since some East Asian schooling systems teach students that an expert has already made their point more eloquently and that to spell out that person’s work would be an insult to their reader’s intelligence; as a result, I was instructed to gently explain American standards of attribution to students I saw doing this, unless they were American, in which case I should assume that they know the difference. But they do not.

The Jezebel story above, about an article printed in Bust that clearly copied an older piece from Good, highlights just how much American college students (and dare I say people at large) don’t understand what plagiarism is because they don’t understand what original thinking is. When Jezebel talked to the writer of the Bust article, who is a college student, she insisted that she just didn’t understand the industry standards for crediting quoted content. This is almost verbatim the line given in most academic integrity policies, usually something along the lines of “students are expected to understand the standards for scholarly attribution” – and both the writer and this policy miss the point of attribution in the first place. The issue with the Bust article is not that it failed to give credit to an earlier piece – as Jezebel makes clear, it’s that the Bust article used the ideas and even the research from the Good piece, and no amount of attribution would have made that acceptable for publication. The reason is that both articles do the same thing and therefore both don’t need to exist. Paraphrasing the work of the Good article isn’t necessary when that piece is already accessible. Unless the Bust piece had introduced new material or taken an opposing viewpoint, both articles fill the same space. This is where young (and old) writers need to take a step back to justify the existence of their work – it doesn’t deserve to exist, or rather, to be published, just because they find it interesting. Publication, the sharing of work, happens because it provides access to ideas or information that someone else will find interesting or useful.

Justifying your work and understanding why it is worth sharing is a nuanced but ultimately essential point, and it’s up to teachers to stress this. The problem is that in a classroom setting there typically isn’t a justification, because work is requested. A student doesn’t walk in and say “I would like to write about this topic because I think that what is currently available on it is misleading” – instead, a teacher tells the students what to write and then hopes against hope that one student in the class will come up with something original. This is ass-backwards. The first time undergraduates are typically asked to justify the existence of their work is when they write a senior thesis, and at most universities this is not a requirement, which means that the vast majority of students leave higher education (not to mention high school) with no critical understanding of why published writing exists. Even though they encounter this justification in their lives every day, every time they look at an article or news item and say “who cares?” or “who let this go to print?”, most people don’t have a sense of this process of arguing for originality. Oddly, this is something that’s occurred to me a lot watching reality competition shows. At some point toward the end of the competition, contestants are often asked to tell the judges why they should win, and their answer is usually a variation on “because I want it.” This is not a very compelling logic. “Because I’m the best” or “because I will do something unique with the opportunities afforded to me by winning” are a lot more convincing, but also require a full step in logic beyond the question being posed. The contestant has to imagine a scenario in which their work does not exist and their competitors’ do, and they have to explain why that scenario is worse than the alternative. In both of these cases, it’s hard to justify why someone ought to be somewhere when they’re already there.

So back to teaching writing and plagiarism. If students have to view their work as not a given, they are forced to justify it in a way that promotes originality. This, of course, is the logic behind the open-ended assignment, and that requires a lot of hand-holding. So, I’ll imagine instead that the Bust article was written as an assignment in response to having read the Good article in class. The prompt might have looked something like “in your own words, discuss the social and historical factors behind teenage shoplifting”. This would be a very typical structure for an assignment: I as the instructor am going to introduce my students to a concept by presenting them with what I see as a good example of the kind of writing that can be done on that topic, and then, hoping the students are inspired by that writing, ask them to do something similar. In a classroom setting, all I care about is that students practice argumentative writing and are able to say something intelligent about the content I’ve presented them with. But unless the students are already especially critical or creative thinkers, asking them to write something “similar” is just code for asking them to paraphrase and regurgitate. After all, where are they going to get all this new outside content from? I haven’t introduced them to opposing viewpoints or varied perspectives and methods, and I haven’t asked them to conduct their own research. In the practice bubble of the classroom, this is totally acceptable because the aim is not originality or critical thinking, it’s acquisition of content and form. Although it seems easier to teach students to just regurgitate what they’ve already read, this actually creates more problems, like the shockingly high incidence of plagiarism and a general inability to justify reasoning or extrapolate from information to larger opinions or consequences. Ultimately, it’s just difficult as a student to complete that kind of assignment because you are inherently being asked to do something that’s already been done. I believe this leads to the impression that no new ideas exist – an impression expressed not just by students, but by every person who has ever asked me what a dissertation is and is shocked by the notion that I will have to write history that has not yet been written.

Here is my alternative: rather than structuring assignments around specific content and forms, we as teachers should always be considering skill-building, and in this case, the skill is original thinking. Original thinking is indeed a skill, based on the skill of critical thinking – when a person is presented with an opinion or information, they use critical thinking (asking questions about the content, influences, methods, etc) to assess that opinion or information – whether they agree with it, think it is valid or honest, whether it needs further investigation, etc. Original thinking takes this a step further, and requires the person to respond. A response can be a critique, such as an argumentative presentation of their critical assessment, or it can be an homage in which they use the methods or logic of the original to explore another topic, or it can be a continuation, in which they build on the original to ask more expansive or deeper questions. The key to original thinking is that it is impossible to accidentally plagiarize the original source, because the writer uses the original source to define their own work and it is therefore automatically situated within the new work in an appropriate way. There is no space to aimlessly regurgitate, because that would be incomplete. And the writer must justify the existence of their work because it necessarily exists in reference to something else. But, conveniently, the work of the assignment is still effectively the same – the teacher presents the student with a piece of writing, and the student produces another piece of writing in response. Nothing else is required. But rather than having to explain the notion of plagiarism and assume that students will arrive at inspired responses on their own, by framing this assignment in terms of original thinking, the teacher supplies a much more conceptual understanding of a “response” and gives the student more tools with which to write. And, because the assignment is still essentially open-ended, it is a format that students can return to many times as they grow, in order to experiment with new forms, perspectives, and methods.

In my own teaching, I imagine using this assignment as both a standalone piece and a stepping stone to a cumulative assignment like a large research paper. I would introduce the skill of original thinking in class discussion by prompting students to discuss a variety of sources (primary/secondary, factual/argumentative, narrative/records) critically – i.e. by observing and identifying what these sources are and how they function – and then pushing the discussion to the implications of these sources, such as how they impact the historical themes or topics we are otherwise addressing, or whether students agree or disagree with their arguments. This exercise would be a weekly fixture of the classroom from the start. I would then assign at least two at-home opportunities to do the same thing, perhaps with one as a shorter format like a one-page essay or a blog post, and one as a longer 2-4 page paper. In those situations, I would ask students to pick a source from the readings to respond to, presenting an argument that builds on or makes reference to the source (having explained the concept of a response in class, and making a clear distinction between a response and a summary). Finally, I would have students build this original response format into a proposal for a final paper, either working from multiple primary sources to argue why they deserve further consideration or working from multiple secondary sources to argue a new perspective. This progression of assignments would ideally teach them the process of original thinking, which utilizes critical thinking to form opinions, while situating original thinking into the framework of other scholarship i.e. respecting other people’s opinions, or at least acknowledging them. My hope is that this concept and suite of assignments will help students form perspectives while also being aware of the influences on those perspectives, a skill that is useful throughout life.


In the two weeks since I originally wrote this post, another very public instance of plagiarism has hit the blogging world, this time in gaming. See this article from Kotaku for the rundown, the author’s response, and further investigation.  In this case, an editor for IGN (a top gaming news and content review site) clearly plagiarized a review from a relatively unknown blogger, copying his phrasing and review structure. The editor has since been fired and admitted to “unintentionally” copying that review, but has denied that any of his other work was not original, despite hints that it might be. It struck me that the issue here is again one of paraphrasing – the plagiarist did lift segments of text from the original author, but mostly what stands out is obvious paraphrasing, i.e. comparison of the two versions indicates that the plagiarist used the original pieces as reference points and then changed enough text to make them less obviously similar. So I wanted to talk about what this kind of plagiarism actually looks like – what sets off alarm bells when we see it.

There are two key features of paraphrasing plagiarism: keywords and micro-level structure.

Keywords are vocabulary that seem unique to the original work yet appear in the second version – these might be words that the author in question uses frequently, turns of phrase that they are partial to, or they can be one-off descriptors that are still not so common that they are likely to appear in 90% of written work. The first kind are words that we might say define an author’s style – if you made a word cloud of common words and phrases that author uses and then removed words that are simply the building blocks of their language (pronouns, articles, conjunctions, etc.), the top 50 or so of these might be significant indicators of style, more so when used in combination. For example, in my writing I tend to use the phrases “for example”, “for instance”, “e.g.” and “i.e.” when extrapolating, and I rotate through them because I use that concept of extrapolation frequently. This brings me to structure.

Micro-level writing structure is the organization of sentences and paragraphs – how ideas flow syntactically. This is distinct from macro-level structure, which is more between paragraphs and generally covers the relationship between big ideas in a piece (e.g. Paragraph 1: identify problem, paragraph 2: contextualize, etc.). Micro-level structure is from sentence to sentence within a paragraph and even word order and punctuation within a single sentence. It rules the flow of unique concepts  and reflects the writerly identity of a specific piece of writing distinct from a larger type of work. For instance, a book review often follows a particular structure overall, and that structure can get fairly specific for a given publication or industry (the New Yorker is particularly famous for its structure in which it begins with a long vignette or anecdote and then describes the work briefly in more detail before diving into the point the article wants to make), whereas one person’s review of Catcher in the Rye might focus on the theme of disillusionment first by recalling the scene with the skate key where someone else’s will address disillusionment incidentally as part of a discussion of Holden as a character, even still using the skate key scene as an example. The sentence flow will reflect this – if the focus is disillusionment as a theme, those words are more likely to come up as grammatical subjects. The fragment “the theme of disillusionment is prominent throughout Catcher in the Rye” is more likely a reflection of the first focus, whereas “Holden wanders disillusioned through the city” is more likely for the second. In a plagiarized piece, the order of ideas, the logical flow of concepts, typically does not change from one version to another because the plagiarizing author used the original piece as a reference point, so even if the specific wording is changed or additional points are added, that original structure remains intact. If the plagiarist puts in enough effort to jumble the order, and throw in a few additions, and change the phrasing, the only way in which that is still plagiarism is if the resulting piece doesn’t make sense on its own and/or the second author still fails to cite the first as a source (although if the first condition isn’t true it can be hard to tell and perhaps eventually irrelevant that the work is not entirely original, since original doesn’t have to mean spun from thin air).

There is a caveat to all this identifying, which is industry-level jargon and style. Certain kinds of words, phrases, and macro- and micro-level structures are specific to the writing that develops within a community of writers, and we would not call these plagiarism because they are industry standards, i.e. they are considered fair use and not attributable to any one author. In the IGN editor’s case, this makes identifying his other writings as plagiarism more difficult, because gaming is not only full of stock phrases, and reviews not only characterized by typical structure, but as with descriptive content more generally there is a more limited vocabulary and even expected word sets for specific content. In the contested review of Metroid: Samus Returns that Kotaku excerpts, there are clearer examples of vocabulary/structure imitation, and there are examples that could simply be industry standards or even jargon specific to that game. For the former, the earlier review from a site called Endgaget reads: “For veterans of the franchise’s more traditional games, it feels like coming home,” while Miucin, the IGN editor wrote: “for fans of the more traditional style games in the series, you’ll immediately feel right at home.” This is a clear example of paraphrasing plagiarism because both excerpts contain the same two concepts indicated by precise and consistent wording (those who like “traditional games” within the Metroid IP and the “feeling” of “home”) and these concepts, which are not necessarily connected outside of the internal logic of these articles, are joined with the same sentence-level structure (the double-barreled clause separated by a comma, the passive construction of the first fragment that relies on the identifying marker “for”, and ending the second clause on “home”). It is not any one of these features that marks this as obvious plagiarism, but the combination of all. In contrast, there is this sentence from Endgaget “Samus can still shoot up, down and diagonally, but holding R activates a precision-aiming mode with full range of motion and a targeting laser” compared to this sentence from Miucin “In terms of combat, Samus can of course still shoot up, down, and diagonally, but holding R now activates a precision aiming mode that allows for full range of motion and some extremely precise aiming.” Both sentences still have the same structure, but the structure now reflects a word order that is more typical for how people write generally (it is common to list directions in that order, and it is typical logic to identify the expected directions before contrasting with the unique features of this game), and the keyword “precise” is potentially a piece of jargon used by the developers themselves to describe the game, since games will often give names, even informally in interviews outside of gameplay itself, to skill modes within the game. Even if it’s not game-specific, the concept of a precision mode or precise aiming is a hallmark of a shooter game, and pairing it with the word activate makes sense given the extremely limited vocabulary options, that might otherwise include “trigger” or “set off” or “open up” or “switch on” and that’s about it. One example on its own can be a coincidence, and it’s important when assessing plagiarism not to let one very suspicious sentence color your impression of an entire piece. To have a clearer sense of whether the second example is actually plagiarism, it would be helpful to see other reviews of the same game from the time of launch to know whether its features reflect industry jargon and standards or if they really are unique to the Endgaget review. Because stealing a single sentence is a minor sin, but unfortunately does not actually constitute plagiarism.

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