Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hey, That's My Idea!

Plagiarism is a big deal, and it has become further complicated by the pervasiveness of apparently everything on the Internet. Not only are courtrooms full of plagiarism cases, but so are classrooms. My wife, a language arts teacher in a middle school, spends considerable time warning her sixth-grade students on the ramifications of plagiarism and coaches them on the techniques for avoiding it. High school and college teachers have also told me that plagiarism is on the rise, thanks to the ease with which students can cut and paste original materials from reliable websites.

I have an interesting story of my own about plagiarism. Once I received a phone call in my New Jersey home from a University of Colorado English professor. The following conversation occurred.

Professor: Are you the Philip Vassallo who authored the article "Beware the Seven Deadly Sins of Tone" for the journal ETC.?

Phil: Yes.

Professor: Does it begin like this: More than ever, people from a wide range of industries comment on tone issues cropping up in the writing of their teammates, managers, subordinates, clients, or vendors. When writers “sound” inappropriately critical, comical, chimerical, or cantankerous, their readers immediately sense the tone problem and begin building emotional barriers between themselves and the content the writers intend to deliver. For most on-the-job situations the context matters as much as the content; therefore, the
writers’ style (how they say something) is as important as the message (what they say).

Phil: Yes.

Professor: Just as I thought.

Phil: Why do you ask?

Professor: For an assigned class essay, one of my students lifted this and other entire paragraphs of your article verbatim without attributing your article as a source.

Phil: Oh. That's too bad.

Professor: And she's an English major, no less, who expects to graduate after this semester.

Phil: What will you do?

Professor: Move to have her expelled from the university.

Phil: Wow! That seems harsh for a dumb mistake.

Professor: Her only dumb mistake is that she thought she wouldn't be caught. But her choice to plagiarize was conscious, calculated, and criminal.

Phil: Don't you think just failing her for the course is punishment enough?

Professor: Not for such a blatant disregard of scholarly protocol and copyright law.

I managed to convince the professor that a course failure resulting in a graduation postponement and a make-up summer course was punishment suiting the crime, but today I'm inclined to agree with her immediate reaction. Obtaining quality information online about virtually any topic is so easy these days, so teachers have a right to demand from their students a creative interpretation of those sources.

The problem, of course, is that the availability of sources on the Internet makes creativity doubly challenging for inexperienced writers. For this reason, I recommend that students review the best practices for avoiding plagiarism on

My book The Art of E-mail Writing is on sale at Amazon.