Plagiarism Obsession

I need to get better at updating this blog! Hoping I can get back into the swing of things starting with a goal of weekly blogging. Perhaps I’ll get back to daily updates after the new year… but my lack of writing is not the point of this post.

Lately, in education networks, I’ve noticed a lot of advertising for tools to catch students plagiarizing. It’s a pretty big business. A quick Google search for the terms “plagiarism detector” results in 1, 350,000 returns. Many school districts, including the one I left this past year, have spent a lot of funds on tools such as

I’m always skeptical of businesses who make a lot of profits on tools designed to catch students (or anyone for that matter) doing something wrong, unethical, etc. Internet filters, monitoring systems to, for lack of a better term, spy on kids’ online– I’ve seen the vendors for many of these companies at ed tech conferences, and it amazes me that school districts spend SO much money on something that, in my opinion, is not worth the expenditure. Reactive products, especially those that generate a lot of profits, have no interest in resolving the issue in the first place.  Turnitin, and others like it, don’t benefit from teaching students NOT to plagiarize. In fact, advertisements for internet filtering tools and plagiarizing detectors sensationalize the problems to ensure that those with budget authority feel the need to spend massive amounts of money to catch those in the wrong.

Plagiarism is obviously something we need to help our students learn about. WE know it’s wrong to plagiarize, and it’s our duty as educators to ensure students know that it’s wrong. But this is where I think we fail… by implementing tools to catch them doing something wrong instead of educating WHY it’s wrong seems like a setup.

The other issue is that I think that a lot of plagiarism could be easily avoided by changing the activities we ask kids to do.

Yesterday, I tweeted this:


There is such a huge focus on secondary research for kids as early as primary grades, and that lasts throughout post-secondary education. Why?

Yes, knowing how to research is a skill we all need, and learning to properly cite sources is important, too. But I think the emphasis on secondary research instead of primary research is completely unbalanced. Don’t we WANT our students to discover and inquire about things that haven’t already been researched?

What about activities where kids create and produce their own works? I would much rather have my students create new, original works than spend their entire school career ONLY reading the research of others. If we want our students to become problem-solvers, that balance has to change. We can’t always find new answers or new solutions to problems if we only look at the work that has already been done.

Additionally, when kids are creating and producing their own work, they will then begin to understand ownership of work– and this will help them learn more organically why plagiarism is wrong. I’m planning an experiment with my students where I will have them create something original– a drawing, a story, a song… whatever they choose, and then I’m going to post it as MY work (temporarily, of course) without giving them credit. This activity will help them understand ownership of work and how important it is to ensure credit is given where credit is due.

I teach mostly 3 and 4th graders now, but I’ve taught every age of child in K-12 schools. This activity can be used with any age student, not just younger kids. I know this, because I’ve done it before… and it WORKS. The more my students created and produced their own work, the more likely they were to remember to cite sources in secondary research of the works of others. Balancing secondary research with primary research and creating original works is key.

One of the arguments about the necessity of secondary research is the amount of secondary research required of students in post-secondary education. This argument is ridiculous in my opinion. We should continue practices that are not in the best interests of our K-12 students’ learning because of continued practices in post-secondary that are not in the best interests of undergraduate and graduate students?

Please note that I am NOT advocating that we discontinue all secondary research in the K-12 level. Rather, my point is let’s do a little less secondary research and focus more on creating and producing original work. Balancing between these two will do more to overcome the issue of plagiarism than punishing a student after he is caught. Assuming that students will intentionally plagiarize is yet another example of how little we trust students to do the right thing… and also how little we value children and their learning.

I welcome you to share your thoughts with me in the comments and tell me if I’m way off base here. Thanks.




6 thoughts on “Plagiarism Obsession

  1. I think you make an excellent point, some of the traditional ways of having students report information almost lend themselves to students plagiarising. Assignments that ask little critical thinking and offer little opportunity for personalization restrict the students’ opportunity to express themselves which only leave the words of the text they have chosen to reference. If they do not have a sufficiently large vocabulary how can they put the text into their own words?

    As with any assignment in any subject area, if the interest level is 0, the work you are going to get will be junk. If the assignment given is essentially just regurgitation of the material read, that is all you are going to get, and with that will come a greater degree of plagiarism because the students are not being asked to think and reflect upon what they read. Whether the project be powerpoint or a written assignment with lots of pretty pictures, it is basically copy and paste, either literally or figuratively.

    I like the idea of taking their work and not giving them credit for it. It would almost be worth setting up a skit where a student shares what they are doing with a partner. The partner would them tell them that the work is soooo good and then erase their name and put their own on top. Watching their reaction would be priceless and does put into context what they are doing when not given credit where credit is due.

    • Thanks, Remi. I really like the point you made about the lack of critical thinking required by a lot of research activities. I actually had a professor (in grad school!) explain to me that he did NOT want my to draw any of my own conclusions or include opinions in a paper I was to write… secondary research collection and regurgitation only. I was so resentful of that activity, because I felt I wasn’t learning anything new. Oh, and it was an assigned topic. Talk about robbing the passion for learning from a student. Ugh. I want better for my students.

      I am definitely going to try the skit idea! Thanks for sharing!

  2. It is easy for educators to teach that plagiarism is wrong. We cannot however, ensure that this lesson is internalized. As long as children see their parents, and other role models, presenting other people’s work as their own they will think it is the norm. For example, pictures and videos that are embedded into presentation are not always cited.
    I am a strong advocate for inquiry based learning but there is still a place for secondary research in our educational system. A well educated person needs to know both how and why to cite their sources.

    • I don’t disagree with you at all, and I don’t believe I posted anything about removing secondary research from learning activities… just that there needs to be a balance. Teaching ownership of material is much easier than only teaching that plagiarism is wrong. How better to teach ownership than having the students create their own work? When they are experiencing BOTH creating their own work as well as doing secondary research and learning to cite sources, the internalization occurs much more naturally than when teachers lecture how wrong it is to plagiarize.

      I know you didn’t say this, but one of the issues I’ve noted in some teachers’ lessons on plagiarism is the “I taught it- not my fault if they didn’t learn it” philosophy. I feel we have a much bigger obligation to help students internalize ownership, copyright, and plagiarism– and that’s why I advocate so strongly for that balance I described above and in my post.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  3. This is on a tangent, but there you go 🙂

    After having thought about this for a while I have come up with an idea. What if we (teachers in general) are teaching the students to plagiarize? So many of the learning activities we expect our students to do revolve around finding information in books and answering questions. Since many of these questions simply require facts, students will often lift them right out of the passages. Even if they don’t copy the complete sentence, they will copy the more relevant parts. Add to that the copying of definitions…..

    I am also not a big supporter of doing things a certain way because students will need to be able to do that in high school/college, but I am not sure that writing research papers necessarily falls into that category. If we (teachers again) emphasize the finished product, it would be easy to say that activity is not really relevant to students, but if we emphasize reading for understanding and writing for communicating their understanding I think we can easily prove relevance to them. Maybe we just need to look at that activity in a different way?

    Finally, don’t worry about forcing yourself to write. I read all the time that I “have to” write constantly (although I am not sure why, I seem to do it well enough even when I am not practicing it regularly.) Write when you have something to write that you can’t/won’t share in another medium. That is what I do. Of course, I may not be the best person to model writing after 😉

    • I agree with you, especially because we focus so much in the early grades/years on asking students to find answers rather than CREATE their own. Again, not saying that the latter should be a replacement for the former… must be about balancing. I love looking at activities in different ways, and I think that’s great for kids to do as well. One of the questions I often ask my students is “how can you demonstrate what you’re learning?” They sometimes come up with really creative ideas!

      As for the writing… it’s not about forcing myself at all. I have way too many thoughts that are swirling around and tumbling over each other in my brain. Need to blog more often to get them out of the brain! 😉

      Thanks for the comment!

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