What is it?
Plagiarism is the act of copying or using someone else’s work and, without giving proper credit or citation, intentionally passing it off as your own. Plagiarism can involve using a single word, a phrase, an entire paragraph or an article—or even someone else’s ideas, illustration, or artistic composition. Paraphrasing that is not properly credited is plagiarism. And if someone helps you with a paper or project and you use words, phrases, or ideas that person supplies, strictly speaking you have plagiarized. Because plagiarism involves aspects of law and issues of academic honesty, one who plagiarizes is liable to severe academic (and sometimes civil and criminal) investigation and penalty.*
What about using Sparknotes, Pink Monkey and other so-called “study aides”?
You are in school to become a more independent person with your own thoughts, opinions, and insights. The hope is that you will also become a more reflective and active member of society. Your teachers believe that the success of our democracy depends on your ability to think critically and independently on any subject.
The internet is full of places from which you can get easy answers on most if not all the books we will read this year. But those easy answers don’t and won’t allow you to form your own responses and thoughts. We all know you want to do well and that you think that reading this type of information will help give you the “right answer”. But this is a dangerous assumption, especially since we English teachers are highly suspicious that a single right answer exists to many of the questions we will ask you. Sure, some answers are better than others. If you overlook some important information, you may come up with a distorted understanding of the material in question, but your own distorted understanding is much more useful from an educational perspective than your relying on someone else’s understanding.
Another reason to steer clear of the easy answers available online and elsewhere is that you will need the skills of being an independent reader sooner than you think. In the near future, you will be faced with texts for which you will have no additional information (some of the short stories and poems we read in class, in-class tests I will give you, the SAT reading sections, and The English Regents Exam). If you are not in the habit of analyzing or you are unskilled at analyzing texts on your own, you will have trouble in these situations. In the larger scheme of things, we all face trouble in a democracy when individuals stop thinking for themselves and rely on others to make sense of complex or difficult situations.**
Because most plagiarism involves the “misuse” (theft) of copyrighted materials, the act is punishable by law. Alex Haley, author of the best-selling novel Roots, conceded that he had “inadvertently included” three paragraphs from another writer’s novel in his own book. An out-of-court settlement was made in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1982 the courts upheld Princeton University’s right to withhold a degree from a 21-year-old honor student who had plagiarized on a term paper. Syracuse University took a PhD away from a student when it was discovered that seven years earlier he had plagiarized in his research. *
Consequences for high school students are becoming proportionately harsh. A first time offence in this course will earn a student a zero on the assignment in question and notification of the student’s parents and dean. After a first time offence, the student will be denied any sort of recommendation from the teacher in question. Subsequent offences may jeopardize college acceptance.
*The definition of plagiarism as well as the first paragraph on consequences is taken almost verbatim from The Staples High School English Department’s document titled “Plagiarism”.
**The three paragraphs on using online study aides are adapted from Scarsdale High School English teacher Susanne Conklin’s Course Expectations and Guidelines.