Why is Plagiarism Such a Problem?

Plagiarism is too often treated as “stealing” or as an issue of such monumental importance that opportunities to concentrate on skillful writing and thinking disappear from class or workshop time. Sean Zwagerman points out how that many institutional practices designed to “catch” cheating are often unethical and counterproductive. In turn, educators miss valuable opportunities to teach the complexity of citation. Stanley Fish argues that plagiarism is not a moral issue; it is a disciplinary issue. By that, Fish means that giving recognition, using citation formatting, and preforming related acts in writing are based on professional needs, nor moral ones. To know those needs, one has to first learn them.

In other words, rather than treat plagiarism as a crime or moral offense, teachers need to teach the professional, disciplinary reasons for citation. The media and genres we read outside of the university seldom cite. Novels, newspaper stories, magazine essays, websites, all may have information that was researched and all may rely on other’s ideas. Few of these examples, however, provide a Works Cited or in text quotations with references.


Students “plagiarize” for many reasons other than because they are lazy or dishonest. A few of these include:

  • In some cultures, borrowing someone else’s words and thoughts is considered a high form of flattery and “giving credit” is not a familiar concept.
  • Many forms of popular culture, literature, the arts, journalism and other areas of expression borrow ideas and work without giving credit.
  • “Intellectual Property” is not valued by most undergraduate students because they usually do not know what it really means.  And the definition of the phrase is rarely given. Teachers take too much for granted when it comes to plagiarism fiascos.
  • Plagiarism is often confused with incorrect citation, so the tendency is often to give too much weight to whether a particular citation style is used correctly.

The important teaching we can do for students, then, is to educate them about citation resources.  Few academics memorize citation styles, and we should not require students to memorize them either.

The other thing we can do is design assignments that don’t lend themselves to plagiarism.  Assignments that are unique, original, or specific to a task or problem cannot be easily copied from another source because they require specific approaches.


We will be more successful in helping students learn not to plagiarize if we take time to give them some ideas regarding why citation even exists. Students almost always respond to assignments that  make sense, have some purpose rather than being asked to do something  in a vacuum  or to please a teacher, and/or are only for a “grade.” Thus, every teacher who expects students to reference sources responsibly should attend to the following:

  • Define it concisely, in the assignment and in class discussion. What exactly does “plagiarism” mean?
  • Make certain students know WHY they must cite:
    1. To enhance the ethos of student writers by showing they have grounded their argument, by framing the points they’re making, and by demonstrating their overall “message” with solid, researched evidence.
    2. To give “credit where credit is due.”
    3. To perform a service; citations make it possible for readers to find the source and read further on points being made, if they desire.
    4. To show the overall conversation or discussion regarding various writers speaking to the same subject. Ideas are part of larger conversations, and citations help show readers those conversations.
  • Design assignments specific to the course that cannot be found elsehwere in reproducible form.
    1. Are your assignments rehashed “topics”?
    2. Are your assignments unique to your course?
    3. Do they teach critical thinking or merely repeat known information?
    4. Do they allow students to actually use citation as not an after thought or a rephrasing of someone else’s work, but as a way to build a piece of writing out of ideas? Citations, after all, are the writing itself, not add-ons.