The Challenge Of Defining Plagiarism
Plagiarism has a commonly accepted evidence-based definition: when you present someone else’s work as your own, you are committing an act of fraud. The website plagiarism.org identifies ten most common types of plagiarism, and ranks them according to severity:
1. CLONE – submitting someone else’s work, word-for-word, as your own.
2. CTRL-C – significant portions of text are cut and pasted from a single source without alterations.
3. FIND-REPLACE – key words and phrases are changed to disguise the use of someone else’s material, but the essential content of the source material is retained.
4. REMIX – paraphrases from multiple sources are made to fit together.
5. RECYCLE – borrows generously from the writer’s own previous work without citation (self-plagiarism).
6. HYBRID – combines perfectly cited sources with copied passages without citation.
7. MASHUP – Mixes copied material from multiple sources.
8. 404 ERROR – includes citations to non-existent or inaccurate information about sources.
9. AGGREGATOR – includes proper citation to sources but the paper contains almost no original work.
10. RE-TWEET – includes proper citation but relies too heavily on the text’s original wording and/or structure.
The consequences of such acts can vary from a simple correction, a public retraction and correction (if your work is published), or more serious legal consequences depending on the plagiarism policies of your academic institution.
The challenge of defining plagiarism lies not in recognizing that the work has been presented without appropriate citation, but in determining the extent to which that failure was deliberate or not. Plagiarism.org’s ranking according to severity accurately captures the different levels of intent. A one hundred percent match score from any text-matching software provides solid evidence that the writer knew what he or she was doing in submitting a paper that is someone else’s work. However, should the desperation or laziness of a #1 word-for-word cut-and-paste carry more or less of a penalty than, say, a #6 Hybrid, where the writer may well have deliberately attempted to bury some plagiarized material into a paper with some perfectly cited sources in order to throw readers off the scent? In either case, the text-matching software will probably catch them, but is there a significant difference of intent?
Even with clear notification in the course syllabus or journal submission requirements that text-matching software will be used to verify authorship, plagiarism continues to be a problem in academic writing. Students under deadline pressure will gamble that a professor under similar deadline pressures won’t use the software. Sometimes they’ll get away with it, but most often they will not. For many papers, the plagiarism may not even require the use of software. Students underestimate the extent to which a well-written paragraph will stand out in a poorly constructed paper.
However, the waters get a little murkier when an argument can be made for unintentional plagiarism: incorrect citation, incorrect placement of quotation marks, and failing to cite a sentence or two based on a misunderstanding of fair use, are all examples of plagiarism, but do not carry the same implication of intent. A researcher submitting a paper to a journal that requires a different style manual than the researcher has used in the past, is likely to make numerous errors in the submission and get flagged for plagiarism. Should that researcher have used the services of a proofreader who was familiar with the required style guide? Yes, but does the fact that he or she didn’t automatically make him or her guilty of plagiarism?
One Size Does Not Fit All
As institutions and journals continue to beef-up their plagiarism policies to protect themselves from litigation, we are in danger of losing sight of how many variables may be involved in a plagiarism case. Divination of intent is clearly not easy, and while we can pursue ranking scales of severity, we cannot overlook the possibility that what is needed is re-education rather than automatic punishment. Therefore, part of that examination of intent should include verification of what the researcher has been taught about plagiarism in prior courses.