Complexities of Plagiarism

An overview of complexities connected to plagiarism and incorporating sources



“. . . this policy does not resolve all ambiguities involved with plagiarism. Instead, it acknowledges the complexities of the issue and offers guidelines for negotiating what will continue to be contested terrain. The policy acknowledges the terms of that contest and urges all participants – writers and readers – to engage it as openly as possible” (Howard, 1995, p. 798)


What follows is an overview of some of the complexities connected to plagiarism. The ELI hopes to add to administrators’, instructors’ and students’ awareness of these intricacies. Those who are interested in digging deeper into any of these issues are encouraged to check the “References, Literature & Links” section.

  • Ambiguity of the word “plagiarism”. The word “plagiarism” is used a blanket term covering a wide array of “products”. Besides the forms plagiarism can take in student writing, there are also many other products that involve direct copying from other texts or reusing text (either in part or as a whole), and many of these are considered acceptable standard practice. A few examples include:
    • Businesses have template letters or email messages they send out for commonly occurring purposes; this is considered efficient and effective practice, because they don’t have to completely recreate often-used documents.
    • Contracts and other legal documents involve very specific language, and their acceptance in legal situations often relies on copying the exact wording.
    • Professors copy sections of one syllabus to use in another, or share parts of syllabi amongst themselves.
    • The writing of multiple grant proposals often involves use of “boilerplate” paragraphs (or even whole sections).
  • Differences between physical property and intellectual property. Bloch (2012) points out that:

“. . . it is the differences between intellectual and physical property that are at the root of the confusion over plagiarism. . . . While the amount of physical property is by nature limited and the loss of a piece of physical property can require its replacement or compensation, the availability of intellectual property is unlimited; that is, its loss may cause a loss of potential income or control, but the property itself remains with its ‘owner’, often with no indication that it had ever been borrowed or used without seeking permission” (p. 24).

These issues are made even more complex by technology (see below) and issues surrounding employment (for example, if a faculty member uses university equipment and support from university students and colleagues to develop an idea, is that idea solely the intellectual property of the professor? Is it partly the property of the university? How about the students or colleagues who provided assistance?).

  • Intentionality. Aren’t many of the forms of plagiarism unintentional? Is plagiarism academically dishonest only if it has been done intentionally? Even then, was the student’s intention to be academically dishonest, to cheat the system, or was it a survival mechanism they used because of a desperate situation? How can intentionality be proven?
  • Cultural views and influences. Different cultures may have very different views of intellectual property and authorship, including how to incorporate the ideas of others (which may involve citation, or may intentionally reject citation). Students who come to UH Manoa carry with them the influence of their home culture, which is often far more complex than can easily be seen. (The ELI acknowledges the validity of different cultural academic views about what is considered “good academic practice”. Further, we recognize that, while citation practices common in Western academic institutions are the norm here at UH Manoa, they are not “superior” to the practices in other cultures; nor do we consider different viewpoints held by other cultures as a deficit or a sign that those cultures are “behind the times”.)
  • Evolution of culture in modern America (and elsewhere). Generations that now enter college have, for the most part, grown up with technology and the internet. The notions of “sharing” and “incorporating” are now a major part of this culture. In non-academic settings, students share links, share ideas, use the same in-group phrases, remix sound- or video-bytes to create new media artifacts, create new fiction by tapping into their favorite authors’ work via fan fiction, and more (see, for example, Blum, 2009 and Bloch, 2012).
  • Influences of technology. It’s easy to oversimplify this by saying, “The internet makes it easy to plagiarize”, but the reality is far more complex. Technology has changed concepts of “authorship” and “intellectual property”, thanks to the ease and popularity of remixes, Wikis, and sharing “new” creations on social networks or YouTube. Further complicating this is that the internet is available worldwide, but each country sets its own laws and policies regarding intellectual property and authorized use of these tools. (See Bloch, 2012 for a useful synopsis of this issue.)
  • Academic discourse, paraphrasing, imitation, and plagiarism. Students are, by definition, learners. One of the things they are learning is academic discourse. If they are expected to be able to use academic discourse like an expert, they are likely to feel more like imposters than apprentices. When they are told, “Write this in your own words, doesn’t it really mean, “Write this in our words, but in a way that is original”? Each student is at a different stage in their ability to write academically, and many students feel that academic discourse is not their “own words” (and if they were to write a paper in “their own words”, it may be returned to them for resubmission because it’s too conversational or colloquial). For second-language students, English itself may still feel “foreign” (which, of course, it is), and paraphrasing is far more difficult due to a lack of synonyms, lack of understanding of nuances of synonyms, and less control over complex grammatical structures.
  • Complexities of citation. Citing and referencing sources is not a simple task (as can be easily understood by looking at the sections on “citation” and “references” in any style guide). Even what is considered “common knowledge” may be culturally specific, field-specific, or individual-specific.
  • Different fields, different genres. In the field of education, a common assignment is a lesson plan. In nursing, a common assignment is a report for a patient’s chart. In business, it may be a case study. Even within the same field, what is considered as typically acceptable in one genre (such as an in-class presentation) may be completely unacceptable in another (such as a final paper or a published article). This is exacerbated for undergraduate students, who are required to take classes in a variety of fields, and most likely are not aware of potential differences in assignments and genres, style guides, and expectations.

Awareness of these complexities helps us to understand the immensity of the task of learning academic discourse(s), again highlighting the importance of seeing students as apprentices, as Angelil-Carter (2000) suggests.


Next: A New Paradigm Related to Plagiarism: Focus on Learning