Sopoforic Agents in Childhood

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On citations and plagiarism

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 1, 2008

A class today brought to my attention the fact that most college students don’t appear to have a very clear idea of what plagiarism is, or why citations are needed in scholarly work. This is unsurprising, given that studies show that high school English teachers, who are meant to be instructing them on just this topic, seem to have a fairly shaky idea of what constitutes plagiarism, too.

First, it is my observation that students seem to equate plagiarism with copyright violation. While it’s true that some cases of plagiarism involve copyright violation, the relationship isn’t so simple.

A copyright violation is an act which violates a specific legal code–in particular, USC Title 17 in the United States, though the particular infringing acts are likely to be infringing in most countries due to international treaties. Plagiarism, on the other hand, is a violation of moral principles–a crime against academic integrity. It’s more like trademark law, really, than copyright law. Plagiarism occurs (broadly speaking) when one misrepresents another’s work as one’s own. While this could be done by simply copying parts of others’ work verbatim, even paraphrased work, which would not violate the copyright of the original author, ought to be cited properly–paraphrasing work does not make it your own, after all.

Today I heard students suggest that using a figure (e.g. XYZ Movie grossed USD 50 million in three months) without citation was plagiarism. Not so. Failing to cite a fact like that is sloppy work, but not plagiarism. The key element is that this fact does not involve any sort of creative work or any significant original research to discover. It’s like listing a person’s (well-known) date of birth; nobody would think that you were the one who originally discovered this fact, so by failing to cite it you do not mislead anyone into believing that it is your own work.

This isn’t really a topic I can get terribly worked up about, though. I shall, perhaps, in the next few days, write a post describing my opinion of students’ knowledge of copyright law, which should be more interesting.

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One Response to “On citations and plagiarism”

  1. Scarian said

    I want to blog a post of my own on education and Wikipedia, actually.But I’d find it hard maintaing a balance between positives, negatives and humour.Good post! I liked it a lot. 🙂 ~~~~

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