Defining the Problem

Many faculty members believe that plagiarism is a growing problem in student work. Some blame the Internet, others the lax ethics in business, politics or other arenas, and yet others blame test-based teaching and the decline of writing instruction in high schools. Other scholars, though, disagree with the assertion that plagiarism is increasing and, by extension, how important “the problem” of plagiarism really is.

EMU Library Resources:


Plagiarism versus Misuse of Sources

The most important distinction to be made about plagiarism is between cheating and misuse of sources. It is crucial that faculty understand that plagiarism (consciously using and taking credit for others’ work) and misuse of sources (students mistakenly using others’ work without proper accreditation and/or citation) require radically different approaches in the classroom.

Purposeful cheating, whether plagiarism or making up data or in any other form, is an ethical problem. Solutions include improving the campus and classroom ethical environment, spelling out the rules, and following up with appropriate consequences.

In contrast, misuse of sources in a class setting is a pedagogical problem. Solutions include integrating the use of sources into classes, and giving students many opportunities to learn about and practice the use of sources in a variety of genres and disciplines.

The practical significance of this difference cannot be overemphasized. Fierce declarations and stern warnings about “not plagiarizing” will not force students to employ conventions that they have not yet mastered.

Faculty should remember that writing is a recursive process, learned gradually with feedback and practice. In introductory writing classes (such as EMU’s ENGL 120 and 121), students learn how to analyze what conventions their audiences expect them to use and to develop some strategies for meeting those expectations, but it would be impossible for them to master all the different practices expected of students in the various classes and other writing situations they will encounter at EMU.

All teachers, even those outside the English Department, are responsible for teaching students about the conventions and genres of their discipline.

On distinguishing cheating from misuse of sources:

On patchwriting:


Special Note on International Students

There is an ongoing debate concerning the ethical standards as well as conceptions of how to use sources by international students in the U.S. Some suggest that intentional plagiarism is widely practiced in Asia and Africa due to ethical laxity that extends to cheating on exams. Others suggest that international students do not intentionally plagiarize, but instead work from a different definition of “common knowledge” that includes the works of authorities, or that students assume the papers they write for class are a different genre than academic papers because they are writing for a professor who already knows all the sources they are writing about. It is most likely that some of each of these differences are in play.

Since the situation is complex, it is best for an American professor to avoid presuming too much. The best approach is to spell out for students, international and local alike, 1) ethical principles of your particular classroom; 2) conventions of the discipline; and 3) conventions of the types of writing (or genres) that are assigned in your class (i.e. a first-person essay, an essay in a discipline’s style, a journalistic report, a lab report, etc.).

On International Students:

  • Badke, William B. “Excursus – What’s the Big Problem with Plagiarism?” Beyond the Answer Sheet: Academic Success for International Students. New York: IUniverse, 2003. 97-103. <>
  • Errey, Lynn. “Plagiarism: Something Fishy?...Or Just a Fish Out of Water?” Teaching Forum 50 (Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development) (Autumn 2002): 17-21 <>
  • Ha, Phan Le. “Plagiarism and overseas students: stereotypes again?” ELT Journal 60.1 (2006):76-78. (available for EMU via: Oxford Journals Online)
  • Howard, Rebecca Moore “Plagiarism: Intercultural Issues” <>
  • Sowden, Colin. “Plagiarism and the Culture of Multilingual Students in Higher Education Abroad.” ELT Journal 59.3 (2005):226-233. (available for EMU via: Oxford Journals Online)