In my last post on plagiarism, I wrote about the power relationships that are involved with classroom plagiarism. I argued that because of the power that teachers have, they bear some responsibility for protecting both the student and the author. In this post, I focus on what we should protect the student and the author from. A Christian approach to justice means protecting people from being devalued. We must value other people because God values them. The Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff puts rule of justice this way: “to wrong a human being is to treat her in a way that is disrespectful of her worth” (Wolterstoff, 2008 p. 274).
In an instance of classroom plagiarism there are basically three parties that are in danger of disrespect: the author of the work that was plagiarized, the teacher (along with the academic institution), and the student who committed the plagiarism. If plagiarism is conceived of as “theft,” then it is natural to focus our attention on the disrespect shown to the original author. Whether or not the author is aware of the plagiarism, the author is the one whose intellectual property has been “stolen.”
Compared to the original author, the teacher may feel greater insult from the plagiarism. If some undergraduate student pasted a few paragraphs from this blog post into a weekly assignment without quotation marks and without citing me, I would probably never know the difference. On the other hand, if one of my students pasted a few paragraphs from a blog post into an assignment for my class, I might feel insulted. I would feel that the student was trying to trick me and that she didn’t value the assignment enough to do the work. The student disrespected me and my course.
The student also has rights that need to be acknowledged. Consider this scenario. The students in a B1-level English writing class in Korea have studied essay structure and transition signals, but not grammar. As the students hand in their first essay, their teacher issues a stern warning: “If I find any article errors in your essay, you will automatically fail the class.” The students submit their essays, and sure enough, all but one fail the class. (The passing student was resourceful enough to copy and paste something written by a native speaker.)
I think we can agree that the students have had some rights violated. The expectations for student work should be reasonable for the level. It is unreasonable to expect B1-level students in Korea to write English essays without making article errors. The students have a right to know the evaluation criteria in advance, and they have the right to be taught the skills on which they will be evaluated. They have a right to practice and to make mistakes while they are learning. If we ignore these student rights, we disrespect our students.
Suppose we replace “grammar” and “article errors” in the scenario above with “plagiarism.” Is the scenario more reasonable? I don’t think so. Like the use of articles, plagiarism is complicated. Avoiding plagiarism requires a number of complex skills – basic sentence composition, note-taking, paraphrasing, and citation – just to name a few. These skills cannot be acquired without practice. As students practice these skills, they should have room to make mistakes and receive correction without penalty.
It seems to me that the rights most often forgotten in discussions of plagiarism are those of students. For teachers, the rights of students to adequate instruction and practice should be a priority. Teachers are also in a position to sensitize students to the rights of the author as well as those of the teacher. Drawing greater attention to these rights may help prevent plagiarism. In my next post, I will discuss concrete ways of helping students learn to avoid plagiarism.
Wolterstorff, N. (2008) Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Heidi Vande Voort Nam (MA TESL/TEFL University of Birmingham) teaches in the Department of English Education at Chongshin University in Seoul. She is co-facilitator of the KOTESOL Christian Teachers SIG.
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