Plagiarism Can Be a Learning Opportunity

Research. It's as simple as copy and paste. In middle school, it’s glued onto cardboard; in high school, it’s an essay; in college, it’s a research paper. The extent of plagiarism continues to confound educators by the audacity, apathy, and, perhaps, malevolence of the students.


Plagiarism, however, is an opportunity. It is a powerful entry point for much-needed discourse between educators and school librarians about the nature of research and writing. Plagiarism is a symptom of a greater ill that school librarians can change through collaboration and innovation.

With the glut of technology tools and “educational” products available, confronting plagiarism inevitably includes and unfortunately ends with plagiarism-detection tools too often viewed as the panacea for this practice. Such catch-them-in-the-act products provide students with computer-generated proof of potential plagiarism. Perhaps such tools warrant a place in certain contexts, but the school librarian is a more powerful and effective resource—one who can help not by combatting a problem, but by building sound educational practice.


It is fundamental to examine why students plagiarize. Is their behavior intentional or unintentional? According to Park, research has demonstrated several main reasons why students plagiarize (2003). These include

  • not understanding how and why to cite sources, nor understanding the term “common knowledge.”
  • an effort to get a higher grade. Students may not trust their ability to get that “A.”
  • poor time management skills resulting in the need to get it done fast.
  • their own beliefs and values—they do not see it as wrong.
  • poor relationship with teacher and class. Students do not value the work.
  • it’s easier to plagiarize off the Internet than do the work.
  • they aren’t afraid of the risks. (Park 2003, 9).

Moreover, as a former teacher of writing and a reformed plagiarizer, I can definitively add that students plagiarize when they are not empowered learners. They may lack ownership in their learning. They do not believe their input matters. Who cares what they think about the topic? Who is the audience besides the teacher? What stake did they have in the topic and product selection? It is just an assignment. It is just another grade. Not only does student intent matter, but it can also reveal weaknesses in the educational paradigm.


Students plagiarize in different ways, including taking or buying material from another source and passing it along as their own, and incorporating quotations and/or paraphrases without proper citation. Also, students may incorrectly paraphrase and fail to cite. One online plagiarism detection product offers recommendations to educators to battle the “Ten Types of Plagiarism.” In addition to using their product, they suggest that educators should guide students to understand these specific plagiarism types; the goal is to demonstrate that the teacher recognizes all paths students might use to cheat (Turnitin 2014). Neither the research process nor the school librarian is mentioned; however, a quality research program depends on these components.

There are several concerns in the use of plagiarism detection tools. The central problem is that they create a political structure that clearly positions the teacher as authority “gatekeeper” and student as potential criminal, guilty until proven otherwise. The NPREd blog post by Cory Turner (August 25, 2014) indicates that punitive measures are not effective as long-term solutions, and some educators posture that these products fail to isolate intentional versus unintentional plagiarism. Some students may also approach plagiarism checkers as a sort of “game” with the object to outsmart the computer and avoid detection. Another and perhaps more disturbing concern is, ironically, intellectual and property rights. Detection products build their databases from sources including papers submitted to their sites. Student work becomes their property. Examine the wording from the usage policy of one popular detection tool:

“We are free to use any ideas, concepts, techniques, know-how in your Communications for any purpose, including, but not limited to, the development and use of products and services based on the Communications” (iParadigms 2014).

While certain products may deter certain types of plagiarism found in certain papers, perhaps one should ask if they facilitate the creation of a more meaningful research product. Shouldn’t that be the fundamental goal?


Instruction on plagiarism should include a discussion about its cultural derivations. Students from diverse cultural backgrounds may not see plagiarism the same way. What some call cheating, others call collaboration. As Park asserts, “Social, cultural, economic and political factors shape how individuals perceive their roles and responsibilities as writers” (2003, 3). Plagiarism thus lacks a universally accepted definition.


Reframing how research is taught can help reduce and even eliminate the plagiarism problem. It can be introduced to students as an ongoing “conversation.” Students can ask, “What are people saying about ______? Who is qualified to have a valid opinion? Why?” This can lead into discussion about how knowledge is constructed and how research in different fields is conducted. Andy Burkhardt, author of the Information Tyrannosaur blog, posits that when students rethink research their questions can evolve. He posted on January 31, 2014, “Instead of a student declaring, ‘I need another article,’ he or she might instead think, ‘I wonder who else is contributing to this topic I want to learn more about?’”

Additionally, confirmation bias is an essential subject for inclusion in the teaching of research. For novice researchers, there is a tendency to find evidence that propels one’s bias and confirms a central claim/thesis. Such bias can impede quality research and inhibit a student from developing his/her own path of inquiry. Perhaps no one understands this better than school librarians—research and inquiry-learning specialists—perfectly positioned to implement an effective research model to steer the embedding of authentic research pedagogy into the curriculum and negate the impetus to cheat.


  • Adopt a research model grounded in proven practice that will focus instruction around authentic inquiry and shared responsibility for student learning.While there are several effective and established models available including Stripling and Kuhlthau, in some cases, collaboration may require the creation of a hybrid model that is created with input from stakeholders in order to achieve “buy-in.”
  • Ground instruction in rhetorical principles. This can help students better understand the purposes for communication and what they may gain from assignments.Students should learn to consider their audience and purpose to determine the most effective communication method and research product.
  • Expand the notion of the end product beyond a paper.Every stage of a research model should be scaffolded and deconstructed. Focus on process will yield better products. For example, during the “gathering” stage, a product could be an oral presentation about the most interesting source found during an investigation and what further questions it prompted. Or a student could present the inquiry path he or she followed in an infographic. The Common Core Standards for research refer to the creation of research “projects” not papers (Common Core State Standards Initiative 2014). Rather than a paper comprising a single grade, all inquiry stages including developing a question or central claim, locating/evaluating sources, organizing evidence, writing, reflection and speaking components can be weighted equally, based on input from students and collaboratively generated rubrics.
  • Embrace the annotated bibliography.Require an annotated bibliography if a paper is the end product. Annotated bibliographies are a simple way to address sources. Annotations can take countless forms. They can be evaluative in nature and address the validity of a source. They can also discuss a type of source, classification, and how it was located. An annotated bibliography can be an end product. Annotations can discuss whether the source helped prove or disprove a thesis/central claim. They can also include and discuss a key quotation from the source.
  • Expand the notion of sources to include visuals such as photos, charts, interviews, and other “evidence.”Common Core State Standards require “multiple authoritative print and digital sources” (2014). A 21st-century learner must understand how to locate, evaluate, and create authoritative visuals and effectively use them in research products. Requiring the use of a found or created visual can help reduce plagiarism as it not typically as easy to copy and paste an appropriate visual and discuss it in a paper.
  • Spend ample time teaching students to paraphrase and summarize.Paraphrasing and summarizing require higher order thinking and comprehension skills. A deep level of understanding is necessary to take a chunk of text and restate it in a way that retains the meaning but does not imitate sentence structure or word choice. There are several skills embedded in the effective use of a source in a research paper. For example, students need to understand how to
    • extract the most relevant and meaningful evidence to support a claim.
    • decide if the textual evidence should be quoted or paraphrased.
    • discuss this evidence through the addition of effective commentary.
    • effectively insert evidence and vary style choices including when to use a signal phrase.
    Taking the time to deconstruct these skills cannot be overstated. Non-native speakers might need additional support to acquire the skills and confidence to put the ideas of others into their own words. Providing students with an infographic that reinforces the importance of giving credit, citing sources, and acknowledging authorship is another strategy to help students understand the importance of citing sources correctly. See Figure 1, page 15.

Products that facilitate the teaching of “process” such as Noodletools can be beneficial. This product helps scaffold stages of research including information gathering, source evaluation, prioritizing evidence, note taking, outlining, and reflection. It is an instructional product. Also, the Common Core State Standards state that students should use technology to “produce and publish writing” instead of the index cards and paper of the past.

Additional tips and ideas to teach the research process include the following:

  • ▶Plan plenty of time for student mastery of research and writing components. This can be facilitated by the implementation of a vetted inquiry-learning model, one that is scaffolded across grades and disciplines.
  • ▶Provide models that demonstrate good and bad uses of sources. Plagiarism detection exercises should be able to demonstrate that the non-plagiarized product is superior.
  • ▶Practice reverse citation searches. This is a powerful way to teach students skills including source location, websites versus databases, print versus digital sources, how to read the parts of a citation, and finally, how and why sources should be traceable for readers.
  • ▶Assign a single-source paper to shift the focus to using sources correctly and stylistic choices like signal phrases.
  • ▶Consider providing students with pre-selected sources to annotate and incorporate if a teacher-determined topic is unavoidable. This also shifts the focus away from fears p15about citing correctly to how to effectively incorporate evidence.
  • ▶Have students highlight the sentences in the paper that are their words and ideas in one color and those that aren’t in another color. They should see patterns develop that include their claims, then their inserted evidence, followed by their commentary.


Ultimately, the issue of plagiarism is not a student issue but a teacher one. School librarians can assist teachers in considering the nature of assignments and help to structure tasks that require critical thinking. Following an inquiry research model focused around essential questions can guide this process. Students need to understand the role of research and information gathering and receive direct instruction into the nature of using and citing the work of others and its philosophical, culturally grounded foundation. They also need input in their education and need to value their role as agents in the process of learning about the world around them. This new paradigm would make plagiarism unnecessary and even pedestrian to the inspired, self-directed 21st-century learner.

Further Reading

"Welcome to the Big6."; Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. (accessed October 27, 2014).; Information Tyrannosaur (blog).; Kuhlthau, Carol. "Information Search Process." Last modified October 2013.;; NPREd (blog).; Park, Chris. "In Other (People's) Words: Plagiarism by University Students—literature and Lessons." Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 28, no. 5 (2003): 18.; Stripling, Barbara. "Stripling Model of Inquiry."; Turnitin. "Usage Policy." October 27, 2014).; Turnitin. "White Paper the Plagiarism Spectrum: Instructor Insights into the 10 Types of Plagiarism." (accessed October 27, 2014).; Vance, Noelle. "Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Source Referencing & Plagiarism." Last modified January 2009. (accessed August 1, 2014).

Amy Jo Southworth

MLA Citation Southworth, Amy Jo. "Plagiarism Can Be a Learning Opportunity." School Library Monthly, 31, no. 4, February 2015. School Library Connection,

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Entry ID: 1967118

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