Contextualizing Ethical Scholarship


Plagiarism is a word that often provokes strong emotions in both students and teachers. But sometimes the term “plagiarism” simplifies what is really a complex and very context-specific issue. Students who are often some of their first serious academic writing projects in FYW courses often face challenges and confusion when it comes to the ethics of scholarship.

Some students are challenged by the prospect of really engaging with writers and doing something with those other writers’ texts (beyond the moves just described above). Sometimes, the fear of putting one’s own ideas out there on equal footing with what they’ve been taught to revere as experts can short-circuit their writing. Students may not feel confident in their ability to conduct inquiry, and they may not know how to engage substantively with others’ writing. Or they may not understand what they are being asked to do or how to handle the critical vocabulary another writer has developed. These sorts of situations can lead to misunderstandings, misuse of sources, and academic misconduct.

Often, misuse of sources can attributed to students’

  • not feeling like they have anything to say;
  • not understanding why one would want/need to quote, document, and cite materials;
  • not feeling like they understand what the writing prompt asks of them;
  • not feeling in control of the ideas and/or vocabulary they are being asked to deploy;
  • not feeling like they have enough to say (or, sometimes, that they’ve said it well enough, so why do they need to say more?);
  • not caring about the issue or topic or course (the reasoning: why put in so much work when they don’t care?);
  • or believing that their unacknowledged use of others’ works won’t be discovered, or that their readers don’t care, or that their readers are naïve or not very well read.

In practice, this may result in issues such as the following:

  • A student uses a sentence or two of the Wikipedia biography of a scientist. The student thought the “facts” were “common knowledge” and therefore didn’t need quoting.
  • A student glosses a film-theory word (“jump cut”) using a sentence from Wikipedia.

Or it may lead to more problematic situations:

  • Baffled by an essay by Judith Butler, the student uses a blog written by a scholar to “patchwrite” a section of a project.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, a student “double-dips” for an assignment, using work done for another class in the FYW course.
  • A student self-plagiarizes, using either old work or cribbing passages from an earlier essay (when not authorized to revise or use previous writing).
  • A student hires a tutor to write his essay, claiming that the ideas were his, so having someone else write up their ideas in “correct English” shouldn’t be a problem.
  • A student purchases an essay from a paper mill (that isn’t even a very good match for the assignment).

While many of these reasons might apply to any instance of writing-that-is-not-their writing, there’s more to the problems of how we represent our own ideas in relation to those of others. Those problems boil down to how one approaches what one reads, what one has been told one is supposed to convey in one’s writing, and why one writes at all.