Is it plagiarism if a student paraphrases from a book without a citation? Is a student wrong to submit a paper that includes substantial corrections made by a friend? Does plagiarism include the use of a direct quote--with a citation--but without quotation marks around the borrowed passage?

"All are considered plagiarism in one form or another," said Patricia Puccio, EdD, of the College of DuPage, at an APA 2005 Annual Convention session on ethical decision-making in teaching. The session, sponsored by APA's Psychology Teachers at Community Colleges, focused on ways to spot and address student plagiarism and what teachers need to know about copyright law.

"Plagiarism is not easy to define...and without a consistent definition, it is difficult to detect, prevent and deal with," she said, adding that schools also differ in how they define plagiarism.

In fact, the Internet has made plagiarism easier and students more blasé about lifting from Web sites, said Puccio. What's more, plagiarism happens more often than teachers think: A 2005 student and faculty survey conducted by Auburn University librarian Jean Liddell and Valerie Fong, a Foothill College English instructor, for example, found that college students self-report plagiarizing their work 40 to 70 percent of the time, while faculty estimate it happens only 11 percent of the time, said Puccio.

And, in a recent survey DuPage conducted as part of an effort to revise its academic integrity policy, 1 percent of faculty said plagiarism happens "often" and 27 percent said "rarely." Those results combined with the Liddell and Fong study, show "we are wearing blinders, folks, myself included," said Puccio.

Crime and punishment

According to Puccio, teachers may suspect plagiarism when they see:

  • A URL address accidentally pasted in the work.

  • Different font sizes in the text or peculiar formatting.

  • Unusual shifts in language usage.

  • Citations not included in the references.

  • References that are outdated or otherwise not typical to those students would find, such as hard-to-find books.

Another way to spot a lifted sentence or section is by plugging a suspect sentence from the paper into an Internet search engine and seeing what comes up, added Puccio.

If a teacher spots stolen work, he or she should report the misconduct to the dean, even if it's a "first offense," said Puccio. "So many of us don't report plagiarism, and if we don't, then we don't know if it's a first offense," Puccio explained. "Students need to know it will be reported."

Depending on the severity of the violation, punishment can include giving the student a failing assignment grade, failing them for the course or dismissal from the school.

For "petty theft" plagiarism--such as leaving off citations--the teacher's job is to educate the student to head off a repeat offense, said Puccio. Having the student rewrite the paper or assignment, perhaps in the university's writing center under supervision, is one way teachers can be sure the next assignment is clean, she added. She also suggested that teachers:

  • Get multiple samples of students' writing throughout the semester to use as a writing "fingerprint."

  • Create unique assignments that can't be lifted from the Internet.

  • Educate students about the school's plagiarism policy in the course syllabi and include specific examples.

Copyright issues for teachers

Using examples can be helpful in showing a class what an A+ from a previous student looks like for a specific project. But teachers who tap this technique need to know the rules that apply to using students' work as class examples, said panelist Ann Ewing, PhD, of Mesa Community College in Arizona. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), teachers can use a student's work as a class example only if they have written consent from the student, she said.

FERPA mandates that anything a student submits to a teacher for grading is part of his or her educational record and the student owns the copyright. Ewing said she passes out optional release forms that give her permission to show the work to future classes.

Teachers would also be wise to learn federal copyright law as it applies to classroom teaching and multimedia presentations, said Ewing. The use of media--such as movie clips, music sound bites, photographs, cartoons or other images--in student projects or classroom use have portion limitations, she explained. For example, students or faculty can use up to 30 seconds of the music or lyrics of a single artist, up to 10 percent--or no more than three minutes--of a copyrighted video or film, and no more than five images by a single artist or photographer in class presentations.

Panel discussant and APA Senior Legal Counsel James McHugh acknowledged that issues of copyright and plagiarism are confusing "gray areas" and encouraged faculty to notify the APA General Counsel's office if their university or college doesn't provide guidelines on plagiarism or copyright issues.

"Every school should provide its faculty guidance in this area," he said. "If you work for a school that hasn't done that, I would encourage you to try to get them to do it."

Further Reading

For more information on how copyright law applies to education, visit the Consortium for Educational Technology for University Systems at www.cetus.org.