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Kids learn to plagiarize from their public school teachers

Use quotation marks to avoid plagiarism
This is a made-up quote inspired by a public school teacher who plagiarized me (twice). Please use this slide in your presentations to teachers-in-training.

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: ask your teachers to use quotation marks and citations when they copy/paste text into Prezi shows and syllabi. Without explicit marching orders, some teachers seem to plagiarize, and then their impressionable students end up viewing plagiarism as “mildly bad but acceptable,” just like sharing MP3 files and bootleg Gossip Girl episodes.

How often do public school teachers plagiarize?  I don’t have any real data, but I’ve recognized chunks of my text on perhaps several hundred syllabi, slides, and handouts.  That might seem like a small number (there are a lot of teachers), but I see the frequency as rather depressing. They are teachers — of all people on the planet, shouldn’t they be on top of proper and careful attribution? You don’t even need to find a special character code: it’s SHIFT + ‘.  Easy peasy.

So some teachers clearly plagiarize (and then post the files on the Internet for the whole world to see). But why? Let me allow a teacher to answer that. The teacher quoted below plagiarized from me several times, excerpting parts of my Designing conference posters page onto her syllabus (no quotation marks or citation). When I mentioned this to her the second time, she replied,

“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). If students are able to recognize this as patchwriting (likely, given it was an Advance Placement course), students may assume plagiarism is socially acceptable. If a lot of teachers plagiarize like the above, I think it may explain why so many students in college plagiarize. It can also explain why they seem so shocked when they get penalized.

The teacher above 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 that allows people to legally use copyrighted text or images under some circumstances. But “fair use” does not allow plagiarism (using text without quotation marks and without attribution). I’ve even had university copyright lawyers try the Fair Use Excuse when I mention that a faculty member has plagiarized me — I laugh at this lame defense. Would teachers accept a “fair use” explanation from their plagiarizing students? I don’t think so.

The Fair Use Excuse for plagiarism seems especially common among younger teachers, and I suspect these individuals are second-generation plagiarizers who learned how to plagiarize from their teachers … the first generation that started using Powerpoint in class. Powerpoint is, in my view, the entry drug for chronic plagiarizers.

By the way, the teacher mentioned above has a strong (one-sentence) warning about plagiarism in her syllabus — she clearly knows what plagiarism is and views it as academic dishonesty. (Her school’s academic honesty policy is plagiarized from another school, by the way.)

So if you are a 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 smoke in front of the school, behavior you’d think you didn’t need to explicitly prohibit, but do. Of course, if you’re a typical principal or superintendent, you’re 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.

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. Really.

And if you are a 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 a university web page. If teachers and principals do it (they’re busy!), you can, too (because you’re busier!).

Please also see my page on Preventing Plagiarism.

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