Somewhere, over the spectrum …

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Shades of grey?

It is tempting to think of plagiarism in terms of black-and-white, either a writer has committed plagiarism – or s/he hasn’t.

There are plenty of grey areas, of course, especially when considering paraphrases or summaries, or the grey areas of common knowledge or of self-plagiarism (duplication of work). But by and large, plagiarism is clear-cut: a piece of work which appears to be the work of the present writer but which lack the indicators that show that this is the words, work or ideas of somebody else, that is plagiarism. Probably. Possibly.

Issues such as intent and extent might be of consideration when determining the consequences, but those are other issues, it is plagiarism or it isn’t. Cases in which plagiarism is suspected but cannot be proven will (usually, in education situations) be given the benefit of the doubt: it isn’t plagiarism. It is clear-cut, black-and-white.

Black-and-white. If the signals are not there, signals that indicate that these are someone else’s exact words, or the citation which indicates that these are someone else’s words or ideas, and it can be shown that the words or ideas originated elsewhere, it’s plagiarism.

Black-and-white (and shades of grey).  It is or it isn’t.

I often use Jude Carroll’s “Where do you draw the line?” activity* in workshops (with permission, of course). Carroll gives us six situations, six descriptions of work starting with no attribution or signal or bibliographical reference, and then increasingly more information is included in each scenario. Example 1 is clearly plagiarism, example 6 is clearly good practice, and, as this is a continuum, we can draw a line: that example would be considered as plagiarism, the next example is not plagiarism. Where do we draw the line?

This is a useful activity. I have often found that, even though plagiarism is a matter of black and white, teachers often draw that line in different places. Some draw their line too low, and would accept work which other teachers would rate as plagiarism – and, sometimes, some draw the line too high, and would refuse work which most would rate as acceptable.  Students too. We all know what plagiarism is – except that we don’t all agree. More grey than black-and-white?

Definitions are not always clear either, and the terms used to describe plagiarism or to explain good practice are frequently confused and confusing. Examples are often inconsistent and advice given is frequently wrong. Worst might be those bodies which give examples and state, clearly, categorically and mistakenly, that this is the only way to cite and reference, and that anything else is unacceptable. The SQA muddle which I highlighted recently is a case in point.

The worst of that SQA mess was the guide for Advanced Higher Chemistry which states that the examples given illustrate the only acceptable way in which to cite and reference, and anything else (which presumably includes the examples given in guides to other SQA subjects) is wrong and therefore completely unacceptable. Never mind that the examples given in the AH Chemistry guide are misleading, erroneous and possibly plagiaristic, this is the “only acceptable method” and any other form of citation or reference is unacceptable.

The International Baccalaureate seems to go further. In declaring that

producing accurate citations, referencing and a bibliography is a skill that students should be seeking to perfect (Extended essay guide, p. 22)

and that

Failure to comply with this requirement will be viewed as plagiarism and will, therefore, be treated as a case of malpractice (p. 22),

the IB appears to equate poor referencing and mistakes in bibliographic formatting with plagiarism, and plagiarism means malpractice and that will lead to disqualification and worse…

I believe (based on experience, observation, anecdote, listserv correspondence and more) that many teachers have misled and even scared their students in their interpretation of this statement. Some teachers are paranoid about students making mistakes, even when they don’t themselves know what is “right”. The paranoia is passed on, teacher to student, the fear of forgetting a comma or using upper instead of lower case or having an incorrect format for a date…

To be fair, the latest update to the guide (August 2013) includes a separate section on Academic honesty, which includes the contradictory and kinder statement

Candidates are not expected to show faultless expertise in referencing, but are expected to demonstrate that all sources have been acknowledged (p. 4)

but many teachers seem unaware of this, in part because the original statement regarding malpractice remains, and is more prominent, in the guide.

A horse of a different colour

Reports and stories of senior school administrators plagiarising are unfortunately common. They should know better. They should set better examples, be better role-models. There should be consequences (because they should know better). They should know – don’t they read administrators’ bulletin boards or the educational press? – how often it happens and how unpleasant it is when it happens, or that plagiarising administrators get bad press and are often forced out of their positions and posts. But it still happens.  In what I admit is a sweeping generalisation, they don’t seem to learn from others’ mistakes.

Jessica L. Huizenga’s possible plagiarism is perhaps less straight-forward, a bit more intriguing, than most; one would need to see the documents she published before deciding whether her board over-reacted. Her story is reported in a three web-page article published in the online community newspaper, Wicked Local Cambridge/ Cambridge Chronicle & Tab, under the title “Top Cambridge school administrator under fire for miscitation“.

What makes Sara Feijo’s report of Huizenga’s possible plagiarism of more than usual interest lies in a comment made by Teresa “Teddi” Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity.  On the third page of the article comes this paragraph:

In a letter to CPS, Fishman stated, “With regard to citation errors and plagiarism, there is a wide spectrum and certainly not all are created equal. The main defining characteristic in cases that we’d classify as citation errors is that there is an attempt to identify the source of the information rather than to make it appear as if the words or ideas are those of the person using them in the document.”

That caught my eye and it caught my breath, the term “spectrum.”

No longer are we talking black-and-white, nor even grey. “Spectrum” is not grey at all. It suggests something far more colourful, suggestions of gradations, a gradation of shades and tints and hues, from citation errors on the one hand to full-blooded plagiarism on the other, and a whole gamut of other possibilities to boot. Wow!

Fishman’s notion adds so much colour: if “there is an attempt to identify the source of the information” then any errors are citation errors;  but if “it appear(s) as if the words or ideas are those of the person using them in the document” then plagiarism is the probable conclusion. It is taking perception of plagiarism to its very root. Forget correctness (per any citation or referencing style). If it is clear that the writer is saying, attempting to say, “This is not mine, it is someone else’s,” then plagiarism it isn’t.

Poor scholarship, perhaps; unhelpful to the reader, probably. There may indeed still be aspects of dishonesty. But plagiarism it is not.

What citation errors might a writer make which are not plagiaristic?

Off the top of my head, I compiled this list of possibilities, often found in student writing:

failure to give the page or year of publication (when the citation style being used requires them)
giving the wrong page, year of publication, principal author
giving a citation which does not link to the first word/s in a reference
giving a citation which does not link to any reference
using an author’s first name instead of the last name
using the title instead of author
using the website or URL instead of the author

There are surely more.

Failure to do any of these would make for citation errors. They do not help the reader, but they are not plagiarism, as long as the writer indicates that the words or ideas come from somewhere else, and as long as any exact words are indicated as quotation. Citation is honesty, pure and simple.

Of course, if the writer has made a deliberate error, then there is deceit, the writer is dishonest.  If, for instance, the writer cannot remember which source provided which quotation and cites names at random, this is deliberate deception.  The writer has not done his (or her) homework.  It isn’t plagiarism, but it is misleading and it is less than honest.

There are still grey areas and indecision: misquoting a source could be accidental and it could be deliberate; similarly, mis-paraphrasing someone else’s ideas could be due to misunderstanding and it could be deliberate attempt to mislead or misrepresent..  Making up a quotation is deliberate and dishonest; deliberately omitting a key word in a quotation so as to change the meaning is deliberate;  misreading a source or not checking the accuracy of a quotation and getting it wrong are poor scholarship.  These are grey areas, they could be dishonest, but they are not plagiarism.

Referencing – the list at the end of the paper – is different. Referencing has nothing to do with plagiarism. The indicators which determine whether plagiarism has taken place are all in the text: quotation marks or markers if these are necessary, the citation or other indication. But inaccurate, incomplete or inconsistent referencing make for academic errors. They have nothing to do with plagiarism. That is a horse of a very different colour.

Last thoughts

At the IASL 2015 conference last week, I met many librarians who were taught the way I was taught: every piece of “research” requires a bibliography, a list at the end which gives full details of any work used to inform the writer, inform the text.  Just the week before, in an IB workshop, two of the three participants had also been taught this way.  We had not been required to use citation in-the-text, those short links to the list at the end, until our masters courses.

It is a practice which is problematic, and the practice continues. Bibliographic referencing is, in many schools, still taught before in-text citation (if in-text citation is taught at all). It is as if “honesty” is an add-on, an after-thought, when it should be expected, could be expected, almost as soon as the child is writing, is extracting information from source material. It need not be “correct” per those publication manuals and style guides. “Mummy says that … ” and “In the green book it says …” demonstrate honesty. A list of Works Used does not.

Honesty should not be an after-thought. Honesty should come first. Accuracy is a bonus. Inaccuracy is not plagiarism.


* The exercise, on page 52 of Jude Carroll’s A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education (pub. Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, 2007, is in turn based on an exercise in John M. Swales and Christine B. Freak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students University of Michigan (1994).



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