National Council of Teachers of English Logo

Teaching about Plagiarism in a Digital Age (The Council Chronicle, Nov. 05)

Students Listen When Teachers Discuss the Issues

Teachers and students can tap the Internet’s vast information and images to create better lessons, write better papers, and plan better presentations. But this educational bounty isn’t just there for the taking—a point that some students who grew up in the era of online music swapping might not fully understand.

For their part, educators are continuing to instruct students on the proper use of sources and are working through how this applies to an ever-wider array of media that students use for classroom projects.

The good news is that talking about plagiarism and explaining that it isn’t okay can influence student opinion about the practice, according to a study by NCTE and Netday. Data collected during the national Speak-Up Day for Students 2004 reveals that students in two grade bands, 3–5 and 6–12, were influenced by a teacher’s instruction about online cheating.

Anne Ruggles Gere, director of NCTE’s Squire Office for Policy Research, reports, “Among students in grades 3–5, when the teacher did discuss online cheating, 61% of students felt copying information from the Internet was cheating. That number dropped to 49.1% when teachers did not discuss cheating. Similarly, 22.6% of students in grades 6–12 felt copying from the Internet was okay when teachers discussed the issue, but that number jumped to 36.9% among students whose teachers did not discuss the issue. At both levels the differences were statistically significant.”

Web Introduces New Concerns

Michael Day is chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) Committee on Computers in Composition and Communication and is director of the First-Year Composition Program at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. He says that most college teachers and programs make a concerted effort to teach about plagiarism and intellectual property issues, but some students will risk punishments such as failing the assignment or class by gambling the instructor won’t have time to check if the assignment is plagiarized.

Often the culprit is a lack of understanding, Day says. “Many of our students are first-generation college students and are somewhat clueless about plagiarism and intellectual property issues. Still others have been raised in the era of the free Napster and other music-downloading programs, and come to us with the attitude that if something is available on the Web, they have every right to use it in whatever way they see fit.”

Day suggests what he says are commonly-used approaches to teaching about these issues: “a lot of discussion of finding and incorporating outside sources at various times during the class, including how one augments one’s own authority by using outside sources properly; creating innovative assignments that involve multiple drafts, teacher-student and group discussion of sources; and [designing] research projects that are so individual that the papers and projects they result in might not be found in fraternity files and on Web pages.”

The advent of students producing PowerPoint presentations and Web sites as well as classes posting work to the Web have introduced new concerns, Day says. “Students need to be particularly vigilant when using audio, video, and graphics from the Web that may be protected under copyright law. It is usually no problem for them to use any sources they like for a project that will only be viewed by the teacher and other class members. But once a student project goes public on the Web, there are many more laws and issues that must be considered.”

A “Culture of Sharing”

Jeffrey R. Galin, associate professor and director of the University Center for Excellence in Writing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, believes students generally know that taking somebody else’s work and calling it their own amounts to plagiarism. However, he thinks they aren’t as sure about how to integrate text they find online into their own writing. “They’re less familiar with the boundaries between plagiarism and citations.”

Galin, who is co-chair of the CCCC Intellectual Property Caucus, says our culture’s proclivity for sharing might contribute to attitudes toward plagiarism and intellectual property issues.

For example, he says, it’s not unusual for lawyers, doctors, professors, and any other professionals to borrow and share materials via copy machines. Although the practice can amount to copyright infringement, it happens widely. In the same way, he adds, students have grown accustomed to downloading videos and music from the Internet and have even developed rationalizations such as “I can get it for free,” or “This person has so much money, he or she won’t miss a little more.”

Galin says Florida Atlantic University takes plagiarism very seriously, however. If students are caught, they fail the assignment, or in some cases, the course. He says a note is placed in their academic file that is removed if they don’t repeat the transgression. If they are caught plagiarizing again, students are usually suspended from the university, and the note stays on their transcript.

In addition to the teaching advice that Day offers above, Galin says plagiarism education should occur in any course that requires students to write, with policies and instructional opportunities. As an example, the writing center at his school offers a workshop on plagiarism that instructors in any discipline can request for their students.

Students as Copyright Holders

Ted Nellen has found that having students publish their work on the Web helps with understanding and avoiding plagiarism. “Since I use the Web exclusively for the scholars to publish their own work, plagiarism isn’t that big an issue. The reason is that each scholar’s work is reviewed by peers and others. Since many eyes are looking at the work, the scholar must be careful.”

Nellen, who holds the post of cybrarian at the Information Technology High School in New York City and who is a member of NCTE’s Assembly on Computers in English, takes the opportunity of Web publishing to teach about paraphrasing, giving credit, Web ethics, and scholarship. He finds that teaching about copyright—and making the point that each student holds copyright on his or her work—helps. “. . . Being a producer makes students sensitive to others,” he says. “They want to be individuals and don’t want to copy someone else.”

Wait to Do Research

“A Proactive Approach to Plagiarism” is what David Noskin champions. He is director of Communication Arts at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, and the author of an article by this title that appeared in English Leadership Quarterly’s recent issue addressing plagiarism (August 2005).

Noskin believes the answer to helping students avoid plagiarism is to “model, model, model.” He also suggests holding conferences with students and focusing on “Are you properly using the sources in your ‘text’?”

The core of his approach, though, is to be proactive, which he describes in the following way: “If you rethink the way students write and research (e.g., writing essays in class initially and waiting to ‘do’ research until after having developed a take on a topic), then you’ve taken a proactive approach.”

In his ELQ article, Noskin explains that the goal of identifying and responding to instances of plagiarism “is to nip such behavior in the bud before it becomes an even greater problem.” Along these lines, his school is among those to require that students sign a plagiarism policy. “Our school is in the process of creating an academic honesty statement that students will have to sign that describes what is and what is not plagiarism—several drafts have been used with students the past few years to educate them.”

While possibly too familiar with the forms that plagiarism can take, Noskin says he’s not as familiar with how the concepts apply to multimedia presentations. He’s not alone in this lack of certainty, according to John Logie, who says he also has questions and thinks many educators could use some advice.

Educators Should Help with Guidelines

Logie is assistant professor in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota in Saint Paul. He also is chair of the CCCC Committee on Intellectual Property. He urges educators to take an active role in creating clear guidelines for using and citing multimedia sources.

For example, he says there is confusion over acknowledging the sources of multimedia that can be embedded in PowerPoint presentation. “That’s not fair for students who want to use technology but [who find] there’s no guidance for how to acknowledge sources. . . . PowerPoint is no longer only for the boardroom or for in-house information.”

He says, like many of his teaching colleagues, he’s answering these questions “on the fly,” but he’d prefer that the profession came to a sense of agreement about what the rules should be. “Lawyers will err on the side of caution. We need to make sure the working teacher is part of the conversation. . . . If teachers are not part of these conversations, policies will be designed to protect universities from lawsuits rather than to promote top quality education.”

Giving Credit Where It’s Due

Mary T. Christel, chair of NCTE’s Assembly on Media Arts, says more teachers are exploring media production as a means of expression. “It is [among] the range of skills within a student’s ‘tool box’ of reading, writing, speaking, [and] visually representing,” she says.

Students need to be informed of fair use, copyright laws, and intellectual property issues as they use images and sound in their media projects, says Christel, who is communication arts teacher/media studies team leader at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

“As it is easier and easier for students and teachers to capture images, text, and sound from the Internet, many media producers at the academic level are ignoring the parameters of law and academic integrity. I want to think that most times it is a ‘sin of omission’ rather than a willful violation. I think much of the trouble involves properly crediting these electronic and digital sources.”

Partnering with Journalism Teachers

Linda Barrington, chair of the NCTE Assembly for Advisers of Student Publications/Journalism Education Association, suggests that English and journalism teachers work together to teach about plagiarism, copyright, and other ethical issues related to writing such as bias, invasion of privacy, misrepresentation, and irresponsibility.

“Always, plagiarism and copyright violations are a critical concern, whether in an English or journalism class,” says Barrington, who teaches English, speech, and journalism and serves as co-advisor of the Cardinal News at Wauwatosa East High School in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. “What has changed is the plethora of information on the Internet that is available to any user.” This availability tempts both students and professionals, she says.

Barrington explains, “plagiarism in English classes and copyright violations in journalism are two sides of the same coin. Whether we are English or journalism teachers, our concern is for students to, first of all, develop ethical work habits, and secondly, to grow as writers and researchers in developing and presenting their own ideas, doing critical thinking in making inferences, and drawing conclusions without having to appropriate the information of others.”

For educators wanting to learn more about ethical issues and writing, Barrington suggests turning to Law of the Student Press from the Student Press Law Center (available through the JEA bookstore,, other JEA materials, and resources available through the Newseum (

Copyright Awareness Week

Monica Corton, vice president of creative affairs and licensing at Next Decade Entertainment, Inc., believes you can’t expect someone to do the right thing when they don’t understand the issues. She thinks a lack of understanding is most often behind the rampant downloading and using of copyrighted works.

“My experience is once you explain to people how [copyright] works and who is hurt by you stealing someone’s music, they are much less inclined to do it.” Corton is chairperson of Copyright Awareness Week, which is set for March 6–10, in 2006. The annual event is sponsored by The Copyright Society of the USA to educate students about copyright issues. This year, NCTE is working with the group to develop and highlight resources.

Corton prefers to appeal to students’ creativity and their rights as creators of original material. This helps them better understand and respect the rights of others, she says.

“What we try to do with Copyright Awareness Week is give people a general understanding of how the copyright law protects creative people and why it’s necessary to acknowledge the owners of the various copyrights that students are using and to get their permission.”

Corton says students need to obtain permission to use copyrighted materials in their multimedia presentations that might include music, writing, and video elements. Because it’s an educational use, she says students would most likely be granted a gratis license allowing them to use the material for free.

She does allow that the concepts of copyright and fair use are complicated legal issues and that court rulings are often contradictory. The aim of Copyright Awareness Week is to provide some educational guidance, she says.

“We’ve tried to provide a general framework for teaching—what is copyright, what does it do, how does it protect people? Then on the other side, we’re trying to give teachers concrete examples of when students should get permission, how to do it, and how to determine when they need to get permission.”

For more information about Copyright Awareness Week and for resources about copyright and fair use issues, visit

The Council Chronicle is published four times a year (March, July, September, and November) by the National Council of Teachers of English as an exclusive membership benefit. Join NCTE by visiting or calling 1-800-369-6283.

Document and Site Resources

Share This On:


Anonymous commenting is not allowed. Please log in with an individual NCTE account to post comments to this page.

Most Recent Comments (1 Total Posts)

Posted By: Anonymous User on 7/16/2012 7:33:23 AM

I'm an 8th grade language arts teacher in a high poverty school. The "culture of sharing" is right on target and must be acknolwledged by teachers. I would like to add that last year I had the best research papers I've ever had because I spent so much time prior to the research project having students develop their own voices. By showing them that their voice was worth hearing, I had fewer students who felt the need to copy the words of others to get their point across. Donna Hawkins

Page Tools:

Join NCTE Today

Related Search Terms


Copyright © 1998-2019 National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved in all media.

1111 W. Kenyon Road, Urbana, Illinois 61801-1096 Phone: 217-328-3870 or 877-369-6283

Looking for information? Browse our FAQs, tour our sitemap and store sitemap, or contact NCTE

Read our Privacy Policy Statement and Links Policy. Use of this site signifies your agreement to the Terms of Use

Visit us on:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Linked In
  • Pinterest
  • Instagram

Document URL

Document Owner

Organization Name

NCTE - The National Council of Teachers Of English

A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts