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Feb 16 / King Kaufman

Plagiarism in the digital age: Complex, yet simple

For plagiarism, it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. In a manner of speaking.

Kevin Simpson of the Denver Post wrote a fascinating piece this week about what he calls “a rising tide of student plagiarism” in high schools and colleges.

The web has made it easier to plagiarize but also much easier to catch plagiarism. But the issue is more complicated than that:

“It’s a time of change—we’re in flux,” says [Sarah Sloane, a professor at Colorado State], noting that plagiarism always has been community-defined, not only by geography but also by history and culture. “Sometimes I think plagiarism rules, as currently codified, haven’t caught up.”

Teachers see it in high school and college—with varying frequency, but a sense that many students remain unclear about the evolving rules for crediting other people’s work …

But today’s students suffer from an understandable confusion over what constitutes “common knowledge” that requires no attribution or citation, some experts say. Wikipedia—the most popular single online source among high school and college students, according to a survey—represents a case in point.

“In a vague sense, they know it’s written communally and published for anyone to use,” [Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University] says. “Common knowledge is difficult. There are good reasons students don’t know where the boundaries are.” is an online plagiarism checker.

We can certainly have long and fascinating discussions about the changing cultural mores around intellectual property and how generations of “digital natives” might someday transform how we define plagiarism. I’ll bring the coffee. But in the meantime, Bleacher Report is sticking with its zero tolerance policy.

Fishman makes an excellent point in Simpson’s article:

“Concentrating on a culture of integrity, where you actually show students how to make good decisions and how to reason through ethical issues, that’s the way to go,” Fishman says, “because you don’t have to try to out-technology them, which we probably can’t, and you also don’t have to set up an adversarial system.”

For years now I’ve found myself amazed at instances of journalistic plagiarism, because even if the work being copied isn’t online, our culture is so connected that it seems inevitable to me that you’ll get caught plagiarizing in a public forum.

As Simpson points out, people are good at finding workarounds to beat technological solutions such as But it’s a lot harder to work around that reader who’s read these words before and feels cheated that a writer is trying to pass them off as original.

The way to go is to be clear about what plagiarism is and to attribute anything you take from elsewhere. In simple terms: Tell the reader what you know, and how you know it.

  • Michael Schottey

    Count me among the amazed. I’ve said it in this space before, but I think one of the integral traits a writer needs to have is a healthy dose of pride. Why would I copy someone else’s thoughts on a topic if I believe I’m good enough to craft my own?