Definitions and Epistemologies of Plagiarism


Rebecca Moore Howard

Bowdoin College

5 March 2004



1.      Bates College Statement on Plagiarism


2.      Bowdoin College Plagiarism Overview


3.      Colby College Statement on Plagiarism


4.      Sample of patchwriting, excerpted from Howard, "Plagiarism Pentimento"


5.      Handout, "The Reader's Summary"


6.      Syllabus, CCR 651:  "Grading"


7.      Syllabus, CCR 651:  "Academic Ethics and Textual Standards"




I'd like to begin my comments today by browsing the official definitions of plagiarism that are available on the websites of Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby Colleges.  I want to survey these definitions as a way of talking about the unavoidable, inherent problems of defining the term.  Then I'll talk about something we all already know:  that defining the term is insufficient to solving the problem.  Defining the term plagiarism is a necessary condition for preventing student plagiarism, but it is not a sufficient condition.  Hence teachers worldwide are searching for the sufficient conditions.  That search becomes an exercise in epistemology, working from foundational premises about education and authorship to generate sufficient conditions for preventing plagiarism.  But because the search is epistemologically grounded, the searchers argue with each other, contending that others' solutions are misinformed or themselves unethical.  I'll survey these epistemologies of plagiarism and conclude by making my own recommendations from and about them. 

~Slides 1, 2, 3~

I learned firsthand how inadequate plagiarism definitions are to the prevention of plagiarism in 1986, my third year in the professoriate.  I was teaching a course in Western cultures at Colgate University, and one third of the students in my class--nine out of twenty-seven--plagiarized an assigned paper.  Let me show you a sample of this plagiarism:

~Slide 4~

The writer is using deletion, synonymy (substitution), and changes in grammar to reproduce Davidson's text.  She deletes Davidson's adjective phrase certain all-important  and employs synonymy in changing Davidson's rituals to ceremonies.  Grammatical changes appear in the switch from the singular word to words and changing the passive are accompanied by to the active which accompanied. 

This example is typical of the plagiarism that riddled nine of the twenty-seven papers submitted for the assignment.  When recapitulating the source material, these writers "borrowed" phrases, patched together into "new" sentences;  they "borrowed" whole sentences, deleting what they consider irrelevant words and phrases;  and they "borrowed" a hodgepodge of phrases and sentences in which they changed grammar and syntax, and substituted synonyms straight from Roget's.  Some provided citations, attributing the source;  others did not.  None of them used quotation marks to indicate which phrases had been appropriated.  I've developed the term patchwriting to describe this variety of writing from sources: "Copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one synonym-substitutes" ("Plagiarism Pentimento" 233).

At that time, though, I was not a scholar of authorship.  I was two years out of my Ph.D., a scholar of linguistics and composition pedagogy.  And I was incensed by the plagiarized papers, full of righteous wrath.  After consulting with the dean who administered cases of academic dishonesty, I responded to all the plagiarism in what seemed to him and me a sensible manner:  I gave all nine papers "F's";  delivered a lecture on source-attribution, and allowed the plagiarists to rewrite the paper for a better grade.  Let me return to my preliminary material, grounding this incident in the policies of your own colleges:  What my students had done is what the Bowdoin documents call "mosaic plagiarism"--

~Slide 2~

and what, in the Colby policy, would be described as "borrowing apt phrases."  A lot of them. 

~Slide 3~

What did it mean, that one-third of the first-year students in a class at a prestigious liberal-arts college--the CEO's of tomorrow--had blandly stumbled into plagiarism?  Did it mean that a substantial number of well-prepared first-year college students did not know the basics of attributing sources?  Did it mean that a substantial number of first-year college students who were aimed at careers in influential positions were cheaters?  The matter was further complicated by the fact that, even after receiving an "F" on the first submission of the paper and even after hearing my lecture on source attribution, two of the plagiarists included patchwriting in their revisions. 

It is because of that incident that I am now a scholar of authorship.  I could not lay the episode to rest.  I read everything available on plagiarism (which wasn't all that much at the time) and was still unsatisfied.  None of it helped me understand what had happened and why my students had such difficulty attributing sources. 

As I worked, I came to realize that the particular type of plagiarism that had characterized those nine papers was not as result of students' not knowing how to cite nor a result of their low textual morals, but rather was primarily a result of their not being able to talk about the source text in any language but its own.  I came to realize that in the case of patchwriting, plagiarism is a result of low critical reading skills or pronounced unfamiliarity with the discourse of a source text.  In response, I have developed critical reading as a significant theme of all my instruction, at all levels.  In undergraduate classes, I teach summary as a tool of text comprehension.

~Slide 5~

But even in advanced doctoral seminars, summary-writing and critical reading techniques are a serious part of my pedagogy. 

~Slide 6~

The kind of critical reading that enables the writer not to patchwrite in an obvious way is an extremely advanced skill, one that cannot simply be acquired and then applied, but rather one that requires constant practice and honing.  And in no case do I regard patchwriting as plagiarism but rather as a sign of insufficient critical reading.  Insufficient critical reading is not academic dishonesty, any more than poor punctuation is.  It isn't good writing;  it may lower the reader's esteem of the writer;  and it may even enrage the reader.  But it isn't cheating. 

So far, so good--at least I'm hoping that's what you're thinking.  I'm hoping you're saying to yourself, "That's going a little easy on cheaters, but it's a reasonable stance to take."  Now, however, I'm going to push a little further, and show you a passage from my doctoral course in which I define both patchwriting and insufficient citation as outside the bounds of plagiarism--bad writing but not necessarily bad morals.

~Slide 6~

This is pushing the envelope a bit, and I know that.  It's a bold and even controversial move to make, yet it's one that I do now make--at all levels of my teaching.  And as a result, I get a much higher quality of critical writing from my first-year students and my doctoral students.  By highlighting issues of patchwriting and citation as matters of good writing rather than good morals, I bring these issues to my students' attention in a way that enables a dialogue about how to do this good writing.  I hardly ever see patchwriting in my students' texts now.  It's an active issue for them, and they work with me, in class and in office hours, to understand texts well enough to be able to paraphrase and summarize them in fresh language.  They work hard, too, to understand the nuances of when and how to cite. 

The issue gets pushed a bit further when I argue that such dialogic instruction is a responsibility of teachers.  I've made this argument in a book of essays on ethical pedagogy ("Ethics") and again in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("Forget").  And it's gotten me in some hot water with the national media.  That water was heated partly by my assertion of teachers' pedagogical responsibilities, and in part by the Chronicle's desire to sell its product. In 2002, the Chronicle accepted an article I had submitted to them, "Plagiarism, Policing, Pedagogy".  But without my prior knowledge, they changed the title to the inflammatory and misleading "Forget about Policing Plagiarism—Just Teach!"  In response, Tucker Carlson, writing in the Reader's Digest, calls me a "skillful apologist" for plagiarism (42), even though, he says, one would think the director of the writing program at Syracuse University would "abhor plagiarism above all academic sins" (41). 

This wasn't the first time my writing on the topic of plagiarism had incited negative press coverage.  A couple of publications, in fact, had suggested that I was unfit to teach college, and Jonah Goldberg, writing in the National Review, suggested that I was going to hell. 

Just as my Colgate students' plagiarism prompted me to reconsider how I was defining plagiarism and how I was teaching my classes, so the hostile media coverage has pushed me to think about approaches to plagiarism as epistemologies--as ways of knowing that are grounded in foundational beliefs.  I like Marilyn Cooper's description of the consequences of epistemology: "thinking that there is a special set of terms in which all contributions to the conversation should be put" (216).  And of course she's speaking against epistemology.  Epistemology is a bad thing, an inflexible thing, a limiting thing. I, too, am a card-carrying antifoundationalist, believing as I do in the rhetorical situation as the grounds of all knowledge. 

But then the Congressional Quarterly called me for an interview.  And then they called back and asked if I would write a position statement for a special issue of CQ Researcher on plagiarism.  And I did.  The question at hand was, "Should educators use commercial services to combat plagiarism?"  My contribution took the "no" position.  Speaking in the affirmative was John Barrie, the owner of  I'd like to read a bit from both statements, which in their entirety are quite brief.  (Barrie and I were limited to 425 words each.) 

link to CQ researcher

As I read through the published position statements, I was first struck by what seemed ludicrous discourse on Barrie's part--the near-hysteria of the Enron allusion, for example, and its implication in a range of logical fallacies, including false analogy. 

Then, however, I began to think about how foundational my own reasoning was--couched, as it was, in mandates for teaching:  we must "engage students in text and in learning";  we must "address the underlying issues." 

That has led me to a growing recognition of three epistemologies of plagiarism--three foundational ways of understanding it.  My work on the epistemologies of plagiarism is in progress, incomplete, but sufficiently developed that I believe it is worthwhile to share with you here today.  But because what I am sharing is work in progress, I'd particularly appreciate hearing your responses to it. 

1.      The first of these epistemologies of plagiarism focuses on detection and punishment.  This epistemology grounds all the arguments for plagiarism-detecting software that I have read.  That would, of course, include John Barrie's CQ Researcher argument in favor of his  This epistemology shares a premise with mandatory sentencing in the courts;  well-publicized traffic checks by police forces;  and random drug testing for athletes:  if would-be criminals believe there is a high likelihood of being caught, they will not transgress.  Effective detection and punishment actually serves as a deterrent.  And behind that premise is another:  that student plagiarists either know they are plagiarizing or are sufficiently indifferent to the consequences that they don't stir themselves to learn the textual rules.  For both sets of students (so goes this logic), a strong program of detection and punishment will serve very nicely.  Those who would intentionally plagiarize will choose to write their own work, for fear of being caught and punished.  Those who don't know the rules will have the fear of transgression, detection, and punishment--which will inspire them to learn the rules.  For an example of the epistemology of detection and punishment, see the article "Plagiarism and the Internet:  Turning the Tables" in the readings packet for this workshop.  In it, secondary school teachers Atkins and Nelson extol plagiarism-detecting software for saving teachers' time in catching plagiarists.  An unspoken assumption is that plagiarism is textually based, detectable by machines. Atkins and Nelson endorse  "This service is not designed to be punitive;  it is meant to be preventive.  The main goal of is to help students maintain their ethics and academic integrity, while learning the skills that will help them communicate effectively" (104).  That last assertion bears repeating, because its logic is often repeated in the epistemology of detection and punishment:  the fear of being caught itself maintains students' ethics and integrity and teaches them skills. 

2.      A second epistemology of plagiarism, legislating and enforcing, also endeavors to prevent students' plagiarism and also draws on methods of detection and punishment.  The methods, however, are not mechanical but communal:  through student-supported structures such as honor codes, not only will would-be cheaters be afraid of being caught, but students in general will feel an investment in and desire for personal and community integrity.  Again, see the readings packet for this workshop:  the article "Some Good News about Academic Integrity" illustrates the epistemology of legislation and enforcement.  Like the epistemology of detection and punishment, legislation and enforcement is predicated on the belief that student plagiarists either know they are plagiarizing or are sufficiently indifferent to the consequences that they don't stir themselves to learn the textual rules.  The "good news" that McCabe and Pavela offer about academic integrity is that installing honor codes reduces the incidence of academic dishonesty—from 71% to 54% of students surveyed.  Honor code institutions have less cheating and thus presumably less plagiarism (which, in most institutions' academic policies, is a subset of cheating).  Cheating is a moral offense, and honor codes bring out the best in students.  Thus plagiarism can be reduced by moral appeals enforced by institutional policies that involve right-minded students in the police work.

In many cases, pedagogical responses to plagiarism are, like detection-and-punishment and legislation-and-enforcement, designed to thwart students who would otherwise succumb to plagiarism.  These pedagogical remedies focus on building plagiarism-proof assignments.  Participating in the epistemologies I have just described, these pedagogies assume knowing, motivated plagiarists who must be frightened away from plagiarism;  persuaded to leave the Dark Side;  or prevented from exercising their larcenous skills.

In the same vein, many pedagogical responses to the specter of plagiarism result in plagiarism statements' being included in course syllabi;  part or all of a class day's being devoted to teaching about plagiarism;  and one-time-only or ongoing instruction in correct citation practices. 

~Slide 7~

The article "Understanding Plagiarism" in the readings packet explains such techniques.  For example, Taylor says that instruction in avoiding plagiarism "is most effective when it occurs in the context of assignments, and when it includes opportunities to practice and discuss note-making strategies and best practices for quoting, citing and paraphrasing." 

These pedagogical responses, like those previously described, assume that the regulations against plagiarism and the rules governing citation are facts that can be transmitted from sender to receiver, teacher to student, and then practiced identically by all.  Some believe that this transmission takes place through inoculation:  teacher "sends" information;  students "receive" it;  and voila!  education has been accomplished.  Others believe that the transmission takes place over time, through repeated relational encounters between teachers, texts, and students.  Gradually students come to understand and be able to apply the guidelines for ethical writing from sources. 

3.      In all their variations, the epistemologies I have described so far share a desire to prevent students from plagiarizing--through fear, appeals to honor, impossible barriers, or transmission of needed information.  A third epistemology is also based in pedagogy but proceeds from very different premises:  it endeavors to remedy classroom circumstances that allow students to be sufficiently alienated from intellectual work that plagiarism becomes an option for them. A foundational premise of this set of pedagogies is that plagiarism is as much relational as it is rule-bound and text-bound;  hence students' "knowledge" of the avoidance of plagiarism goes far beyond their receiving the "rules" of academic honesty and source citation.  Students who see their classes as hurdles in the race to grades and a degree are much more willing to hand in work not of their own composition than are those who believe that they have much to gain from active participation in the intellectual work of their courses. In the readings packet, my piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education argues this epistemological set of assumptions--as does the position statement I wrote for the CQ Researcher.  (It's important to note, by the way, that this does not argue that it is teachers' fault when students plagiarize;  rather, it argues that when students are engaged in the intellectual work of the courses they are taking, they are unlikely to want to plagiarize. 

Unfortunately for all of us involved in studying the phenomenon of contemporary plagiarism, the very different assumptions that ground these three epistemologies of plagiarism tend us all toward tunnel vision.  We adhere to a single epistemology and see the others as wrong-headed and even unethical.  Hence John Barrie and I can make the strident, mutually exclusive statements of the CQ Researcher's "At Issue" forum. 

In reality, I believe that few people actually subscribe to only one of these epistemologies--which means that I am really saying that these are not, after all, epistemologies.  They function as epistemologies only when we allow them to, when we become so frantic about the specter of a plagiarism epidemic that we find a single solution and defend it against all competitors.  In fact, though, I believe most of us see merit in a multi-epistemological approach to plagiarism.  As you've seen, I have that "Academic Integrity" warning in my current course syllabus.  And Don McCabe, the foremost proponent of legislation and enforcement through honor codes, says that when students believe that their teachers are really committed to their learning, they are disinclined to cheat.

This does not, however, mean that all approaches are good approaches.  For reasons I've detailed elsewhere (see Foster), I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.  But it does mean that each of us concerned with the possibility of students' plagiarism should acknowledge the legitimacy of and even the need for multiple solutions. 


Works Cited

Atkins, Thomas, and Gene Nelson.  "Plagiarism and the Internet:  Turning the Tables."  English Journal 90.4 (2001):  101-104. 

Cooper, Marilyn M.  "Why Are We Talking about Discourse Communities?  Or, Foundationalism Rears Its Ugly Head Once More." Writing as Social Action.  By Marilyn M. Cooper and Michael Holzman.  Portsmouth:  Boynton/Cook, 1989.  202-220.

Foster, Andrea L.  "Plagiarism-Detection Tool Creates Legal Quandary."  The Chronicle of Higher Education (17 May 2002):  A37. 

Goldberg, Jonah.  "Plagiarism Is Rape?" The National Review Online. 15 March 2000. <>.  13 March 2003. 

Hansen, Brian.  "Combating Plagiarism."  CQ Researcher 13.32 (19 September 2003):  775-796.

Howard, Rebecca Moore.  "The Ethics of Plagiarism."  The Ethics of Writing Instruction:  Issues in Theory and Practice.  Ed. Michael A. Pemberton.  Norwood, NJ:  Ablex, 2000.  79-90. 

Howard, Rebecca Moore.  "Forget about Policing Plagiarism;  Just Teach."  The Chronicle of Higher Education (16 November 2001):  B24. 

Howard, Rebecca Moore.  "A Plagiarism Pentimento."  Journal of Teaching Writing 11.3 (Summer 1993):  233-46. 

Howard, Rebecca Moore.  "Should Educators Use Commercial Services to Combat Plagiarism? No." CQ Researcher 13.32 (19 September 2003):  789.

McCabe, Donald L., and Gary Pavela.  "Some Good News about Academic Integrity."  Change 32.5 (2000): 32-38.

Taylor, Lynn.  "Understanding Plagiarism."  Issues of Teaching and Learning 9.2 (March 2003).  <>.