Should we ban term papers and embrace plagiarism?

In a recent opinion piece appearing in the Washington Post, Jason Johnson argues that in today's cut-and-paste world, the term paper is becoming irrelevant:

Today I plagiarized multiple documents at work. I took the writing of others and presented it to my supervisor as if it were my own. It was an open secret that my entire report, written "by Jason Johnson," had been composed by others and that I had been merely an editor. Instead of a reprimand, I was rewarded with a post-briefing latte.

In the fast-paced world of today, Johnson claims, no one has time to worry about who the real "author" of a document is, and no one cares. It's all about results, and his report delivered. Our educational institutions, by demanding that students do their own work, are preparing them improperly for the modern workplace, where cut-and-paste is the law of the land.

Actually, Johnson's argument is a little more sophisticated than that. It relies on the idea that as students get craftier, plagiarism is more difficult to detect:

One university professor, writing anonymously on his "concernedprofessor" blog, notes that students today create "hyper-plagiarism which becomes harder and harder to catch. While these chimera-esque papers can, most of the time, be easily spotted through the mixing of language styles, clever students can pass these off throughout their academic careers with little worry."

Whenever work is done outside the classroom, students can employ all sorts of devices to cover their tracks. Since plagiarism is so difficult to detect, Johnson argues, then papers composed outside the class shouldn't be used as a way to measure ability. It's just too easy to cheat. After all, he says, "I envision a time when's database contains millions of essays on Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre.' At that point educators may finally understand that no high school student will be able to write another original word on the subject."

But there's a problem with this sort of throw-your-hands-in-the-air futility. When they reach the workplace, today's students will need to be able to produce lengthy narrative reports, not just paragraph-long essay test responses. Yes, in certain settings, cut-and-paste briefings may be acceptable, but in many, many others, they will not. Why else would Viacom be suing YouTube for $1 billion? Yet even Viacom faces the "plagiarism hard to detect" problem -- many of the thousands of items it asked to be removed from YouTube turned out not to be plagiarized.

Perhaps for internal reports, the cut-and-paste variety will be acceptable, but when a company puts its work up for sale, whether that work is a TV show or a consulting report for a single client, its customers expect to see original work. If students are never expected to produce work of their own, then where will tomorrow's employees learn how to do it?

This is not to say that re-using the work of others can't be extremely valuable: indeed, Cognitive Daily wouldn't exist but for the previously-existing work of hundreds of others. But such re-use still needs to add something -- an explanation for a non-expert audience, a new way to demonstrate it, a poll so that readers can see for themselves how an experiment works. Originality isn't just about creating something new, it's often simply taking something old and presenting it in a new way.

That's what we need to be teaching today's students: how to put something of themselves into the work of others, not just slapping their name on a work and trying to pass it off as their own.


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I am a student at GA Tech majoring in physics and I see plagarism accuring more and more frequently. Not only in term papers but in solving homework problems as well. Obviously the proffessor will not assign assignments to students that have never been solved. We look at methods and even the exact same problem to understand the solution. I would consider this a form of plagarism. Another aspect of the topic is music. Many new artists began their career as playing music already available to them and then they developed into the artist they are by placing their spin onto the music piece and eventually developing their own music.
If I did not have the available resources as I do to help with my assignments would I be required to derive Maxwell's Equations from scratch? The point that I am trying to make is that a student developes new ideas and better ideas from already existing ideas. This follows much of the same method for a term paper... A student reads existing papers then developes a single paper relating them all. For not yet fully developed students it may present itself as a problem to write in their own words or express their ideas on paper. But isn't this the sole purpose of school?
To the question that may arrise- what about plagarism in the work field? My answer to this is- Why do you feel it is necesarry to stop learning? One learns from others and then developes their own interpretation of the subject and then possibly developing a whole new idea. With this being said, I strongly believe that "plagarism" is required for a sense of developement.
(All origninally from William Boll)

By William Boll (not verified) on 05 Apr 2007 #permalink

I think there is a philosophical difference that people can have on the nature of knowledge ownership.

In my work, I am paid to contribute content, not to claim ownership of it. I really don't care if others use my work and slap their name on it. I got a fair paycheck, and to think that I'm going to indefinitely ride an income on the basis of a few paragraphs or diagrams seems lazy and self-absorbed.

Many people seek immortality through their words or their work. Sometimes, specific words are important, but I think most time consensus and availability that leads to wider utilization is better.

In the three years I have been teaching, I have moved away from "term papers" or "research papers." I did this because it is simply too demoralizing to find, and then painstakingly document (mostly internet) plagiarism.

It's not all bad though. What it has forced me to do is to create more complex assignments, that require my students to do more critical thinking than a typical "research paper" would. For example, in my Intro Psych classes, I might give them a popular press psychology article and ask them to write about their critical analysis of the methods and results. This assignment may have been repeated by another instructor, but It is less likely students can find another paper on the internet which had the same assignment. Certainly less likely than the assignment "write a research paper on the psychology topic of your choice."

My students know they will receive zero points on their assignments, and possibly fail the course. Still, I occasionally get a paper which is blatantly plagiarized, and easily detectable. Unless this is their first attempt, I expect this has worked for them with other instructors. Why? Perhaps it is because Deans and Department Heads at their institutions have a history of not supporting the faculty in these cases, or parents call and harrangue the instructor or dean for damaging their child's precious self-esteem! Who wants to go through that?

Misspelling - plagiarism

By William Boll (not verified) on 05 Apr 2007 #permalink

There's a difference between working through problems that you may or may not already have the answers for (after all, many textbooks have partial answer keys) and representing other authors' work as your own.

You may argue that, since the term paper will never be published, it doesn't matter. Two big reasons to DO research papers is to a) learn how to put things in your own words competently, and b) learn how to credit others with the ideas you learn from them. Most people require LOTS of practice to get this right.

If you end up working in an academic environment, being able to do this will be absolutely critical to your success. In a non-academic environment, the rewards are more nuanced, but still important. So what if someone takes your ideas and writes them up for the boss? Maybe he gets a promotion and you don't. Or worse, what if your boss takes your work, writes it up as though he did it, and uses that to justify not giving you a raise because, after all, you didn't do anything? I've seen scenarios like this happen several times in a 2-decade engineering career. Being able to document what you've done and distinguish it clearly can save your professional ass, but it doesn't work unless you also clearly document the contributions of others.

The bottom line is to give credit everywhere that it is due, and to respect everyone else's original ideas as theirs. Being able to write an honest research paper is an exercise in learning how to do this without having to think much about it.

I have taught some online teaching-with-technology graduate courses within which the opportunities for plagiarism could have been great. Rather than require papers, however, I have consistently required students, (mostly public school teachers,) to design technology-based projects based upon clearly stated objectives, generate those projects, deliver them to learners, and report the results, preferably contrasted with a control group that received non-technology based instruction. The approach leaves little, if any, room for cheating, because the projects, their intended purposes, and final results also have to be submitted for review by all members of the online classes.

Perhaps, we should abandon term papers and embrace project-based, immersive learning.

By ancientTechie (not verified) on 05 Apr 2007 #permalink

While working in an academic environment I became so overwhelmed with the level of plagiarism and collusion amongst undergraduates that I developed my own plagiarism detection tool called DOC Cop.
DOC Cop is on the web at and is useful in curbing the cut-and-paste approach to the creation of term papers.

Is anyone know...appalled by this?

I'm an undergraduate engineer, so I can't say that I write term papers on a regular basis. But (even though I'm an engineer) I get a dorky thrill out of writing papers that involve crafting careful arguments based on lots of critical analysis of primary sources. I would much rather come up with my own ideas than heavily consult secondary sources while writing papers, let alone flat-out plagiarize. I honestly learn something new with every paper I write. And even though I doubt term-paper-writing is a skill that I'll use in the "real world" directly, I can already see how the ability to read something and, um, actually think about it has benefited me elsewhere.

If you're satisfied with a job that consists solely of compiling the work of others, then why even waste the time to get a college degree? Perhaps I'm a bit of an idealist, but I always thought that higher learning was there for people who were actually motivated to learn. This should certainly be true for top-tier universities, like the one I attend, but I find myself surrounded by people who seem more focused on the destination than the journey when it comes to writing papers (and doing problem sets, for that matter), if you know what I mean. I really feel that people who feel the need to plagiarize (in any subject) while they're in college need to rethink their priorities.


You've GOT IT. With that attitude you'll be able to take other people's ideas and build on them fearlessly, willing to acknowledge the shoulders you stand on while still sharing your own ideas. I expect you to be a sytem architect within half a decade of your graduation, if you've half as much engineering smarts as you have perceptiveness.

However, I must speak in defense of the assimilators, since I was one myself. Some of us who can't develop brilliant new directions to follow are still pretty good at taking the work of other engineers and collecting/assimilating them to come to useful conclusions. As an example, as a system engineer, I once spent a perfectly miserable month organizing and relating (via an Excel spreadsheet) the assumptions of design engineers, QA engineers, managers, system architects, and managers, regarding an emerging technology my employer was pioneering. Alas, I punctured several optimist-balloons, but my effort gave upper management a good handle on what we could really accomplsh.

It was only much later that I was told my analysis had allowed senior management to avoid making fools of themselves at a presentation to investors.

Addition to my previous comment: I did indeed make note of my colleagues' efforts, of which mine -- as assimilator -- was, to my mind, the most trivial. Our managers conveyed appreciation to all of us.

Though, at that time in our company, our managers were, in my experience, an unusually honorable lot.

I'm entirely with musecumulus here - I'm a double science major, and I take a lot of lit courses for the hell of it (I'm typing this comment while taking a break from working on a Kafka term paper wherein we were required to use another author's philosophical constructions as part of the structure - I was so uncomfortable with borrowing that I ended up picking an author whose philosophy I hate so I can use the primary Kafka sources to build a contrasting idea), and even when you're using other people's data or writing, you can still be original and there are still things left to say. Dodging out on critical thinking via theft is cowardice and laziness.

Okay, confession - I'm a little touchy about the topic of plagiarism because a good friend of mine had a high school paper that the state required us to do to graduate stolen from her wholesale by a cousin who wanted "to look at it to see how we're supposed to do citations." Despite the fact that she was clearly the original author (she'd turned in rough-drafts that the teacher still had on file), she had to write a new, massive research paper. And honestly? Though I wanted to kill said cousin for putting her through that, I'm glad my high school was so insanely paranoid about plagiarism (everything we turned in was run through anti-plagiarism programs, even the suspiscion could lead to an auto-fail for a quarter, etc).

Confession the second: I am so glad that my high school was obsessed with plagiarism because I suspect some of my college classmates' schools were... not. My first semester freshman year, a teacher asked us to trade papers with someone else in the class to get them "peer reviewed" before we turned them in. A girl in my labgroup and I agreed to trade. I sent her my paper Monday, and on Tuesday she sent me ... my paper. "Man," thought I, as I read *my paper* "I'm not sure why she decided to remove that sentence/change that word - I'm a little iffy about the edits." Then I happened to glance at the heading - this was not, in fact, her recommendation for my paper. It was the paper she planned to turn in as her own.

Obviously, she didn't think she was plagiarizing (despite the fact that only five words were different between our opening paragraphs, and a few sentences differentiated the body), because she wouldn't have sent it to me otherwise. When I suggested that they were awfully similar, she said she hadn't been sure what to do and used my paper as a "model."

I still blame her high school, as she struck me as an entirely honest person who just had never had the difference between a model and a xerox explained to her. I said the same thing to the honor council when they called us in two months later (and it's a good thing I saved those time-stamped emails...)

But yes, originality is possible, and there are ways to create assignments where it's really hard to plagiarize, as some of the other posters pointed out.

By pattypleb (not verified) on 05 Apr 2007 #permalink

I'm a biotech student and must say, I'm also surprised at how often people plagiarize. We have this teacher who makes us e-mail him assignments, only on a class e-mail, not his own. Some people turn in copy-pasted wikipedia articles. Others (worse even) wait until someone has turned their paper in, then copy it. verbatim. (I know this because I tend to look over other people's responses the day before a test.)
Also happens in my physics course, there's this PDF file, and some people just copy all the answers from it. It's easy to tell who they are, since they're the ones that get 100s on every problem set and 18s on the exams... but the professor (sp?) either lets it slide or doesn't notice.
Which just sucks.

Yeah, in the problem set instance they're only hurting themselves.

But there is a perfectly valid alternative explanation for getting hundreds on problem sets and eighteens on tests - I say this as someone who does. You could utterly suck at timed tests (as I do) or, if the tests aren't timed, fail at working under pressure. I have a little issue with the first (Me this weds: fi-fifty minutes? For how many pages?! Oh snap I forgot my graphing calc and there's a maximization problem, etc, etc, insert single digit final score here). So there's no need to assume malevolence on the part of your fellow students... when stupidity is equally plausible. ^^;

By pattypleb (not verified) on 05 Apr 2007 #permalink

I've always thought that the reason we reference things is so that people are able to source the original data and participate in the 'academic conversation.' I've never worried too much about intellectual property as it is true that most ideas are not 'original.' However I do think there is a need to reference in order that we are able to trace the 'root' of an idea (in case it is misleading, or in case we have missed something).

By Sally Langer (not verified) on 05 Apr 2007 #permalink

I think it is a common misconception that a topic such as Jane Eyre could ever be exhausted by a million entry database of student articles. It is the rapid change of modern society itself that prevents this from happening. Consider the (probably not novel) idea of contrasting the modes of communication in Jane Eyre with the communication modes of email, SMS or blogging comments; clearly these approaches cannot even be done before the arrival of these technologies. Yet the consumer electronics markets are continuously adding to these ways of communicating.

As Arthur C Danto pointed out in Analytical Philosophy of History in the 60s, the description of a past event is never closed, because its interpretation is dependent on other events, some of which are still in the future.

An irony award surely must go to this incident from 2002 in which a number of engineering students from Carleton University were found to have plagiarized material from the internet for an essay assignment in a Professional Ethics course!

As a lawyer, it doesn't matter if I say a damn thing that's original. I quote, I cite, I paraphrase, I cite. This is fine and well in law. If it works it works and you can't copyright judicial opinions. But I'm also working on a B.S. and do not like re-inventing the wheel. So I had to re-learn the art of near-plagiarism... the art of sufficiently paraphrasing an authority so that the professor will decide you "understand" the material he knows you are, in fact, blatantly stealing.

1. In some instances (technical material, for example), there may be only so many ways you can say something; Bob Newhart had a funny episode on one of his shows dealing with this matter ("There's the hole. Sees these screws? Put 'em in."). In music, entire performances have been plagiarized (Joyce Hatto).

2. How much of a role does cryptomnesia play, and how do we determine that? One can cite examples in music (e.g., "Make "Em Laugh"/"Be a Clown"), and I have even come across a short story by William F. Nolan about a man unable to leave a hellish party that seems to be a direct steal from an earlier story by Stanley Ellin.

3. In this age where self-esteem is all-important, music sampling is rife, and movie-makers like Tarantino cobble together movies from numerous other films, younger people may be more likely to view plagiarism as something innocuous.

By Dave Group (not verified) on 09 Apr 2007 #permalink

Ancient authors used to plagiarize also (that is, they would just recompile older material and issue it under their own name or someone older with "real authority"). The ancients knew it was all plagiarized, so it wasn't dishonest.

But do you know what historians have to do now? Pick apart the document and determine which paragraph really came from which source. A few more citations would make their lives so much easier.

Similarly. we all see Powerpoint factoids with no references. People trade them so much, they actually can't figure out who originally said it and why. A citation would be very valuble here too.

It's not just about "stealing" ideas. It's about being able to reconstruct the original lines of thought...and citations are an important tool for that, especially in the academic arena.

If a student isn't ready for "original research", I've allowed them to do a literature review with their own analysis. They learn a lot about the academic process that way too.

By Elizabeth Pyatt (not verified) on 11 Apr 2007 #permalink