Russell A. Hunt

"Let's Hear it for Internet Plagiarism."

As published in  Teaching & Learning Bridges 2:3 (University of Saskatchewan) (November 2003), 2-5

The "information technology revolution" is almost always presented as having cataclysmic consequences for education -- sometimes for the better, but often, of course, for the worse. In postsecondary circles, perhaps the most commonly apprehended cataclysm is "Internet Plagiarism." When a university subscribes to, the local media invariably pick up the story -- "Students to Learn that Internet Crime Doesn't Pay" -- with the kind of alacrity usually reserved for features on political sex scandals or patronage payoffs. When the newest cheating scandal surfaces at some prestigious southern university known for its military school style "honor code," the headlines leap across the tabloids like stories on child molestation by alien invaders.

It's almost never suggested that all this might be something other than a disaster for higher education. But that's exactly what I want to argue here. I believe the challenge of easier and more convenient plagiarism is to be welcomed. This rising tide threatens to change things -- for, I predict and hope, the better. Here are some specific practices that are threatened by the increasing ease with which plagiarism can be committed.

1. The institutional rhetorical writing environment (the "research paper," the "literary essay," the "term paper") is challenged by this, and that's a good thing. Our reliance on these forms as ways of assessing student skills and knowledge has been increasingly questioned by people who are concerned with how learning and assessment take place, and can be fostered, and particularly with how the ability to manipulate written language ("literacy") is developed. The assumption that a student's learning is accurately and readily tested by her ability to produce, in a completely rhetorical situation, an artificial form that she'll never have to write again once she's survived formal education (the essay examination, the formal research paper), is questionable on the face of it, and is increasingly untenable. If the apprehension that it's almost impossible to escape the mass-produced and purchased term paper leads teachers to create more imaginative, and rhetorically sound, writing situations in their classes, the advent of the easily-purchased paper from is a salutary challenge to practices which ought to be challenged. One good, clear example of the argument which can be mounted against generic term paper assignments and in favor of assignments which track that writing process and / or are specific to a particular situation is in Tom Rocklin's online "Downloadable Term Papers: What's a Prof. to Do?" Many other equivalent arguments that assignments can be refigured to make plagiarism more difficult -- and offer more authentic rhetorical contexts for student writing -- have been offered in recent years.

I'm unconvinced that we can address the problem by assuring students that "they are real writers with meaningful and important things to say," or invite them to revise their work where we can see the revisions, as long as we continue giving them more decontextualized, audienceless and purposeless writing exercises. Having something to say is -- for anybody except, maybe, a Romantic poet -- absolutely indistinguishable from having someone to say it to, and an authentic reason for saying it. To address this problem, I believe, we need to rethink the position of writing in student's lives and in the curriculum. One strong pressure to do that is the increasing likelihood that empty exercises can by fulfilled by perfunctory efforts, or borrowed texts.

2. The institutional structures around grades and certification are challenged by this, and that's a good thing. Perhaps more important is the way plagiarism challenges the overwhelming pressure for grades which our institutions have created and foster, and which has as its consequence the pressure on many good students to cut a corner here and there (there's lots of evidence that it's not mainly the marginal students in danger of failing who cheat; it's as often those excellent students who believe, possibly with some reason, that their lives depend on keeping their GPA up to some arbitrary scratch). An even more central consideration is the way the existence of plagiarism itself challenges the way the university structures its system of incentives and rewards, as a zero-sum game, with a limited number of winners.

University itself, as our profession has structured it, is the most effective possible situation for encouraging plagiarism and cheating. If I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, or improve my golf swing, or write HTML, "cheating" would be the last thing that would ever occur to me. It would be utterly irrelevant to the situation. On the other hand, if I wanted a certificate saying that I could pick a jig, play a round in under 80, or produce a slick Web page (and never expected actually to perform the activity in question), I might well consider cheating (and consider it primarily a moral problem). This is the situation we've built for our students: a system in which the only incentives or motives anyone cares about are marks, credits, and certificates. We're not entirely responsible for that -- government policies which have tilted financial and social responsibility for education increasingly toward the students and their families have helped a lot -- but the crucial factor has been our insistence, as a profession, that the only motivation we could ever count on is what is built into the certification process. When students say -- as they regularly do -- "why should I do this if it's not marked?" or "why should I do this well if it's not graded?" or even "I understand that I should do this, but you're not marking it, and my other professors are marking what I do for them," they're saying exactly what educational institutions have been highly successful at teaching them to say.

They're learning exactly the same thing, with a different spin, when we tell them that plagiarism is a moral issue. We're saying that the only reason you might choose not to do it is a moral one. But think about it: if you wanted to build a deck and were taking a class to learn how to do it, your decision not to cheat would not be based on moral considerations.

3. The model of knowledge held by almost all students, and by many faculty -- the tacit assumption that knowledge is stored information and that skills are isolated, asocial faculties -- is challenged by this, and that's a good thing. When we judge an essay by what it contains and how logically it's organized (and how grammatically it's presented) we miss the most important fact about written texts, which is that they are rhetorical moves in scholarly and social enterprises. In recent years there have been periodic assaults on what Paolo Freire (1974) called "the banking model" of education (and what, more recently, Tom Marino [2002], writing on the POD email list, referred to as "educational bulimics"). Partisans of active learning, of problem- and projectbased learning, of cooperative learning, and of many other "radical" educational initiatives, all contend that information and ideas are not inert masses to be shifted and copied in much the way two computers exchange packages of information, but rather need to be continuously reformatted, reconstituted, restructured, reshaped and reinvented and exchanged in new forms -- not only as learning processes but as the social basis of the intellectual enterprise. A model of the educational enterprise which presumes that knowledge comes in packages (one reinforced by marking systems which say you can get "73%" of Renaissance literature or introductory organic chemistry) invites learners to think of what they're doing as importing prepackaged nuggets of information into their texts and their minds.

Similarly, a model which assumes that a skill like "writing the academic essay" is an ability which can be demonstrated on demand, quite apart from any authentic rhetorical situation, actual question, or expectation of effect (or definition of what the "academic essay" actually is), virtually prohibits students from recognizing that all writing is shaped by rhetorical context and situation, and thus renders them tonedeaf to the shifts in register and diction which make so much plagiarized undergraduate text instantly recognizable. The best documentation of the strangely arhetorical situation student writing lives in that I know of is in the work done as part of the extensive study of school-based and workplace writing at McGill and Carleton Universities (Dias, Freedman, Medway & Paré, 1999; Dias & Paré, 2000).

4. But there's a reason to welcome this challenge that's far more important than any of these -- more important, even, than the way the revolutionary volatility of text mediated by photocopying and electronic files have assaulted traditional assumptions of intellectual property and copyright by distributing the power to copy beyond those who have the right to copy. It's this: by facing this challenge we will be forced to help our students learn what I believe to be the most important thing they can learn at university: just how the intellectual enterprise of scholarship and research really works. Traditionally, when we explain to students why plagiarism is bad and what their motives should be for properly citing and crediting their sources, we present them in terms of a model of how texts work in the process of sharing ideas and information which is profoundly different from how they actually work outside of classroombased writing, and profoundly destructive to their understanding of the assumptions and methods of scholarship.

When you look at the usual set of examples of plagiarism as it occurs in student papers, for example, what you see is almost invariably drawn from kinds of writing obviously and radically identifiable as classroom texts. And how classroom texts relate to or use the ideas and texts of others is typically very different from how they're used in science, scholarship, or in other publications. There are many such explanatory examples in print and on the Web that offer explanations of how to do an acceptable and properly credited paraphrase, Northwestern University's "The Writing Place" site, for example:

(Key words and phrases in the original are in boldface. The changes in wording and sentence structure in the paraphrase are underlined.)


But Frida's outlook was vastly different from that of the Surrealists. Her art was not the product of a disillusioned European culture searching for an escape from the limits of logic by plumbing the subconscious. Instead, her fantasy was a product of her temperament, life, and place; it was a way of coming to terms with reality, not of passing beyond reality into another realm.
Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (258)


As Herrera explains, Frida's surrealistic vision was unlike that of the European Surrealists. While their art grew out of their disenchantment with society and their desire to explore the subconscious mind as a refuge from rational thinking, Frida's vision was an outgrowth of her own personality and life experiences in Mexico . She used her surrealistic images to understand better her actual life, not to create a dreamworld (258).

What is clearest about this is that the writer of the second paragraph has no motive for rephrasing the passage other than to put it into different words. Had she really needed the entire passage as part of an argument or explanation she was offering, she would have been far better advised to quote it directly. The paraphrase neither clarifies nor renders newly pointed; it's merely designed to demonstrate to a skeptical reader that the writer actually understands the phrases she is using in her text. Without more context than the Northwestern site gives us, it's difficult to know exactly how the paragraph functions in a larger rhetorical purpose (if it does).

But published scholarly literature is full of examples of writers using the texts, words and ideas of others to serve their own immediate purposes. Here's an example of the way two researchers opened their discussion of the context of their work in 1984:

To say that listeners attempt to construct points is not, however, to make clear just what sort of thing a 'point' actually is. Despite recent interest in the pragmatics of oral stories (Polanyi 1979, 1982; Robinson 1981), conversations (Schank et al. 1982), and narrative discourse generally (Prince 1983), definitions of point are hard to come by. Those that do exist are usually couched in negative terms: apparently it is easier to indicate what a point is not than to be clear about what it is. Perhaps the most memorable (negative) definition of point was that of Labov (1972: 366), who observed that a narrative without one is met with the "withering" rejoinder, "So what?" (Vipond & Hunt, 1984)

It is clear here that the motives of the writers do not include prevention of charges of plagiarism; moreover, it's equally clear that they are not -- as they would be enjoined to do by the Northwestern Web site -- attempting to "cite every piece of information that is not a) the result of your own research, or b) common knowledge." What they are doing is more complex. The bouquet of citations offered in this paragraph is informing the reader that the writers know, and are comfortable with, the literature their article is addressing; they are moving to place their argument in an already existing written conversation about the pragmatics of stories; they are advertising to the readers of their article, likely to be interested in psychology or literature, that there is an area of inquiry -- the sociology of discourse -- that is relevant to studies in the psychology of literature; and they are establishing a tone of comfortable authority in that conversation by the acknowledgement of Labov's contribution and by using his language --"withering" is picked out of Labov's article because it is often cited as conveying the power of pointlessness to humiliate (I believe I speak with some authority for the authors' motives, since I was one of them).

Scholars -- writers generally -- use citations for many things: they establish their own bona fides and currency, they advertise their alliances, they bring work to the attention of their reader, they assert ties of collegiality, they exemplify contending positions or define nuances of difference among competing theories or ideas. They do not use them to defend themselves against potential allegations of plagiarism.

The clearest difference between the way undergraduate students cite and quote and the way scholars do it in public is this: typically, the scholars are achieving something positive; the students are avoiding something negative.

The conclusion we're driven to, then, is this: offering lessons and courses and workshops on "avoiding plagiarism" -- indeed, posing plagiarism as a problem at all -- begins at the wrong end of the stick. It might usefully be analogized to looking for a good way to teach the infield fly rule to people who have no clear idea what baseball is.


"Avoiding Plagiarism." The Writing Place, Northwestern University.
<> retrieved November 2001; archived at <>

Dias, Patrick, Aviva Freedman, Peter Medway, and Anthony Paré, eds. Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts [The Rhetoric, Society and Knowledge Series]. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.

Dias, Patrick, and Anthony Paré, eds. Transitions: Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2000.

Freire, Paolo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury, 1974. (Translated from the original Portuguese (1968) by Myra Bergman Ramos).

Marino, Tom. "Re: How many minutes per class day does the typical student study?" Professional & Organizational Development Network in Higher Education <>, 28 May 2002.
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Rocklin, Tom. "Downloadable Term Papers: What's a Prof. to Do?"
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Vipond, Douglas, and Russell A. Hunt. "Point- Driven Understanding: Pragmatic and Cognitive Dimensions of Literary Reading." Poetics 13 (June 1984), 261-277.