This post is for public school principals and superintendents — people who are in a position to set broad educational policies and to rally teachers, staff, and students to achieve those goals.
Here’s my plea: direct your teachers not to plagiarize. That means, in practical terms, tell them that when they use copy/paste to get text for their Prezi shows and syllabi, they should be (1) adding quotation marks and (2) citing the source. Without explicit marching orders, some teachers will plagiarize, and then their impressionable students will end up viewing plagiarism as “mildly bad but acceptable,” just like copying MP3 files. You are in a perfect position to establish normative behavior. Use your power.
How often do public school teachers plagiarize? Well, I don’t have any real data, but I’d estimate that over the past few years several hundred teachers have plagiarized chunks of my text (from this website you’re reading) onto syllabi, slides, and handouts. That might seem like a small number, but compared to zero — which it should be — I see the frequency as rather depressing. They are teachers — of all people on the planet, shouldn’t they be on top of attribution? You don’t even need to find a special character code: it’s SHIFT + ‘. Easy peasy.
So they clearly plagiarize. But why? Let me allow an Advanced Placement teacher to answer that — I quote her below, anonymously. This teacher has has plagiarized from me in the past, too, excerpting chunks from my Designing conference posters page onto her syllabus without using quotation marks or providing a citation. Here’s her most recent response when I asked her to stop it:
“You’re absolutely right. Sorry again. It is a good resource and it helps kids, which is why I use it. I can see why you take issue that it is part of my syllabus which is tied to me/my class, but the teaching world couldn’t possibly, on every single document/worksheet/test we give our students, quote or cite source for chunks of information we use to help our students learn things. Education (at least where I teach) moves too quickly to do so, and we already have too much asked of us in and outside of the classroom. But yes, it is a large amount of information taken directly from your site/work.”
On her syllabus are chunks taken from other people, too (you can tell partly because the font and writing style are completely different; again, no quotation marks and no citations). Unless her students are developmentally delayed (unlikely in an Advanced Placement course), they will recognize the patchwork plagiarism and assume that if they are busy, too, then plagiarism is OK. And this teacher behavior is partly why we have so many students in college who plagiarize and then who seem so shocked when they get penalized.
By the way, the teacher mentioned above has a very strong (one-sentence!) warning about plagiarism in her syllabus — she clearly knows what plagiarism is and views it as academic dishonesty. I’d really like to ask whether her public school teachers showed her to plagiarize — I suspect so. (Also by the way, her school’s academic honesty policy is plagiarized from another school. That’s a different post, which, in fact, I’ve already made.)
So if you are principal or superintendent, please use your influence to encourage your teachers to model academic honesty. It’s in the same vein as asking them not to have sex with students or to smoke in front of the school, behavior you’d think you didn’t need to prohibit, but do. Of course, if you’re a typical principal or superintendent, you’re intensely proud of your teachers and are thinking right now, “But my teachers are all great — this is simply not an issue at my school/district.” And — forgive my bluntness — you’d be delusional. I’ve had email chats with plagiarizers at some of the most elite schools (private and public) in the United States. Their being well-qualified and inspirational doesn’t mean they are not plagiarizing. And in case you’re curious, most teachers are embarrassed and apologetic when I confront them, but some are not (I take them to the principal’s office if they are non-compliant … works like a charm).
If you are not a principal or superintendent, but know one, please consider sending this post to them. If you happen to be an education professor in college, you might want to add this issue to your teacher certification program (but that’s just me).
And if you are student who has just been caught plagiarizing (oopsy!), the above information is your ticket out of the trouble! Just analyze (via Google search) your teacher’s syllabus (or Prezi slides, or whatever) and document his/her plagiarism. Then show the results to the principal and argue that your teacher showed you, by example, that it was totally acceptable to copy/paste without attribution. To further make your case, plug in your school’s academic honesty policy into Google — chances are that your principal plagiarized it from some university web page. If teachers and principals do it (they’re busy!), you can, too (because you’re busy!).
Essentially, the teacher is using what I like to call the Fair Use Excuse. “Fair use” is a quasi-official term that describes a clause in the US Copyright Act, and allows people to use copyrighted text or images material under some circumstances. But “fair use” does not permit plagiarism (or image theft; e.g., no attribution given). I’ve had teachers, companies, and even university lawyers insist that “fair use” does allow plagiarism. They are all off their meds. Would teachers accept a “fair use” explanation from their students? I don’t think so.
The Fair Use Excuse for plagiarism seems especially common among younger teachers, and I suspect they are second-generation plagiarizers … they probably learned how to plagiarize from their teachers, the generation that started using Powerpoint in class. Powerpoint is the entry drug for chronic plagiarizers. Soon they moved onto Prezi, then started plagiarizing even their plagiarism statements.
For a great overview of how teachers can better reduce plagiarism in public school, this. Please also see my page on Preventing Plagiarism, wherein I make a special plea to elementary schools teachers.