The only way teachers can know if students really know something is to have them demonstrate their knowledge or skills. These demonstrations are called tests and papers. If students know a subject, they can write about it in their own words. Their writings will demonstrate the depths of their knowledge and their thoughts about it.

Data is meaningless without thoughtful interpretation. This is the basis of education, and is one of the ways new knowledge is developed. Since students are individuals, and since no two students look at the same data or interpret that data exactly the same way, each interpretation is original.

The basic difference between professionals writing papers and students writing research papers is their levels of expertise. In both cases, new knowledge is presented. The professionals are usually presenting the results of experimentations. Students either pose or answer specific questions about the results or the probable effects of the experiments, or they discuss the implications of the experiments. Both are really writing research papers from different perspectives.

All professions have a code of ethics which demands intellectual honesty about intellectual property. While intellectual property is not the same kind of property as a house or a car, it is recognized as the product and result of research and invention. Professional respect, reputation, honor, stature, and fame are based upon intellectually honest work. The quickest way students can ruin their reputations and lose respect is to make the mistake of committing plagiarism--the theft of someone else's intellectual property. Plagiarism is the dishonest act of taking of someone else's ideas, writing, or research and passing it off as their own. This dishonesty, plagiarism, is taken seriously by the academic community and is considered an offense with consequences as severe as expulsion from the university. Most universities publish and distribute student handbooks which outline the consequences of plagiarism.

Students plagiarize for many reasons--laziness, procrastination, habit, or ignorance that what they did really was plagiarism. Pleading ignorance at the university level is the poorest of poor excuses.

Students may ask the question, "How does Dr. So-and-So know plagiarism has been committed in a paper?" The following list includes some of the ways professors identify plagiarism:

  • Professors are professionals in their fields. Students are nonprofessionals striving to become professionals. Because they are professionals, professors walk the walk and talk the talk. They are comfortable with their subjects, its methods, and its vocabulary, and they know is how to pronounce, spell, and define terms. Since they are in the process of becoming professionals, students lack expertise and comfort with a subject, its methods, and vocabulary. In short, while professionals can walk, students stumble; while professionals can talk; students mumble.
  • Writing styles are much like the sounds of voices. There are voices which are familiar to millions of people and are recognized as soon as they are heard--Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, and Kermit the Frog. Just as no two people sound the same, so, too, no two writers write the same. Each has what is called a writing voice. Students also have their own writing voices. Just changing a word or two of another writer's work is the commonest form of plagiarism. This is stealing another writer's style and claiming it as one's own. Because professionals are engaged in lifelong careers, they know and recognize the writing styles of their colleagues. This knowledge makes them capable of detecting cutting and pasting and poor paraphrasing in the writings of students. One other note--English teachers study stylistics. They are taught to recognize the word choices, tones, and other particular characteristics which make up the styles and voices of writers.
  • Every profession requires that its publications follow a particular style manual, such as used by the American Psychological Association (APA). Knowing the style manual is simply another one of the skills professionals must be comfortable with. Often, when copying information, cutting and pasting information, or buying research papers, students ignore the style manual. They will accept and hand in papers using the MLA (Modern Language Association) style manual or papers using the footnote or end note style in Microsoft Word when the assignment or profession calls for another style. Worse yet, students will hand in papers which are a potpourri of styles. Cheating students who engage in plagiarism are breaking faith with themselves, their professors, and their futures. Students buying papers or copying papers from other students seem to have absolute faith that these cheaters are being honest with them, a sort of honor among thieves thing which is hard to defend or understand.
  • Because research papers require the formats of style manuals, they all require a "References," "Works Cited," or "Bibliography" page. Within this page lies self-destruction for the plagiarist. Students who list sources which do not contain the information presented in the paper or who omit sources from which they've plagiarized make cheating easy to detect and verify. Just the suspicion of plagiarism will set off alarms in the minds of professors. Students need to remember that one of the differences between a professional and a amateur is that the professionals know their subjects: yet, they always check, recheck, and then check again. Research and writing are important to them, and they do tend to become upset when students violate their professions' integrity.

Avoiding Plagiarism

Avoiding plagiarism is easy. Students must simply write about their subjects in their own voices and words. Remember, students do not really know something until they can write it out in their own words. Students need to research, study, and read until they can close their books and journals and write something out in their own words. The longer the time is between the reading and the writing, the truer the grasp of knowledge will be.

Students must plan ahead and sacrifice some of their present pleasures for future rewards. Writing research papers requires time and planning. One will not work without the other. The worst papers students write are the all-nighters the day before the papers are due. As with all things in life, there is always the unexpected, and all-nighters frequently meet the unexpected. Sources often are not available late at night. What looked like a good source turns out to be a bummer and the library is closed. Students fall asleep early in the morning only to wake up and discover they have even less time to complete the assignment. This causes them to become careless and make huge mistakes, like the student who decided to hand in his friend's research paper which had been written for a different class and instructor. He copied the paper, word for word. Unfortunately, he mistakenly stapled his friend's paper to his own. His plagiarism was never questioned; it simply was, and a student failed who otherwise might not have.

The best advice students can heed is to attend class; to listen to their professors; to follow instructions; to do their own work as it is due; and to make time for their research by following a daily schedule of work which will result in a paper both they and their professors can be proud of.

One last word about plagiarism--professors are aware of Internet sites such as School Sucks where students can buy research papers. Students need to know there are sites such as Plagiarism.org and CopyCatch.com where papers can be checked for plagiarism. Plagiarism.org and CopyCatch.com are capable of searching the entire Web for stolen or purchased papers. Honesty is still the best policy and best way to receive a grade to be proud of; dishonesty (plagiarism) is failure and unpleasantness beyond a failing grade.

By Bernard Selzler, Ed.D.