Current Students

Plagiarism Memo   





DATE: JULY 5, 1994

With the proliferation of high-technology in the law school, ranging from downloading of LEXIS/WESTLAW materials to student access to vast resources on the Internet, there have been increasing questions concerning plagiarism. These questions have arisen both because the temptations to plagiarize have expanded with the heightened access to materials and because the increased use of computers has made unintentional copying more likely.

In this setting, it seems appropriate for the law school to provide some guidance on this topic for all students. To begin with, it is important to distinguish plagiarism from inappropriate copying. Copying, per se, is not plagiarism. To plagiarize, the copier must not only copy another's work but also attempt to pass off the copied work as his or her own. Laurie Stearns, Comment, Copy Wrong: Plagiarism, Process, Property, and the Law, 80 Calif. L. Rev. 513, 516-17 (1992), writes:

        Plagiarism means intentionally taking the literary property of another without attribution and passing it off as one's own,10 having failed to add anything of value to the copied material and having reaped from its use an unearned benefit.11

If there is proper attribution of the original, there can be no plagiarism. There is also no plagiarism when a work product does not purport to be original. So, for example, when legal forms are adapted, it is understood that the final product may not be entirely original, and there is no need to attribute. Law firms may also borrow without attribution from earlier memoranda or briefs with plagiarizing, because the resultant product does not purport to be necessarily original. In academic pursuits, however, most work is expected to be original, and so unattributed copying is prohibited. Even when there is attribution and no plagiarism, a professor may view a paper as containing too little original work to merit a passing grade Unauthorized copying may also raise copyright questions. These problems may be real, but they are not plagiarism.

Plagiarism in higher education is taken very seriously. "Plagiarism is an academic capital offense, punishable by academic death for student or faculty."12, Stearns writes, and goes on:

        People despise plagiarism not because it results in inferior works -- by drawing from others plagiarists may produce better works than they could by themselves -- but because it is a form of cheating that allows the plagiarist an unearned benefit. This benefit could be either tangible, as when the work is of commercial value or fulfills a requirement for an academic degree or tenure, or intangible, as when it adds to the plagiarist's personal or professional reputation. . . .

Id. at 518-19.

The key to avoiding plagiarism, therefore, is proper attribution, with the emphasis on "proper". Obvious examples of plagiarism are wholesale copying of paragraphs, and even pages, of a source without any attribution. But it would equally be plagiarism to copy such material, even though citing the original source, without indicating that the writer is quoting that source. Ms. Sterns quotes the Modern Language Association:

        Plagiarism may take the form of repeating another's sentences as your own, adopting a particularly apt phrase as your own, paraphrasing someone else's argument as your own or even presenting someone else's line of thinking in the development of a thesis [as] though it were your own. In short, to plagiarize is to give the impression that you have written or thought something that you have in fact borrowed from another.13

Thus, when one quotes, the use of quotation marks or indentation is necessary; when one paraphrases, a statement to that effect is essential; if one is copying another work's structure, a statement to that effect is needed to avoid plagiarism.

The rigorousness of this definition raises the question of "unintentional plagiarism". To be clear, if you truly originate an idea or phrase, the fact that someone else created it before does not make your work plagiarized. Literature, as well as science, are full of independent discoveries. True plagiarism requires copying, and there are ways in which one can unintentionally copy another's work. The most obvious is by sloppy note-taking, where the student is not careful to distinguish between what her sources say and her own thoughts on the ideas in question. It may also be possible for the one to simply forget the source of his ideas. Ms. Stearns warns, however, that

        Observers and critics are sometimes reluctant to accept the plagiarist's claim of lack of intent, but their reluctance is more likely due to an inability to believe the excuse than to a conviction that accidental copying is equivalent to plagiarism.

Copyright 1993 Globe Newspaper Company

The Boston Globe

September 26, 1993, Sunday, City Edition


LENGTH: 1568 words

HEADLINE: High tech blurs boundaries of plagiarism;


BYLINE: By Anthony Flint, Globe Staff


It's late at night in a dorm room lit only by the blue glow of a personal computer screen. A sophomore in a required writing course has a paper due in the morning. Logged onto the Internet network, he cruises the bulletin boards, hunting for electronic mail on his topic. A tap of the keys and several paragraphs are harvested.

Then it's a quick stop at the encyclopedia on CD-ROM, and later a search of a database. With a click of the icon and a whir of the hard drive, information is dumped into a word processing file. A glance at some lecture notes, another sip of Coke, some juggling of prose, and the paper is done.

Was it good research, performed in this age of cyberspace? Or was it plagiarism, that scourge of academia - the act of passing off another's work as one's own?

If the answer is not clear, you're not alone.

"Being a student, always turning to others for ideas, it's very easy to take something from an expert and absorb it as your own," says Houston King, 22, a senior at Boston University, majoring in economics and art history.

"The technology certainly makes it easier to do things like that," says Win Treese, a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who works at Digital Equipment Corp.

As students struggle to adhere to campus honor codes, the issue of plagiarism in academia today is rife with crosscurrents and contradictions. Technology has made it easier than ever to grab text and ideas from other sources without attribution, but the definitions of plagiarism have never been more in flux.

"There's a lot of ambiguity. The electronic resources have blurred the lines," says Dale Herbeck, associate professor of communications at Boston College, who teaches about media law and intellectual property.

"We have to rethink some of our traditional notions of scholars to make them fit the electronic model," Herbeck adds. "Do we have the same rules for fair use and the appropriation of ideas? Is it wrong to lift a phrase? If you've gone to the library and downloaded 100 articles, is it any less wrong?"

Some colleges around Boston use definitions of plagiarism from 1963. Others are fine-tuning more precise guidebooks that spell out the proper methods of attribution and paraphrase. But no campus provides specific rules governing the handling of text and ideas on the Internet or any of the other electronic "superhighways," where information, databases and electronic mail provide ripe pickings on a huge range of subjects - much of which, unlike the Cliff Notes of old, the professors grading the papers have never seen.

In the scholarly community, meanwhile, there is a frenetic debate over whether to expand the crime of plagiarism to include the unattributed use of two or three similar words or phrases, or even the tone of a narrative. That discussion, sure to trickle down into graduate education, only serves to further confuse the average undergraduate.

"I talk with my classes about this, and they're scared. They don't know what plagiarism is. They don't know what they can say or do," says Stephen B. Oates, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is fighting a charge that he plagiarized several phrases in his recent biography on Abraham Lincoln.

Oates was accused of plagiarism by two investigators at the National Institutes of Health, Walter Stewart and Ned Feder, who developed a computer program that flags similar phrases and words in different works. Oates argues that Stewart and Feder have concocted an overly restrictive definition of plagiarism - one that faults him, for example, for using the phrase "the cobblestones of Pennsylvania Avenue," which a previous author had used.

These new definitions have not been confined to scholars like Oates. Joe McGinniss was accused of plagiarizing phrases and descriptions from an earlier work in his recent book on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. At several conferences and seminars this year, some whistle-blowers were even talking about tightening restrictions to stop authors from repeating their own words and phrases from previous works.

"When you read the college definitions of plagiarism, it's an accumulation, an incredible hodgepodge of a dozen memoranda, half-thought out by different professors," Oates says. Add these new discussions such as those among Feder, Stewart and others, Oates says, "and it's insanity. Under these new standards, you couldn't write anything."

While the definitions of plagiarism continue to shift and lag behind the realities of technology, one thing is crystal clear to students today: A lot of adults have been accused of doing it lately.

The list includes McGinniss, reporters from the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, Boston University dean Joachim Maitre, "Roots" author Alex Haley, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., even former Beatle George Harrison, who was sued for the alleged unoriginality of the song "My Sweet Lord."

The list could go on and on, without even including the gray areas, such as celebrities taking credit for ghost-written autobiographies, judges signing their names to opinions written by clerks, and senators putting bylines over newspaper op-ed essays written by aides or speechwriters.

From kiss-and-tell authors like Jacques Attali, who wrote about conversations with French President Francois Mitterand, to high-flying medical scholars like Harvard's Dr. Shervert Frazier, it is not hard for an undergraduate to form the impression that among adults, everybody is doing it. Sometimes the cases are almost comical - as when a reporter plagiarized a story about plagiarism, or one university copied another's handbook about copying work. But the message to students seems to be that plagiarism is common practice; just don't be so blatant as to get caught.

"We're protective of our own things, but we give the signal that in the name of competition, in the name of your team getting there first, you use any trick you can muster," says Marcel C. LaFollette, an associate professor of technology at George Washington University, formerly of MIT, and author of "Stealing into Print: Plagiarism and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing."

The pressure to cut corners is abetted by a campus culture that seems to accept cheating as par for the course. In a recent poll at Miami University of Ohio, more than 90 percent of students admitted to having cheated at some point; a UCLA survey showed that 30 percent of students surveyed admitted having plagiarized work in the previous year.

Last year, a Rutgers student published a how-to handbook called "Cheating 101" that became wildly popular on campus.

Students interviewed around Boston generally say they are clear on the rules and honor codes governing academic honesty, although they acknowledge that the scramble for good grades, the pileup of work and the pressure of deadlines can make plagiarism tempting.

"I don't think people here would cheat unless they really, really had to. For the most part people do get expelled, and they don't want to take that risk," says Anne Tsao, 20, a senior at MIT.

But in another example of how the defining lines of academic honesty can shift, MIT has started allowing teams of students to collaborate on problem sets and the like. "It used to be unheard of to work on a problem set with other people," Tsao notes.

When it comes to using other people's work, educators say the fuzziest area is deciding when to give credit for an idea or phrase. Lifting an entire paragraph and repeating it verbatim is clear-cut; taking bits and pieces from a database and "laundering" that information in an essay is less so, says Abigail Lipson of Harvard's Bureau of Study Counsel, a center on teaching and learning.

"It's not just a matter of 'don't plagiarize, always put it in quotes,' " says Lipson, who coauthored with Sheila Reindl a draft manuscript, "The Responsible Plagiarist: How Can Students Who Mean So Well Go So Wrong."

The essay, which will be made available to students and teachers, seeks to "recognize the difficulty in the task of responsibly documenting work," Lipson said. "There are lots and lots of judgment calls every scholar encounters all the time. And there are different conventions in different fields."

"Every time there is one of these scandals we reinvent the wheel. There's still no single definition of what plagiarism is; every time it comes up we seem to start from square one," says Thomas Mallon, literary editor at Gentlemen's Quarterly and author of "Stolen Words," a chronicle of plagiarism over the decades.

"If college students think their professors have some kind of tight grasp on this concept, they're very wrong. Professors tie themselves in knots trying to figure out what is plagiarism or what isn't," Mallon says.

The relatively new factor of technology - the access to huge amounts of information and the seamlessness of word processing - "all has a tendency to erase fingerprints," making the task that much harder, Mallon adds.

What's a term-paper writer to think? A rule of thumb is that when in doubt, give credit. Common sense and a nose for ethics may at least be a starting point.

For students tempted to steal the words and ideas of others, "I would give the old-fashioned moralist advice. It's wrong," says Mallon. "And reputation does still count for something."


 10 See, e.g., BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 1150 (6th ed. 1990) (plagiarism is "[t]he act of appropriating the literary composition of another, or parts or passages of his writings, or the ideas or language of the same, and passing them off as the product of one's own mind"); 11 THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY 947 (2d ed. 1989) (plagiarism is "the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another"); WEBSTER'S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE UNABRIDGED 1728 (1961) (to plagiarize is "to steal and pass off as one's own (the ideas or words of another)," to "use (a created production) without crediting the source," or "to commit literary theft," which is to "present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source"); see also K.R. ST. ONGE, THE MELANCHOLY ANATOMY OF PLAGIARISM 51-62 (1988) (definitions from such sources as the Modern Language Association, language textbooks, and school catalogs).
11 "Plagiarism is an intentional verbal fraud committed by the psychologically competent that consists of copying significant and substantial uncredited written materials for unearned advantages with no significant enhancement of the materials copied." ST. ONGE, supra note 10, at 101.
12 ST. ONGE, supra note 10, at 39; see also Morris Freedman, Plagiarism Among Professors or Students Should Not Be Excused or Treated Gingerly, CHRON. HIGHER EDUC., Feb. 10, 1988, at A48 (consequences of academic plagiarism). See generally Ralph D. Mawdsley, Plagiarism Problems in Higher Education, 13 J.C. & U.L. 65 (1986) (institutional consequences of student plagiarism); Patsy W. Thomley, In Search of a Plagiarism Policy, 16 N. KY. L. REV. 501 (1989) (academic plagiarism policies); Debbie Papay-Carder, Comment, Plagiarism in Legal Scholarship, 15 U. TOL. L. REV. 233 (1983) (plagiarism in the law-school setting, including a survey of law-school deans).
13ST. ONGE, supra note 10, at 53 (quoting the MLA HANDBOOK).