Adding Friction. A Librarian Asks, "How Do I Create Effective Plagiarism Scenarios?"

Abilock: Create Effective Plagiarism Scenarios - teaser image

Plagiarism is a kind of fraud in which you represent the creative work of others as your own to "gain something of value."1 While the definition seems clear, practices are varied and situations are nuanced, which is why scenarios are effective as teaching tools. By portraying ambiguous situations and likely pitfalls, scenarios should encourage thoughtful responses and lead to principled decision-making.

Faux and Fear Scenarios

Unfortunately, scenarios often devolve into thinly veiled lectures that drive students into giving the answer they know you expect. Plagiarism concepts are treated as inert knowledge to be ingested—faux choices with pat answers.

Similarly, true stories about plagiarists who face public ridicule, lose jobs, are shunned by peers, and are expelled from schools2 rarely leave room for moral ambiguities or alternative options. These cautionary tales create anxiety in the classroom rather than enhance student agency.

In contrast, intriguing plagiarism scenarios could mirror the nuances inherent in formulating ethical choices. They honor the difficulties of determining the "right" course of action. Students develop a capacity to examine their behavior and wrestle with options within a fictional framework.

Writing Scenarios

Think of a scenario as the first part of a narrative. You are the author of the actors and events, but the conflicts and conclusions will be written by the student.

Character elements

Portray the main character as someone your students can imagine knowing or being. Their traits should mirror your school's racial and ethnic composition but be sure to scrutinize your writing for bias-free language.3 Consider using the generic third-person singular pronoun "they" as well as "he" and "she." Replace the colorless "Student O" or "Writer A"4 with ethnic or gender-neutral names. If the scenario is about more than one student, indicate how they are related to the main character and dilemma: Are they friends? Unwilling partners? Siblings?

Plot elements

Describe situations you have encountered. Ground the situation you describe in actual work that you expect students to do. Credible details, such as the names of the databases they will be assigned, increase the likelihood that students will make the connection between the scenario and the assignment. As in real life, you can include more than one decision point, so long as they are related to the main idea.


While scenarios are typically assigned prior to an assignment as a stand-alone activity, consider the following alternatives:

  1. Assign two similar scenarios as a pre- and post-test to assess students' understanding of some important plagiarism concept.
  2. Assign one scenario as flipped reading for a discussion of norms about acceptable forms of sharing or intentional vs. unintentional plagiarism just before a project begins.

Assign jigsaw readings to breakout groups who report back to the class just before students begin rough drafting of a paper or project.

A Sample of Scenario Building: The Supreme Court Project

Ashish, the school librarian, and Drew, the government teacher, have decided to repeat a three-week Supreme Court assignment in which students will practice ethical reasoning and critical thinking. Their objective is that students will understand that judicial decisions have local and personal relevance. In the past, Ashish began the project with a paraphrasing activity and a lesson on plagiarism, but there was little evidence the lessons were being applied as students worked on their projects. The teachers recognized that the assignment was challenging and some students were plagiarizing, either intentionally or accidentally.

This year the teachers are determined to be more proactive about doing honest work. They've redesigned the project so that students are limited to choosing Supreme Court cases from the 2020-21 term, so students who took the course last year wouldn't be pressured into sharing their papers. Since there is less published commentary and analysis about recent cases, students will have to rely more on their own reasoning and analytical skills.

They've also decided to craft scenarios that address plagiarism dilemmas that students are likely to confront:

  1. Copying ideas or logic

  2. Wholesale sharing of sources

  3. Citing background information

Scenario #1: Can thinking be plagiarized?

The dilemma: A student who is at an academic disadvantage in completing some part of the assignment copies or mirrors part of a friend's ideas, logic, or process. Behavioral motivation (intentional or unconscious) should be unclear.

Example of a scenario: Devon was absent for the instructions on the Supreme Court research paper. They asked their best friend, Angel, what the assignment was for the next class. Angel explained that students were to identify a case and write a paragraph about a related issue that has current relevance to their community. Angel walked Devon through the assignment and explained how she was using Texas v. New Mexico to examine water conservation in her home. For the write-up Devon used the same case and the issue of water scarcity, applying it to their family's garden. Angel felt that Devon had plagiarized her idea.

Questions for students: What are [Angel's] options? What are [Devon's] options?

Teacher's goal: Students could reflect on how friendship and academic problems influence behavior. They can role-play or strategize ways to speak and behave honestly with each other and with the teacher.

Combined scenarios 2 & 3: Could sharing sources be plagiarism? Should background sources be cited?

The dilemma: Students who are working independently on the same topic, but not the same research question, pool or trade their search results. Behavioral motivation (intentional or spontaneous) should be unclear.

Example of a scenario: Alexis and Ameri are separately researching conflicts between LBGTQIA+ rights and religious liberty. A case pending before the Supreme Court, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, involves a city's decision to exclude an independent contractor, the Catholic Social Services (CSS), from its foster care referrals because it has a policy against placing children with same-sex couples. Alexis follows the teacher's advice and finds background sources in Gale's Opposing Viewpoints database and shares them with Ameri. In turn, Ameri shares a bunch of sources from EBSCO's Points of View Reference Center. While their research questions are different, their bibliographies are almost identical, including database sources used only for background. One difference is that only Ameri cites a C-Span video clip that they both watched which explains the facts of the case.

Question for students: Have Alexis and/or Ameri committed plagiarism?

Teacher's goal: Have students recognize that including background sources may be regarded as "padding" while excluding them might be considered plagiarism. While a "similarity score" does not prove plagiarism, understanding motivation (intentional trading or occasional sharing) may influence one's judgment about plagiarism.

Research indicates several benefits for using scenarios. Like other forms of narrative, scenarios can improve logical thinking, increase enthusiasm for learning, and contribute to literacy and language mastery.

While scenarios are not a plagiarism panacea, reading and discussing vivid and relevant situations can contribute to students' recall of strategies that were effective. The background knowledge they have acquired can provide a valuable context for doing honest work in the future.


1 MLA Handbook, 8th ed. (New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 2016), [Page 7]; American Psychological Association, "Plagiarism," APA Style, accessed November 8, 2020,

2 Erich Heintzelman, "SPC 1608 (Rushing) - Ethics and Plagiarism: Real World Examples," Valencia College, last modified April 28, 2020,

3 American Psychological Association, "Racial and Ethnic Identity," APA Style,

4 Carleton, "Sample Scenarios," Writing across the Curriculum, last modified October 13, 2020,; Bowdoin, "Examples of Plagiarism," Office of the Dean of Students,

Bibliography (Chicago format)

American Psychological Association. "Plagiarism." APA Style. Accessed November 8, 2020.

———. "Racial and Ethnic Identity." APA Style.

Bowdoin. "Examples of Plagiarism." Office of the Dean of Students.

Carleton. "Sample Scenarios." Writing across the Curriculum. Last modified October 13, 2020.

Heintzelman, Erich. "SPC 1608 (Rushing) - Ethics and Plagiarism: Real World Examples." Valencia College. Last modified April 28, 2020.

Sobel, Laurie, Amrutha Ramaswamy, and Alina Salganicoff. "Abortion at SCOTUS: A Review of Potential Cases This Term and Possible Rulings." KFF. Last modified October 30, 2020.

"Supreme Court Cases, October Term 2020-2021." In Ballotpedia. Accessed November 8, 2020.,_October_term_2020-2021.

About the Author

Debbie Abilock, MLS, cofounded and directs the educational vision of NoodleTools, Inc., a full-service teaching platform for academic research. Her column is based on over 60,000 research questions from educators and students that have been answered by NoodleTools' experts. As a former school administrator, curriculum coordinator, and school librarian, Debbie works with district leadership teams and professional organizations on curriculum and instruction. She was founding editor-in-chief of Knowledge Quest (1997-2010), writes for education publications, and has co-authored Growing Schools (Libraries Unlimited) about innovative site-based leadership and professional development led by school librarians.

MLA Citation

Abilock, Debbie. "Adding Friction. A Librarian Asks, 'How Do I Create Effective Plagiarism Scenarios?'." School Library Connection, March 2021,

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Entry ID: 2259820