Problems with Plagiarism - Digital Literacy Dover

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Problems with Plagiarism

DO NOT COPY!? The images (below) are typical of the negative assumptions about the impact of digital technologies on research, and assumptions about how many educators assume their students will use them. These negative assumptions litter the internet with their tones of moral crisis (just Google image search 'plagiarism'). The problem is this advice is just impractical, a generation raised to assume the mutability of the screen as 'normal' is not one that is likely to take this advice to heart, instead they will rely on copy paste, but assume that this means that they are now cheating. I don't believe this has to be the case, I believe we can use copy and paste as a powerful part of the process of researching. I believe we should adopt a more constructive approach to copying, a constructive plagiarism.

Obviously I'm not advocating plagiarism, but we need to keep our eyes on the actual purpose of the research, the learning, not on outdated (copy+paste=plagiarism) methodologies and principles which are counter-productive, and counterintuitive. I say ‘21st Century’ because if ever there was a mode of operation that needed dragging into this century it is the models and modes of academic writing.

20th Century responses to 21st Century Possibilities
When we ask students to research a topic, the underlying assumption behind traditional guidance around plagiarism is that our students are going to construct a completely original piece of writing, or create a piece of work which does not contain any content that could be found in any other format that has ever been written or published since the dawn of time. Right from the outset this should strike any reasonable minded person as an absolutely ludicrous proposition, as the oft quoted Newton said himself "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.", the point being, as is also reiterated in the good book by Solomon Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the sun". Of course, the assumption in this context is that the primary mode of communication is text (because it generally is. Why? That’s another conversation), but you need look no further than the outstanding video series on Vimeo "Everything is a Remix" to see a powerful rationale for the kind of practices that I call 'constructive plagiarism'.

An Alternative Approach... 

We need to embrace the ways digital technologies can and should transform how our students research, particularly exploring the mutability of digital technologies. The negative assumptions behind the castigation of students who copy+paste is that protestors assume that that is where the process ends, rather than where the process begins.

The fact is that even our most supposedly original ideas and thoughts are a remixing of ideas, experiences, and content that we have encountered throughout our lifetimes and that we have either consciously or unconsciously internalised, remixed, reinterpreted and finally re-presented as our own original work. As David Woo says, “no true knowledge outside people: people construct individual meaning and try to agree on meaning in talking with each other”. So to set students the task of producing a wholly original piece of work is really an exercise in futility, at worst you are asking them to do the impossible, at best you're asking them to take other people's ideas, internalise them and re-present them as if they were their own, which is really nothing short of a form of plagiarism, albeit one where they make some effort to at least vaguely cite the original content.

Of course this is something we are likely to penalise them for doing, as the clearer they make the sources of their ideas, the more likely it is that their teacher will be able to discover their extent of their plagiarism. Now there is great deal more to this last point that I can't really get into here, suffice it to say that we need to build an intrinsic sense of trust, the alternative is a nightmarish ‘damned if you do, damned if you don't’ scenario where everyone loses. Students who are feel incriminated by exploiting the affordances of digital tools, such as their use of copy/paste, who then abandon any attempt at appropriate practice and start faking their citations, or skipping them completely for fear that if they leave a trail of evidence they are just increasing the likelihood that they will be ‘caught’.

Another common issue is students end up unsupported with an ‘all or nothing’ stance, ie you MUST write it all in isolation, not an empty page, if you copy and paste anything, that’s it, you’re effectively categorised as a cheat. So we end up with patchwork plagiarism of the worst kind, not because the students have corrupt intentions or motivations, but because no one is teaching them how to use copy/paste constructively.

Guess what goes in the middle... ? Image: Sean Savage.

What do we define plagiarism?
the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own.
synonyms: copying, infringement of copyright, piracy, theft, stealing.

So, let me be clear, I am not advocating plagiarism, I am advocating a more.. progressive/practical stance towards it. There is a practical compromise somewhere between the extremes of ripping off the work of others, and riffing off the work of others.

riff ‎
A variation on something.

Any variation or improvisation, as on an idea.

To improvise in the performance or practice of an art, especially by expanding on or making novel use of traditional themes. (my emphasis)

(constructive) pla·gia·rism
the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and remix/reword/rewriting them until they become one's own.

The method stems from the assumption that when completing a piece of work, there is a limit to the extent to which you can directly quote the works of others (who of course themselves have actually remixed and re-presented other work that they have encountered in their lifetimes). It is generally advisable to avoid being overly reliant upon direct quotes within the body of your work. When I first began academic writing many years ago, I made the (naive) assumption that I could literally use as many direct quotes as I needed, assuming that those would not be counted in the word count, only my reflections upon those direct quotes, oh how wrong I was! My logic, both then and now, is that rather than attempt to try and pretend I can contribute a completely authentic and original contribution to this body of work, I'd be better off to thoroughly appraise myself of current thinking around the idea and then reflect and write about my responses to the key ideas represented in the literature.

And so it was that I was introduced to the "game" of direct quotation versus paraphrasing. This enotes discussion below highlights the heart of the confusion surrounding this issue:
"In general, you will need to use direct quotes and paraphrases in a master's thesis. I would say that you will generally need to paraphrase more than you quote. What I would do is to paraphrase most of what I was trying to say. Then I would use direct quotes to emphasize the most important points that I was getting from a particular source. You want to be careful about quoting too much, lest it look like you do not understand what is being said and cannot put it in your own words."

"Paraphrasing shows how you synthesize, understand, and intend to use the material. It also shows your adviser and review committee that you can take an idea from someone or some source and reword it so that you are presenting this same idea in another way."
And that, in a nutshell is at the heart of constructive plagiarism, to paraphrase the above quote about paraphrasing, (is this a meta-paraphrase?) you take an idea from someone or some source and reword it so that you are presenting this same idea in another way.

Contrast that then, with this contradictory advice from the same discussion,
"it is probably better to overcite references than over paraphrase them. Under many circumstances, the review process of literature as well as the peer edit/ advisor editing process of writing a master's thesis also addresses the appropriate moments to paraphrase or to cite directly."

Or this, which effectively says do both...
"knowing that quotations are most important, knowing that structural and word requirements impose some limitations, knowing that other evidence that you have collected to prove your idea is also important, the answer to your question is that while paraphrasing is vital to demonstrating your understanding of a broad range of knowledge and to reviewing critical opinion and opposing arguments, you must have high quality and carefully selected quotations to substantiate the things you assert and claim. This may sound like a double-sided answer, but that is precisely what you need, a double-sided approach: You must include that which is most important (analysis and quotes) within the framework of that which is required.

So we find ourselves in a somewhat confusing situation whereby we teach our students that the body of their research cannot be just their own opinion, and has to clearly show that every idea that they wrestle with, actually already has a precedent in some other body of work, and yet at the same time they're not allowed to be overly reliant upon quoting these works, instead they have to play the game where once they have used up the amount of text they can dedicate to direct quotes, they then have to work around it by paraphrasing direct quotes to integrate them into their assignment. Or to put it another way, to make those authors words sound like theirs. That is how we end up in the position I call 'constructive plagiarism'. Namely the skill of taking a wide range of direct quotations from a wide range of sources and authors and then remixing and reworking those into a new seamlessly integrated piece of prose that clearly summarises and represents the ideas that were articulated in the original texts clearly, but has clearly been processed through their own worldview and experiences to represent their own remix of the many sources from which they were influenced.

This is where we get into the complexity of citation, when making direct quotes they should ideally be referenced in a bibliography, when you have paraphrased content that was originally a direct quote, instead this becomes a reference. In my experience very few academics require you to distinguish between these two, in which case we move closer to the ambiguity that is represented by constructive plagiarism...

I think the folks over at scribbr sum up this quandary well with the following:


Quoting is when you literally copy a part of a text. It is wise to limit the use of quotes, as they do not improve the readability of your thesis.

Plus, if you use many quotes, you will seem lazy. Next to that, when you use a quote it can give the impression that you did not understand the source or that you did not read the entire text. It is therefore wise to use a quote only when necessary.

For example, you can use one when you want to provide a definition of a certain concept. You can also consider using one when the author has written a sentence so beautifully or powerfully that a paraphrase would diminish the quality of the text.


Always try to keep a quote as short as possible, preferably no longer than a few sentences. You can also shorten a quote; for example, you might replace a redundant or irrelevant part of a quote with ellipses (…).

However, make sure not to take a quote out of its context by, for instance, citing only one sentence that supports your research in a study that otherwise contradicts your research.


When you paraphrase something, you describe a (part of a) study in your own words. Doing so, you can fit an existing theory into your own research very easily.

However, even though the paraphrase is in your own words, the idea is still someone else’s. Therefore, you always have to cite your source when you paraphrase.

It is also important to always introduce the paraphrase. You can do this as follows: “Janssen (2008) states in his research that …”

The standout sentence to me in that quotation is "However, even though the paraphrase is in your own words, the idea is still someone else’s. Therefore, you always have to cite your source when you paraphrase." (ibid) This gets to the very heart of this game whereby they as the author are attempting to convey the idea that these ideas of theirs, are not comprised solely of their own ideas, but are an amalgamation of (hopefully many) other authors ideas over time and a range of contexts that have been repurposed to better fit their particular situation. Allow me to quote another colleague here:

“Appealing to authority makes the message digestible with less heartburn if done well. Here I picture a street fight. A direct quote is pushing Einstein out in front of you to intimidate the foes. Paraphrasing is walking out to meet the foes head-on with Einstein, Hawking, and all the other giants that went into forming the idea trailing behind making your knuckle cracking all the more convincing.” Kurt Wittig

Back over to the good folks at scribbr, who have this further helpful advice to give:

Paraphrase or summarise?

The term “paraphrase” is generally used when someone describes someone else’s [words] research in their own words. However, this is not entirely correct. A paraphrase is a description of a certain quote from someone else, put in your own words. A paraphrase is therefore approximately of the same length as the source text’s quote.

When you completely or partially describe the outcome of a more substantial part of the research, it is called a summary.

There is a distinct difference between paraphrasing and summarizing. However, in general (as is also the case in many universities), both are called paraphrasing.

General tips

  • Only quote or paraphrase the authors of papers that are authoritative in their field of research. 
  • It is important that the quote or paraphrase has added value for your research. The quote or paraphrase should also fit in with the rest of the text. The text preceding or following the quote or paraphrase should clarify what you want to imply.
  • A quote or paraphrase is not complete without a proper in-text citation and entry in your reference list, formatted correctly in the appropriate referencing style.

As a case in point, if this was an academic assignment that I was submitting for formal credit, the above quotations from Scribbr would be too excessive to use as a direct quotation, so instead I would have to play the game of choosing one or two sentences and either omitting or paraphrasing the rest, and that’s just one point! Fortunately for me, I don't have to play that game here, and can just let them be, I'm excused from playing the game, and freed to focus on my learning, and wrestling with words that capture my thoughts. And so it is that the process of constructive plagiarism commences. If they have read widely (and they should) they will inevitability find themselves in a situation where they have far more content that they wish to use than they can possibly directly quote, so instead, they begin the process of paraphrasing huge amounts of content that contain essential ideas and themes, as the only other method for doing justice to these ideas they have collected would be to directly quote them, which they cannot do for the reasons outlined above.

Constructive copying then, is the process of remixing and reworking swathes of direct quotes from a wide range of source material while being careful to ensure that they cite the original authors clearly, but relying on paraphrasing and summarising enough to keep direct quotes to a minimum. When students exceed the amount of text they can realistically use as a direct quotation, they switch to paraphrasing/rewriting mode. In this mode they still credit the author but they effectively re-write the direct quotation into a different tense or apply it to a familiar context so that the voice sounds more like theirs then the original author's. Unfortunately, this is more difficult than it sounds, they have to be fairly adept at writing to be able to take the voices and insights of multiple authors and rewrite them so that they sound consistently like they own. In order to be able to do this they need to understand the content thoroughly, they need to be very well read, and they need to have a thorough understanding of the context within which they are writing, which takes me to the point of this entire process, the learning.

What’s the point?

Whenever I hear teachers wringing their hands, expressing consternation over the likelihood of their students constructing written assignments through processes that seem to border on plagiarism, I rarely hear any reference to the actual point of the activity, which is surely to motivate students to research widely, to internalise what they learn, and to represent it simply and clearly in a form that allows the teacher to accurately appraise the extent to which the student has understood the exercise. If the goal really is to motivate students to learn, then we should be less concerned about the minutiae of rules around plagiarism, and be more concerned about motivating students to read widely, research thoroughly, and to present their findings and sources clearly. I believe that a student who does this, is a student who has achieved the goal that the teacher had in mind, namely to learn about the area in question, through a thorough engagement with the material, and by presenting this understanding in a format that is concise and clear.

The Process of Constructive Copying

Cut, copy, paste, swap, then repeat. [peterellisjones]

For the 'how', rather than the 'why' see my other post here.

Practical Paraphrasing

It's rare in my experience to encounter any resources that actually model how to paraphrase properly, but one such resource can be found by the folks over at, along with the following handy infographic:

Paraphrase vs Plagiarism

 Did I Plagiarise?

It can be confusing, luckily the visual communication guy has made a handy infographic so you can check: