Blog Post

Advice, Anyone? Teaching Plagiarism in an Open-Content Age

For the three years, I’ve taught Rhetoric and General Education Literature to University of Iowa undergrads. And every semester, I do a “plagiarism discussion” day or two, sometime before their first major assignment is due. I assign three or four (rapidly aging) articles on the Doris Kearns Goodwin scandal--usually beginning with Timothy Noah's Slate overview "Doris Kearns Goodwin, Liar"; a defensive New York Times letter "In Defense of Doris Kearns Goodwin," signed by several of her colleagues; Noah's rebuttal, "Historians Rewrite History"; and then Goodwin's own explanation, from Time, “How I Caused That Story”.

Girl Talk Album CoverAnd then, for the next day, we do the Peter Stallybrass article “Against Thinking,” which we discuss in conjunction with Girl Talk (artist Greg Gillis, who remixes dozens of songs into a single track--and releases his albums online for free, because he doesn't get permission from any original artists to use their works in his mashups. This clip shows, real-time, the audio sources that Girl Talk uses). The goal is to have a discussion about the importance of intellectual honesty and credibility, and why the academy values these things, while also allowing a discussion about moral grey areas, the difficulty or definition of originality, and how these are valued outside of the academy. (Music is a good place to start discussion, as my students can all give examples of “borrowing” in recent releases, and they usually have a reasonably good understanding of copyright laws.)

For the first two years, I found this discussion worked fairly well. We would usually end up in a place that acknowledged the perhaps-unreasonable pressures of originality, but that also acknowledged the reasons for concerns over plagiarism are valid. We generally acknowledged that one can (and must) play by the rules, although there is certainly room for discussion over why they may or may not be useful.

But for the past two semesters, I have been struck by how dismissive my students are over the whole issue. Noah's second Slate article compares three passages from Goodwin with the three passages from a source that she plagiarized. My students—or those that speak up—didn’t see this as plagiarism at all. Even three years ago, they would profess shock at the similarity and agree that Goodwin’s rephrasing was unacceptable, even if her explanation was a sympathetic one. But this semester and last, they were absolutely dismissive and didn’t recognize any “plagiarism.” Granted, two classes does not a trend make, but it still makes me wonder.

It seems to me that perhaps instructors and students are coming at this from different directions: for the instructors, a reading like Stallybrass’ that acknowledges that perhaps we put too much weight on originality is a new sort of approach. Opening up a discussion about originality and plagiarism still feels almost subversive, in fact.

But trying to have that discussion with students has been absolutely failing me—and it occurs to me that it may be because they are increasingly coming at this from the opposite direction. For them, collaboration, re-appropriation, and borrowing is the norm. For them, it’s not a moral issue at all: Wikipedia has no sources, except for pseudonyms (if you even know how to look for them). The longstanding academic concept of plagiarism, rather than something that we could re-imagine or discuss, is utterly unfamiliar in the first place.

I hope that doesn’t come across as so terribly naïve as it is starting to sound to me. But the shift even in the past couple of years—if that is indeed what it is—has caught me by surprise. A lesson plan that worked really well is suddenly not working so well. Granted, they know that if they borrow a paper from, that is unacceptable. But if they quote from Wikipedia or some other website with no attribution, as long as they’re using it for their own ideas, how is this a problem? Especially if it was unintentional? The problem, then, is not to begin by turning plagiarism into a conversation, but to impress upon them the seriousness of using someone else’s words in the first place. Which feels, to me, like it now requires a strictly prescriptive, non-conversational  lecture about the very basics of plagiarism.

I feel that I should still be able to turn this into a conversation, no matter which angle of the issue they’re coming from. But the Goodwin and Stallybrass readings don’t seem to be working for this. (I almost feel like a hypocrite—I’ve been turning plagiarism into a conversation, and acknowledging that it can be seen as an issue with a lot of grey areas---but now that my students seem to be waaaay ahead of me on that (or way behind?), I don’t know what to do!)

So I turn to you: do you have recommendations for turning plagiarism into a conversation—from the angle that ultimately needs to impress its importance? Readings, clips, conversation starters that have worked for you?



I can't address the questions you ended this post with, but I would like to share a link to a Chronicle article on plaigiarism (8/14/11). It discusses how rethinking assignments can create the conditions conducive to original thought. I particularly liked his solution of having students write an in-class draft, which then undergoes a revision process. It's like using writing software that removes distractions so that it's just you and the screen. If you can't access the internet in our copy-and-paste culture, you're more likely to produce original work. 


I did read that article! I really liked it. The step I'm interested is the "Talk About Plagiarism Openly" one. We already do multiple drafts, thesis workshops, etc. (if, at the end of those, someone has plagiarized, they didn't do the work along the way either).

Jenkins writes:

"We also need to articulate the reasons that plagiarism is wrong: because it's a form of stealing, because it's unfair to other students, and because it ultimately prevents you from acquiring the writing skills you're going to need—and be expected to have—as college graduates in the work force. In my experience, those reasons make a lot of sense to students. That doesn't mean some of them won't plagiarize anyway, but studies suggest that students whose professors discuss the subject directly are somewhat less likely to cheat."

This is the discussion I like to have in class... but even Jenkins gives, as his first reason, "because it's a form of stealing." And I think the morality of the whole "appropriation" problem strikes the internet generation very differently. Many students download music with zero compunction. How strongly does this "stealing"--especially if something is unsigned, and reproduced in several locations online--register?



Initially I approach plagiarism through student writing rather than through a discussion of infamous plagiarists  -- journalists, historians, novelists -- who have appropriated content.

I have them write, authentically, in-class without access to any secondary material (only primary sources like photos, films, literature, music, paintings) and model and practice the conversation between student writer and primary text.  I have them highlight their most promising insights and work toward thesis generation of sophisticated, profound ideas.  I cultivate original voice and vision before I allow them to engage in wading through secondary sources (of course, a conversation about discriminating among sources is also essential prior to secondary source immersion).  I talk then about negotiating space for these scholars, specialists within the framework of their own understandings -- how now the conversation is chaotic and exciting as the student writer attempts to embed (with proper documentation) these outside ideas that pull the paper in other directions. Writing a research paper is like dominating an exciting conversation.  When we do secondary source research I talk about two types of plagiarism: source of language and source of information.  Because they have been immersed in their own writing and have a sense of ownership of ideas and language -- they are more receptive to a definition of plagiarism through explanation and examples.  I define true collaboration in writing/speaking as giving credit to those who also contribute to this dialogue -- the specialists, experts, scholars -- who shed light on the  journey of  our initial explorations of primary sources.  Appropriation is not collaboration.  As we come together in critical discourse (citing sources verbally as well) and in our research papers we must acknowledge the contributions of others to collaborate with integrity.  It is exciting to synthesize but the elements included in the synthesis, if not original to the speaker/writer, must be cited for their role in the process of realizing the final creative work.   Original work originates in the student's own wrestling with primary sources -- it need not mean it is the first time someone conceived the idea.  If a student is able to document his/her own journey to the insight through free writing (concretizing thought patterns in writing) then the idea is original to student.


Thank you very much for your respones and the ideas! I very much agree with the idea of workshops and having students develop their own voices in their writing before incorporating others.

I should perhaps have added that both of these classes do include thesis and draft workshops. I'm not as concerned about plagiarism in the practical sense--if a student plagiarizes a whole essay, they haven't done work along the way either. I haven't had many problems with actual plagiarism.

But I like to include plagiarism as part of a discussion of why they are in the class, and the value of the work that they do--even as undergrads--as part of an intellectual community. (These are required classes with lots of non-majors.) Further, even when they are writing initial responses to texts, it's more than natural that many students will do some preliminary research online. Often they come away with the idea that it's all been said already, probably better.

This is why I like to have that conversation in terms of plagiarism, originality, and academic rhetoric. Until now, the "shock value" of actually having an open conversation about the difficulties surrounding plagiarism and intellectual honesty seems to have resonated. Recently, that seems to be resonating less, so I am looking for other approaches to this conversation.

I am interested in your suggestion that once a student has produced a strong piece of writing, on their own, that they are pleased with, this conversation about originality may resonate more. Perhaps I will consider changing the timing of this discussion...


One of my colleagues has the students take a pop quiz, which they then grade as a group, after having swapped quizzes with the person sitting next to them. They swap quizzes a 3rd time, ostensibly to complete the activity, but instead my colleague gives whatever grade the test earned to the person who ends up holding it. The ensuing conversation on fairness, intellectual ownership, etc., gets really interesting. 


That sounds really interesting--I already know how indignation can be a powerful start to discussion. Thank you for the idea! I imagine I can absolutely gear the quiz toward something we're doing in class, too... fabulous!



I do agree that the conversation you are having with your students is extremely important. I think that for students to truly invest in it I they must write first and generate original ideas in order to be pulled into the conversation.  
Distinguishing among collaboration and appropriation and originality is important:  because students contribute to a group project, for example, as individuals does the final original project absorb each individual's contribution?This connects to music sampling --because something is created through synthesis does that mean the individual elements of the new "mix" are no longer unique to the artists who created the piece (of course not) -- does mixing remove ownership? (of course not) -- are the original pieces subsumed by the new work?  What creativity did the mixer bring beyond  an organizing principle?  
Another interesting approach to this conversation is what is copyrightable/original work? Consider the work of a director on a play -- The Dramatists Guild takes the position that such contribution/collaboration is not authorship -- see:  and see  
Is a director's creative vision for a play, applied to original work, worthy of its own copyright -- is that layer of interpretation to be considered an original work in its own right?  The conversation continues

I like being able to draw a really explicit link here between music sampling and drama, since, although we don't do music in our class, we do drama...  I've been thinking about reading a play in class and having students (in small groups) present how they would mount a production--style, time period, casting, etc.--and also discuss how those choices operate as a kind of interpretation in itself. I love the idea that I could use this to add plagiarism/originality to the discussion--it hadn't even occured to me that it would be a good place to think about it. Very fruitful suggestion. Thank you for the links, too! This is so helpful.


As an undergraduate student, I can definitely attest to the fact that a few of my peers do not understand the full circumference of plagiarism. I find that when explaining how plagiarism undermines their credibility as well as the credibility of the original author, the idea seems to click. I would say the best way to reach out to students my age would be to have them create something such as a paper or anything original that they would call their own, and give credit to someone else for the creation. I am not exactly sure how to go into great detail about what activity would get this point across most effectively. However, I find that with my generation, and any generation, people like to receive credit for what they came up with. Currently, a phenomenon is going around called the "Hipster Movement" where people who have liked things first tend to claim that they were the originators of certain trends, etc. This is the same sort of idea that anyone would want to present with their own work. I think that by making direct correlations between what they care about would help. Sorry this is so long, and I hope it gives you more ideas. I enjoyed reading your post!


Hey, I invented the hipster movement!  (*irony.* Well, at least I was wearing unattractive glasses before anyone else in my class. I was so cool.)

Your post made me think about bringing class participation into it too... discussion definitely is full of grey areas as to "intellectual ownership," and a good discussion is definitely collaborative. But also, individual class participation is a big part of the class, so I wonder if I could mention how frustrating it can be when someone repeats what you just said, without giving you credit it for it. But it seems that the tension between participation in intellectual discourse for the fun and interest of it vs. participation for professional results (grades, articles, books, etc.) might be paralled in the group discussion v. individual participation grade.

Maybe that would be a too abstract place to start the discussion, though (this is getting meta--a discussion of discussion of discussions.) Perhaps starting with a concrete example like putting on a play, getting credit for a quiz, or writing a paper would be a good place to start, and then move from there to other types of intellectual/cultural discourse...  it's usually a fun conversation, once it starts!



What if you tried framing the discussion about plagiarism in terms of a discussion (possibly referencing Burke's parlor metaphor)? That is, most students are already familiar with the conventions of in-class and out-of-class discussions, e.g. you typically wouldn't repeat verbatim what the person speaking before you said. People usually acknowledge what others have said (implicitly or explicitly) before contributing their own ideas, whether their idea is "original" or collaborative. For example, a student might say, "Yeah, I agree with what Sue said about remixes...but I also think XYZ..."

However, students may not have stopped to think about why. Why do we have these social norms about conversations? Why do we acknowledge who contributed an idea to a conversation? When? When do we implicitly acknowledge contributions? How do the rules differ in various cultures and contexts? How does changing the medium affect the rules and the ways in which we follow or break the rules? Perhaps you could ask if anyone has tried to trace the roots of a folk song or meme. How might that process be problematic in an academic setting, while a minor issue in other contexts?


Wow, John, we were absolutely thinking along the same lines just now (see my response to Ashley). But you just gave me a whole lesson plan on how to frame this discussion... Burke's parlor metaphor might be a really good place to start!

This is starting to make me wonder  is how far into a discussion of academic participation/culture/life I want to take this discussion. We could easily spend a week on it. My students don't write a full-blown research paper, although I certainly will have them investigate secondary sources.  But they're also not majors--most of them aren't in the humanities at all--and it's a required class. We spend most of the semester on literature---which can be a challenge in itself, quite apart from getting (too far?) into the nature of academic/cultural discourse. (Which is perhaps where we should *start* the semester in terms of "justify your existence," but that feels like getting way ahead of ourselves.)   I like the way that you bring other settings and mediums into that discussion---that seems like a good way to anchor it! 

(... I am bookmarking this discussion for my spring syllabus-writing...)


replied in wrong place!


I think that there are some really solid ideas here. First of all, I think that bringing music in as a key part of the discussion is critical here. It's not only something students probably have individual experience with -- it's also something that some will have a more visceral attachment to than their (academic) writing, honestly. 

You may be right that "collaboration, re-appropriation, and borrowing is the norm," however -- as someone else says above -- collaboration and re-appropriation are not the same. There is a different dynamic and idea of authorship in collaborating vs. re-appropriating. Perhaps illustrate this in a very simple, musical way by thinking about cover songs vs. songs written by a team (Jagger and Richards, for example) and explaining who gets paid (or is supposed to get paid) for what when they are recorded/performed? Then again, that could get confusing, too!

I think that even just having this conversation is critical. In a current Information Literacy class, we took a look at this paper which is pretty astounding. Often we're not talking enough about original work/plagiarism at the college level, but presuming that students have talked about this in K-12, which isn't often/always correct. We're also not seeing how lack of research skills/guidance might be putting students in tough spots where they end up plaigiarizing.

I know that you mention that your students are not writing full-on research papers.  However, it seems that helping students understand how to find more relevant research/sources might help them to produce more original work despite time and resource constraints that might nudge them towards plagiarism-through-neglect. Of course, this is something that might benefit their education overall, and isn't specific to English Language and Lit. But, "information literacy" type skills (which include knowing how to cite and use information and sources ethically) do often end up being taught in English courses as opposed to any other specific subject. 

One other idea:  Could you try talking to librarians on your campus? It would seem they'd probably be up against some of the same challenges in trying to relay concepts of original work and plagiarism to students. 




Thanks for the link to that paper!--oh dear, another thing that makes me aware of my own inadequacies...

The information literacy is absolutely relevant, of course, whether we do a full-on paper or not. But it's also "yet another thing"... I sort of start to feel a bit overwhelmed--even resentful, frankly, although I know it's an emotional response. I'm supposed to teach writing skills, research skills, clear argumentation, the importance of originality and not plagiarizing... never mind the literature itself! (close reading, genre, etc.) It feels like so much gets stuffed into the "English class." All in one semester! It becomes one of those things... certainly one can multitask a certain amount, but... it does start to feel overwhelming.  So this semester I decided not to do a research paper and prioritize close reading instead, deciding that the class is, after all, "the interpretation of literature." But then,  without that sort of research, there are not so many places to get a grip on questions of originality, which are certainly relevant to interpretation.

Sorry, this isn't to respond in frustration to you in particular! But I do think it's a difficulty of "too much," especially when we become a de facto composition class, and I do think it can help keep perspective on things to acknowledge the difficulties in this... (ie, I like to complain.)  :)

I should add, however, that we have wonderful library resources here, which I should be organized enough to take advantage of.  The nice thing is there's always next semester...! :)


Hi Katherine,

With regard to your desire to bring music into this discussion, I think that's a great idea and I have introduced the topics of copyright and sampling with music, and then I can move into more practical terrain, like literature and writing, and then images and image use. Have you seen or heard about the film "Copyright Criminals"? If not, here's the trailer: (Sorry - I couldn't quickly figure out how to embed it. Fail.)

I showed this video in a class I taught last semester on Shakespeare and new media, and we discussed the idea of remixing in conjunction with Shakespeare's quartos and the Quartos Archive (, where users can compare different versions of the same play in quartos recorded by different kinds of authors. My aim was to promote discussion about differences between versions, editions, remixes, and the claim of "the original." Students loved the movie and responded really well to discussions on the topic. If you have limited time for movie showing, the documentary excerpts really nicely -- you could pick a short episode and build your lesson around that.


Thanks for the rec! I haven't seen it, but it sounded super-familar... and I realized it's because one of the professors here at U Iowa, Kembrew McLeod, was involved in making it! I don't know if you're familiar with The Killer Apps, but I've seen them perform and what followed was a really good discussions. Wow, thanks for the reminder. I should really see that documentary! Thanks for the suggestion---I'm glad to hear that students responded well! *adds to list*


Here's a link to an article about educating students on plagiarism and fair use by David Saltman in the Harvard Education Letter: "Turning Digital Natives into Digital Citizens" . The article gives examples of how teachers (in K-12, but it applies to post-secondary teachers, as well) are using Creative Commons to show students how work is protected and how to protect their own work.

Does anyone use Creative Commons in the classroom? I'm interested in hearing how you're using it.



Hey, Elizabeth,

I teach first-year composition courses and I teach a project called the Rhetorical Remix ( This project stems from seeing numerous people who were unaware about the history of copyright and subsequently copyleft.

I think fair use is one of the most useful tools for us to understand copyright, as well as step into a deeper conversation about originality. I also use Girl Talk as an example with various interviews and clips, as well as a selected reading from DJ Spooky's rhythm science, and other various examples and clips to discuss fair use and how everything is a remix.

I think the remix metaphor is much more useful than the Burkean Parlor, (I've had some really good conversations with one of my colleagues, Steven Hammer, who has argued this as well), since it highlights issues of originality and what makes a work transformative vs. a copy from the past.

I think, as instructors, if we focus on plagiarism in the classroom, students will naturally just try to learn the surface-level knowledge of citation, which shouldn't be the focus, since it's not the underlying architecture of the problem.


Here's another example--interesting cross of genres: 

Cartier-BressonDylan Paintings Draw Scrutiny (NY Times, Sept 26)

"A wide-ranging discussion at the Bob Dylan fan Web site Expecting Rain has pointed out similarities between several works in “The Asia Series” and existing or even well-known photographs — for example, between a painting by Mr. Dylan depicting two men and a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of two men, one a eunuch who served in the court of the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi."

That could be an interesting way to ask whether or how "the rules" are different for music v. visual art (v., by eventual extension, academic discourse)


Very interesting conversation with lots of good suggestions, thanks to you all for sharing. I used the "Copyright Criminals" trailer in class today when we were talking about coyright issues related to new distribution models. It sparked a really interesting discussion. Thanks for that Kyrstin.


You're so welcome! Glad it worked out. I have to say, that film was one of many things my totally amazing DH Twitter feed yielded last spring, and it paid off in spades. Really grateful for Twitter collab and such smart, generous scholars there. I have a feeling HASTAC collabing is going to yield similar very pedagogically useful ideas.


you hit on a really important point, that also affects me, as I teach public speaking at NU (if you're teaching Rhetoric at Iowa, will I see you at the Midwest Winter Workshop [the workshop btwn our and a few other rhetoric programs] this year?). Other people also have pointed this out, but I do a lot of in-class activities. They work with one another, create and collaborate and then present that work or, they write in class and then present.

For instance, we did manifestos today. They broke into small groups and chose to write manifestos for the Grinch, Willy the Wildcat, NU's mascot, the girl who sings that horrid Friday song, Charlie Sheen, and Kimpossible, the cartoon character. What I am hoping is that by practicing and hashing out the hard parts together, they learn how to get through the tough parts - which is when students seem to be most prone to cheating - and think more creatively. One thing I've noticed as I've gotten older and have been teaching more and more, is that students seem to be becoming super reluctant to stick their necks and show just how creative they are when there is no blueprint to follow. (I blame overtesting, but this is my personal schtick.)

On Monday, they'll perform their own manifestos, but I am hoping that by having had some practice with others that they'll  be able to recall those conversations and really get into the project. 

I've done this emphasis on in-class pre-practice, and it seems to have worked well so far. More simply said, I agree with everyone who said do more work in class, but I would say that adding some group dimensions to that in-class work might also be a fun addition, as well.


I like in-class activities too! They really help--both workshops to get through the tough spots, but also pre-emptive stuff to get the basic tools in place. I'm still working out the details on how to do it effectively without beating it to death, but group work seems like a great way to do it--I hadn't really thought through the possibilities there. Thanks for the suggestion!

I'm not actually in rhetoric myself---I'm an English PhD student, but at Iowa we usually spend time teaching in both rhetoric and English. This year I'm back to English, so it's an all-new syllabus... hence my return to "how to teach" basics like plagiarism in an all-new context, with new material.

The manifestos activity sounds fabulous--I'm bookmarking this in case I do rhetoric again!


Anonymous (not verified)

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