Everybody’s Talking About Plagiarism. What Is It, Exactly?

Plagiarism has long been one of the cardinal sins of academe. But on Tuesday it was on the lips of people nationwide, thanks to a seemingly unlikely source: the Republican National Convention.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, gave a speech that appeared to plagiarize parts of the speech Michelle Obama delivered when her husband was first nominated, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, in Denver.

Academics, some of whom deal with plagiarism on a regular basis, were quick to condemn Ms. Trump’s remarks on social media as a clear example of plagiarism. But exactly what constitutes plagiarism might be less clear to a general audience.

Why do people plagiarize, and what are the consequences? Let’s evaluate:

What’s plagiarism? And why do people do it?

Scholars tend to disagree on what plagiarism is and how to distinguish it from paraphrasing. Many scholars say plagiarism is defined as five or more words used directly from another source without attribution.

Sometimes plagiarism is an obvious copy-and-paste job, while other times it’s more subtle. Some papers are littered with other sources’ language, but using only a few words at a time, as James M. Lang, an English professor at Assumption College, wrote for The Chronicle last year. Then there’s self-plagiarism, which can also land scholars and writers in hot water.

Though there’s not one reason students plagiarize, many times they copy other people’s work when they feel overwhelmed. And international students, particularly those from China, can be more prone to plagiarism because they come from a culture where individualism is less enshrined.

What happens when someone is caught plagiarizing?

If it’s a student, swift consequences can follow. More on that in the next section.

It it’s a professor or administrator, the consequences can vary — from demotion to firing to other discipline.

And politicians are not immune. Since 2011 a handful of German and other European politicians have been accused of plagiarizing their academic work or doctoral theses. In those cases, either the politicians’ credentials were revoked or they chose to step down from their posts.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign tried to label Barack Obama a plagiarist for using rhetoric similar to that of a friend and supporter, Deval Patrick, a former governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Obama maintained that he had asked permission to borrow the lines, and the label didn’t stick.

In 1987, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a U.S. senator from Delaware, dropped out of the 1988 presidential race after rumors circulated that he had copied a speech by the leaders of Britain’s Labour Party.

When people are confronted with indisputable evidence of plagiarism, their reactions vary, from skirting responsibility to shifting the blame to a research assistant.

What are colleges and universities doing to combat plagiarism?

In an attempt to better police students who plagiarize, some colleges and universities use the software Turnitin. The software works to detect plagiarism and is mainly used for undergraduate assignments, but that model may be changing. At the University of Central Florida, graduate students are also required to use the software for their dissertations.

Some professors are pushing back on that practice, saying it builds a sense of distrust from the institution. Concerns about the software also derive from students’ unease about giving their work to a company that may profit from it.

When students are caught plagiarizing, consequences vary. Some academics feel pressure from their institutions to follow protocol for all students who are caught cheating, while others feel a sense of duty in academe to catch the students before they move further in their careers.

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