Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
An Interest in Plagiarism
By Marianne Evola, Ph.D.

During recent presentations on Responsible Conduct in Research (RCR), I’ve found that the presentation stalls when I reach the issue of plagiarism. At this point, an audience of faculty and staff tend to initiate intense discussion about plagiarism incidents, just or unjust, accidental or intentional. Discussions generally revolve around how to define plagiarism clearly, and “how many consecutive words” define plagiarism. At this point, someone will generally interject that if you are counting words, you are obviously using someone’s ideas, and it is time to cite your sources. Out of concern for students that are involved in these incidents, I have recently been asked to address plagiarism with a few student groups. As such, I thought addressing plagiarism concerns and experiences may be a timely contribution to the Scholarly Messenger.

Initially this interest surprised me because, on the surface, avoiding plagiarism seems to be one of the easier issues of scholarly conduct. Easily put, plagiarism is “theft of words” or “theft of ideas,” definitions readily contributed by undergrads who have attended my seminars on plagiarism. But when I thought about my formal training on plagiarism, I realized that relative to the high value of intellectual property, I received very little formal training on plagiarism. Furthermore, the inclusion of plagiarism in the definition of research misconduct (along with fabrication and falsification of data) by the Office of Research Integrity (http://ori.hhs.gov/) suggests that the problem of plagiarism goes beyond undergraduate studies and is sufficiently frequent in professional publication to warrant federal regulation. Finally, the recent availability of plagiarism detection software such as Turnitin and iThenticate, which efficiently scans archived web content, pools of student papers and/or the professional literature for evidence of plagiarism, demonstrates that there is a demand for tools to protect intellectual property.

Why does someone plagiarize? It is not difficult to create a list of possible reasons. First, plagiarism is easy. The Internet makes masses of text readily accessible for copy/paste utilization. Furthermore, up until recent availability of detection software, detecting plagiarism was difficult if not impossible. These two factors alone likely contribute to the perceived increase in plagiarism. But also, students work to deadlines and face pressure to produce, but also may perceive coursework as “just another paper for a class” with little or no value beyond a grade. They may fail to realize that their education is a means to develop strong academic or professional skills and behaviors that they will utilize throughout their career. Finally students may not have sufficient training on appropriate ways to paraphrase or cite references, and their training may be ambiguous about how to work together on team projects, how to help each other and when/how it is appropriate to share work.

From my memory, I recall that throughout grade school, I was taught that “copying” was cheating. From high school I recall a brief and threatening definition of plagiarism provided by an English teacher. A little more structure was provided by my undergraduate science writing lab course. Any remaining training must have been informal (and probably more valuable), such as working with my mentor as a graduate student. Furthermore, I have no recollection at all of instruction on how some daily academic practices could lead to accidental plagiarism. If your training was better than mine, I commend your high school teachers or undergraduate professors, but from conversations I have had with students, the training I describe seems to be normal.  However, the question remains whether the training is sufficient when you consider the value of intellectual property.

It has been proposed that cultural differences and learning in an environment where English is a second language may contribute to accidental misconduct. I have a friend that was thrilled when I told her about iThenticate software. She is from Iran, and English is her second language. She also has an amazing mind that retains information in extraordinary detail. Since moving to the U.S. to continue her education, she has been concerned that she would accidentally plagiarize while publishing because she often learns information verbatim due to the challenge of learning in a second language. Her strength was knowing the challenge that she faced. In contrast, others may not be aware that their academic training within their culture may translate to plagiarism and scholarly misconduct in our culture. Cultural norms may differ, which could result to confusion and accidental plagiarism. However, it should be noted that this assertion is a matter of considerable debate (Sowden, 2005; Liu 2005).

Even for those of us who know plagiarism is unacceptable and do not face the challenge of learning in a second language, there are still many scenarios that could lead to accidental plagiarism. Here are a couple to consider:
  1. You carefully make a note about that perfect “turn of phrase” that clarifies a concept you have been struggling to grasp. However, you fail to place it in quotation marks or list a citation in your notes. Later you refer to your notes while constructing a manuscript – and fail to cite your sources.
  2. After a day of reading a large and exhausting pile of literature, you are driving home in stop-and-go traffic when you get a brilliant idea, but due to deadline pressure you fail to check and see if the idea was actually yours or the result of slow information consolidation from pondering the mass of information that you just read.
Luckily, there is now plagiarism detection software available for use in teaching and professional publication. The Texas Tech library currently holds a license for Turnitin and iThenticate. The library strongly encourages the use of Turnitin as a teaching tool for classroom instruction on plagiarism. Instructors can set up an account by contacting Kimberly Vardeman, assistant librarian at 742-2238 ext. 297 or kimberly.vardeman@ttu.edu. The account will permit instructors and students to scan papers for evidence of plagiarism. With this information, instructors can provide guidance to students on appropriate citation and paraphrasing. iThenticate is a plagiarism detection tool that you can use to compare a manuscript or grant proposal against the professional literature for evidence of plagiarism. Investigators can scan their work before submission to protect themselves against accidental plagiarism. Furthermore, many journals now use these tools to scan submitted manuscripts for evidence of plagiarism. You can examine the product at http://research.ithenticate.com/.

In conclusion, even the concept of plagiarism can evoke considerable debate and confusion. General recommendations for addressing plagiarism include:
  1. Clearly state your philosophy and policy on plagiarism in your course syllabus and provide instruction to your students. Issues such as scholarly misconduct cannot be addressed too often.
  2. Contact the library for accounts and instruction on the use of plagiarism detection software and utilize them in your courses.
  3. Scan your own work and the work of collaborators before submitting grants or manuscripts – and use any incidence of duplicated text as a teachable moment for yourself and your students.
For questions please contact me at: Marianne.evola@ttu.edu or (806) 834-4166.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.