students copying from each other risk being accused of plagiarism

What a Criminal Defense Attorney Tells His Children About….Plagiarism

Plagiarism has always been a critical topic for students. Even back when I was in school (and all of our resources were in books and newspapers) the consequences for submitting unoriginal work were severe. Back then, it was rare and scary to be accused of plagiarism. 

But nowadays the subject is a lot more complicated. Today our default answer for finding information is “Just Google it,” and because of the unlimited number of resources available online, the internet has made it easier than ever for students to find and steal (whether intentionally or unintentionally) others’ words and ideas for their own use. 

Even apps like Snapchat have also made it easy for students to share information and ideas amongst one another without any record of them doing so. There are also plenty of websites where you can pay others to write your papers for you. 

But stealing, or using someone else’s idea for your own work is still plagiarism. And because the internet has made plagiarism more prevalent, schools seem to be cracking down and taking these cases much more seriously, to the point where students can be at risk of expulsion if caught plagiarizing. 

What is Plagiarism?

According to Plagiarism.org, plagiarism can be defined in two ways: 1) using another’s words or ideas as your own without properly crediting the source, or 2) a deliberate act of fraud – using someone else’s work and then lying about it.

If the plagiarism infringes on an author’s intellectual property rights (usually a copyright) it can result in federal criminal charges.

Copyrighted work:

As soon as you create any original work (story, joke, song, idea, research) and record it – in a book, article, document on your computer, song, or anything tangible – you own the copyright, and US law grants you the rights to that intellectual property.” You do not have to apply for any type of formal copyright. These intellectual property rights extend to works that are both published and not published. Even if you only have the draft of a term paper in a Word document on your laptop, it’s still considered copyrighted work that you have the rights to. 

Now, the Fair Use doctrine of US copyright law provides that you can refer to copyrighted work via paraphrasing, summarizing, or directly quoting it within your own work as long as you cite the source, meaning you must give credit to the author. This may sound very simple, but there are plenty of ways that students run into trouble.

A few situations that may get you accused of plagiarism:

Despite what you may believe, plagiarism is not just copying another person’s words verbatim. It can take on many different forms. Here are some of the different ways you can plagiarize, whether intentionally or not:

  • Copying another’s words directly without proper citation (the most obvious form of plagiary)
  • Self plagiarism – Submitting your own previous work, or large portions of it without approval by the professor for which you originally wrote the piece
  • Taking the idea of a piece and not properly citing it
  • Citing non-existent sources
  • Paraphrasing, or using certain phrases from a work without citing it
  • Combining the work of multiple sources so that it flows together well (like it’s a completely new piece), without properly citing all of the sources
  • Changing key words in another person’s work so that the copy is not identical, but you are maintaining the essential content of the piece without citation
  • Copying another’s material on an exam, or take home exam (Harvard even dismissed 70 of its students back in 2013 for doing this)

How Schools Check for Plagiarism:

Nowadays there are many online resources available to help professors figure out if a student’s work is the result of plagiarism. Programs such as Turnitin.com, and CopyLeaks allow professors to upload a student’s essay online, where it will be cross-referenced against an extensive library of work, including academic journals, newspaper articles, books, etc. The program then scores each work based on originality, and highlights any sections that may be plagiarized. Some even provide links to the source from which the text was plagiarized. 

As old fashioned methods may be outdated but in no way dead, many school officials still rely on intuition. They’ve had years of experience reviewing students’ work, and in certain cases they are able to discern whether an essay or report is significantly above the level that student would be able to produce. In fact, in many cases intuition may be the driving force behind running a student’s paper through one of these programs in the first place, which is why it is best to play it safe and make sure you are properly citing throughout your work. 

How schools handle plagiarism:

Schools take plagiarism very seriously and employ a number of different punishments for those students that commit plagiarism. These include:

  • Failing the assignment
  • Failing the class 
  • Disciplinary proceedings
  • Permanent mark on your transcript
  • Suspension
  • Expulsion 

Though not a punishment inflicted by the school, another serious consequence of being accused of plagiarism is compromising your own reputation. 

How to Avoid Plagiarism:

The best way to avoid plagiarism is through proper citation. Now, of course, you don’t want to go to opposite extremes and have a citation mark at the end of every single sentence either. If you’re doing that then you’re probably using too much of someone else’s idea and not enough of your own original thought. 

Preventing plagiarism is a balancing act. When in doubt, definitely put in a citation, and make sure you are properly crediting the source by putting the author’s name, the date of publication, and where you found the material (usually schools provide guidelines on how to do this). Another option is always to speak with your professor. It’s better to go to them upfront for clarification than to have them question you after you’ve turned in your paper. 

Have You Been Accused of Plagiarism?

I am a college disciplinary defense attorney, practicing primarily in the Northeast US. Feel free to contact me for an exploratory call at no charge, via text message or phone. For more information please see my college disciplinary defense website.

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