Theft of Knowledge Part II – Students

By Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh

In nearly 20 years of teaching college writing, I’ve run into only a handful of students who intentionally plagiarized their work, but every semester I find several who accidentally plagiarize. I suspect many of them have cut and pasted in the past and sincerely don’t see anything wrong with it, or they just can’t believe that they are capable of writing their own words. And more often than not, it’s because they simply aren’t documenting when they should.

As I said in Part I, the penalties for plagiarism are steep. Most colleges and universities have a “three strikes and you’re out” policy: first offense—fail the paper, second offence—fail the course, third offence—expulsion. In 2006, Ohio University withdrew the degrees of a number of graduate students who had plagiarized parts of their Master’s theses, and other institutions are following this lead and considering plagiarism a form of fraud (Knight). And while the Internet has undoubtedly made it easier for students to plagiarize, it has also made it much easier for them to be caught.

So what can a student do to avoid plagiarism? The key is documentation. The most common forms of documentation in college are MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychiatric Association). MLA is used mostly in the humanities and APA in the social sciences, and occasionally other formats are used—be sure to ask before you write a paper. Documenting is a two-step process that includes in-text parenthetical documentation and a works cited or reference page. Don’t try to memorize the citations; your college will recommend or require a handbook that you can use for reference, and beware of websites because they are often out-of-date or just plain wrong. I recommend Purdue Universities OWL site for accuracy and trustworthiness (Online Writing Lab).

What to document is as important as how to document. Often students believe that only direct quotes need to be documented, but that is what usually gets them into trouble. Paraphrases, summaries, and ideas should be documented as well, and neglecting to do so is considered plagiarism. And as much as I hate to point this out because it is sometimes misunderstood, there is a loophole called general knowledge. General knowledge is something that is commonly known like historical dates, the periodic table of elements, basic common fact, etc. It’s the “etc.” part that gives people trouble. I tell students that if it is in a common encyclopedia then it is probably general knowledge, but when in doubt, document anyway.

While all of this seems complicated and unnecessary, like anything, it gets easier with use. Don’t be tempted to skip documentation because it can be tedious. It can keep you out of trouble and make you a better writer.

Although you may use this advice freely, the writing is copyrighted and may not be used without the express permission of Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh. Email her at for more information.


About Stacy Bender

Author of Ursa Kane and the Sav'ine series.
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