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Pop Quiz: Do you know what constitutes plagiarism at your college?

As far as we know, every college and university in the country has a student handbook or honor code that provides rules for how students must perform their work and the standards they are expected to meet. And as far as we know, at every college and university students are routinely disciplined for violating those rules in a number of ways – from the most minor of infractions to severe academic misconduct. Colleges and universities place a significant amount of responsibility on their students to independently learn the school’s policies, the forms of citation they should use in each discipline, and the rules applicable to each class they take. Before turning in work at college, there are a few things to know about academic misconduct policies.

First and foremost, students and their parents need to understand how their school defines academic misconduct, and particularly, plagiarism. The vast majority of students we represent in academic discipline proceedings are accused of plagiarism, and many of our clients who did not intend to violate any rules or copy anyone else’s work nonetheless find themselves disciplined for violating school policies. In our experience most schools define plagiarism incredibly broadly. For example, Harvard College’s policy states: “Whenever ideas or facts are derived from a student’s reading and research or from a student’s own writings, the sources must be indicated . . . The responsibility for learning the proper forms of citation lies with the individual student . . . Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including requirement to withdraw from the College.” Dartmouth College’s policy is similar: “Plagiarism is defined as the submission or presentation of work, in any form, that is not a student’s own, without acknowledgment of the source.” A few schools, however, define plagiarism more narrowly, as U. Mass. Amherst does: “knowingly representing the words or ideas of another as one’s own work without citation.”

The first lesson for students getting ready to turn in their first work assignments at school: Read Your Handbook. Each school makes up its own definition of infractions, and the only way to understand what is permissible and forbidden at your school is to know what your policy says. As the above definitions show, one thing that many students do not understand is that at most schools you do not have to intend to commit plagiarism to be found responsible for the offense. That means if the student’s work draws from or inadvertently copies any portion of work written by someone else, it must be properly cited so as not to be plagiarism.

Another issue we see time and again is that the schools put the burden of learning proper citation on the student. That means that if a student does not properly cite his or her sources he or she can be found responsible for plagiarism, even if the professor did not tell the student how sources should be cited.

A third area in which students often do not understand what is permitted/prohibited is collaboration with other students. Some teachers encourage students to work together outside of the classroom; others do not. Some schools expect that if you so much as discuss a homework assignment with another student you will note that on the written work. Working with tutors, peers, and students who have previously taken the course is a great way to learn the material, but be careful not to incorporate what those people say or examples of work they show you into your own work. Similarly, you can be on the hook for academic misconduct if you share a paper, exam, or other work you have generated with a fellow student, and that student ends up passing it off as their own.

A few examples of situations like those we have handled demonstrate the breadth of conduct that schools may consider plagiarism:[1]

  • A student is assigned to write a book review. Never having written this type of report before, he looks online and finds one on the same book he is reviewing. He looks at the model to understand the format of what he is supposed to write, and copies and pastes some interesting points into his word processing document, planning to use them as reference when he writes his. He inadvertently incorporates some portions of those points into his report, which he then turns in to the teacher. The teacher reports him for plagiarizing from the book report he read.
  • A student is having trouble understanding her math homework, so she meets up with a group of students from the class and they work through the problems together. She writes out the answers the group came up with, and turns in the homework. Because her homework is so similar to other students’ homework, and the student did not note that she worked with other students, the professor reports her for plagiarism.
  • A student is asked by her friend if he can look at the papers she wrote in a previous year for a course the friend is now taking. The student loans her friend the papers, thinking he will use them to better understand the course material. Instead, the friend submits one of the papers as his own. The professor of the course reports both students for plagiarism.

Because of the breadth of conduct that is considered plagiarism or academic misconduct, students must be extremely vigilant when using online resources, sharing information, or working in groups.

[1] These examples are not from actual cases, but typify the types of conduct for which we routinely see students charged with plagiarism.

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