Framing plagiarism

Linda Adler-Kassner, Chris M. Anson, Rebecca Moore Howard

Research output: Chapter in Book/Entry/PoemChapter

13 Scopus citations


On any given day, it's easy to find media coverage of plagiarism. A search in the Lexis-Nexis Academic database reveals hundreds of stories published in the last six months alone. A Google search with the words plagiarism and college students-which, admittedly, pulls up a range of items about college students and plagiarism, resources to address the issue of plagiarism, and other items related to the keywords-results in a staggering 1,690,000 hits. Plagiarism is hot. Nor is that heat limited to the popular media; colleges, faculty, and students are equally consumed by the notion that plagiarism is widespread and uncontrollable. Writing for the New York Sun, Lauren Mechling worries that originality itself is endangered by rampant plagiarism. And she quotes statistics offered by a university-sponsored consortium: "According to a recent article in The New York Times, Duke University's Center for Academic Integrity says 40% of college students admit to plagiarizing off the Internet, up from 10% in 1999." The BBC News, meanwhile, alludes to an "epidemic" of plagiarism, invoking the metaphor of disease-disease spreading uncontrollably-as a frame for understanding plagiarism. A volatile mix is brewing here: The fear that plagiarism is not only rising but attaining the status of a pandemic; that the core values of our society (such as its reverence for originality) are threatened by this virus; that students are duplicitous cheats or naive innocents; that tech-nology functions as a medium for facilitating plagiarism; that technology can likewise be used to curb plagiarism; and that teachers' function is to thwart or catch plagiarists. As faculty members in composition and rhetoric and as writing program administrators, we share in the concerns about plagiarism that are voiced by colleagues in our programs and institutions, by administrators, and by members of the public. Yet as scholars of student authorship, we have come to realize that this attention to plagiarism represents students and technology in ways that undermine not only good writing instruction, but the values of a liberal education. News media reflect and perpetuate these problematic representations by describing student plagiarists as Web-savvy cheaters or as naive innocents. 1 This binary sensationalizes and simplifies the issue while " naturalizing" its own assumptions, impeding a critical understanding of intertextuality that can be applied in educational settings. Pedagogical possibilities are similarly constrained, deriving from a model of honorable or dishonorable, knowledgeable or ignorant students. As a counteractive, we advocate using the concept of "plagiarism" as a starting point for teaching students to recognize and adapt to the wide variations in the values informing the creation, use, and representation of text in the academy and the larger culture. This approach, we argue, is vital for students' development and for the educational enterprise itself. In 2003 all three of us contributed to a best-practices document about plagiarism that was commissioned and published by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA, "Defining"). That document promotes not only academic ideals of source citation but also academic ideals of writing instruction. Although teachers and administrators can and do draw on elements of that document, representations of plagiarism in news media (especially definitions of the problem and its one-step, technological solution in programs like demonstrate the power of the "plagiarism narrative" and the challenge of moving the conversation beyond a moral dualism, reductionism, and oversimplifi cation. Cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall explain the cultural process whereby definitions associated with "events" (such as plagiarism) are "constructed into a seamless narrative." Because they reflect and perpetuate the worldview of those participating in the narrative, these definitions become naturalized so that it is impossible to raise new questions or consider alternatives (Hall 4). This narrative is encompassed by what cognitive theorists, most notably George Lakoff, call "frames"-"unconscious cognitive mod-els" that shape humans' understandings of the metaphors through which we construct our worlds (Lakoff, Moral Politics (1996) 159). Naturalized frames powerfully shape current understandings and future actions. The frames around "plagiarism" shape a narrative about how the roles of students, technologies, and writing instruction are dictated either by deceitful or ignorant students whose (intentional or unintentional) disregard for conventions of academic ownership are undermining the educational system. These actions that are taken (by educators and policymakers, especially) have significant consequences for students and for the broader culture that defines "education" (and particularly "college education") as a virtual requirement for participation in the nation's civic dialogue (e.g., Butler).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationOriginality, Imitation, and Plagiarism
Subtitle of host publicationTeaching Writing in the Digital Age
PublisherUniversity of Michigan Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9780472050345
StatePublished - 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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