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Teaching Students About the Evils of Plagiarism

I happened upon an article in the March 2009 edition of Educational Leadership magazine that addressed the issue of plagiarism in schools. Of course, I remember the plagiarism lecture in 6th grade as I prepared my report on Edwin Drake and the Seneca Oil Company. I recalled the way Sister Mary Amadeus, (all 5 feet of her) glowered at us from behind her specs warning us that plagiarizing was an affront to God. It was lying cheating and stealing all rolled up into one whopper of a sin that she’d be able to sniff out the minute the term paper was on her desk.

Looking back, I’m not sure that any of us really understood what proper attribution was or why we were trying to give it. But it is a fact that none of us copied anything word for word. Sr. Amadeus taught us how to summarize an idea and to take note of the path that brought the idea to our heads. Most of us would throw a footnote in here and there just in case we’d strayed from the path and since reports in those days were hand written, there was never the temptation of the ease with which one can now cut, paste , then change a few tenses and adjectives before claiming ownership.

I cannot begin to imagine the trouble teachers have these days as students go online for research. But the cure is not to ban internet sources in research projects as is happening in many places. Nor is it a good idea to only use threats to discourage the behavior. The one thing Sr.A did give us was brilliant summary skills. This, I think, is the first defense against plagiarism because without this ability, the temptation to steal words and ideas grows exponentially. Beyond this, as the article so rightly points out, kids need to be taught about the “property” aspect of intellectual property. They need to learn how to discern the quality of sources i.e. the difference between a Wikipedia entry and a peer-reviewed scholarly article. Lastly, there should not be so much emphasis placed on a structurally perfect bibliography that students miss the opportunity to devour their sources—to really engage with the material so as to potentially come up with original conclusions that truly are all their own.