Do we know what we mean when we call it plagiarism?

by Andrea R. Olinger

Poor notetaking. Trouble paraphrasing. The misconception that if you paraphrase, you don’t have to cite your source. These practices, sometimes called unintentional plagiarism, have long been afflicting students and instructors. Novice students, surely, fall easily into this trap, but no expert writer worth his or her salt should be unintentionally plagiarizing. Right?

The evidence from research over the last decade or so, however, is not so orthodox. It’s hard to know if you’re accidentally plagiarizing, after all, if the experts disagree on what it looks like. Building on the findings of Miguel Roig (2001), Wendy Sutherland-Smith (2005) and others, applied linguists Diane Pecorari and Philip Shaw (2012) showed that the faculty members they interviewed “had diverse and conflicting views on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate intertextuality [a term that refers to the use of language and ideas from other texts]; and that they…were different in terms of the sorts of factors which they weighed up in coming to their judgments” (p. 152).

One example they discussed in their article is the following sentence, taken from the master’s thesis of a biology student whose second language is English:

  • Reed (1999) reported that 50% of the mint cultures in National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) under slow growth conditions were lost due to the fungal or bacterial contamination.

Now, compare it with the relevant excerpt from Reed (1999). Language that appears in the student’s paraphrase is in bold:

  • Some clonal crops are kept in slow-growth storage as in vitro cultures for germplasm conservation (Ashmore, 1997; Engelmann, 1991; Withers, 1991; Withers et al., 1990). Previously, mint cultures held at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) were stored at 4 °C in darkness in 13 mm x 100 mm glass tubes on MS (Murashige and Skoog, 1962) medium. Under these storage conditions, 50% of the cultures were lost to fungal or bacterial contamination (Reed, unpublished data).

This pair of extracts was one of several that Pecorari and Shaw showed to eight university faculty in the natural sciences, engineering, and medicine. Pecorari and Shaw asked them whether the example was appropriate and if it would be considered plagiarism. Comparing the student’s text with the source text, you can see the student repeated a few nouns (mint cultures, the NCGR) and adjectives (slow-growth) that are key to the technical material—a practice that most readers would find acceptable. Also, an in-text citation (Reed, 1999) is present, although the student does not indicate that the Reed 1999 piece cites unpublished data. So far, so good. But what about the last sentence? It’s lifted essentially word for word.

Six faculty members said that this source use was acceptable and not considered plagiarism—one argued that it was acceptable because “only very short extracts of sentences and not full sentences” were identical (p. 154). The seventh said that it was not acceptable but that she wouldn’t count it as plagiarism (although how she reconciled these two the article does not make clear). The eighth was on the fence about whether it was acceptable (but didn’t think it was plagiarism) (Pecorari & Shaw, 2012, p. 153). This kind of word-for-word borrowing, without quotation marks, of longer stretches of language (especially beyond 4-5 words) is what most composition handbooks and our own academic integrity regulations would consider textbook plagiarism.

The issue, it seems, is one of quantity: how long can a borrowed string of language be before it’s considered inappropriate? Faculty members raised a variety of reasons for what Pecorari and Shaw call “legitimate intertextuality.” Some content is in the public domain, as are some strings of language. Sometimes, content can only be expressed in a few ways. And some repetition may be acceptable in, for example, a methods section. However, the faculty members did not agree on “the boundaries of the information [that does not need a reference] or on the length or type of strings that fall into this category” (p. 155).

What we’re left with, then, is a mess. And this is just one small, relatively inconsequential example of disagreement. Given the damage that plagiarism accusations can cause, I’d second Pecorari’s (2012) view that this “lack of consensus” is “dangerous” (p. 3). And although I’d argue that finding consensus in these fuzzy areas is, frankly, hopeless, we can strive to be as transparent as possible with students about our own beliefs and practices, including in those gray areas. To this end, we should share with our students accurate and well-grounded answers to these two questions: How do we deal with common knowledge and common language in our own work? And how do we read theirs?

Scholarship Cited
Pecorari, D. (2012, June). Textual plagiarism: How should it be regarded? ORI Newsletter, 20(3), 3, 10. Retrieved from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity,

Pecorari, D., & Shaw, P. (2012). Types of intertextuality and faculty attitudes. Journal of Second Language Writing, 21(2), 149-164.

Roig, M. (2001). Plagiarism and paraphrasing criteria of college and university professors. Ethics and Behavior, 11, 307–323.

Sutherland-Smith, W. (2005). Pandora’s box: Academic perceptions of student plagiarism in writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 4, 83–95.

Other Resource Cited
Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices

Who are our ESL writers?

by Andrea R. Olinger and Yu-Kyung Kang

English as a Second Language (ESL) students, both resident and international, have always been present on our campus. However, the past five years have seen a steep increase in our international student population, rising to 19% of the student body in 2011-12. (UIUC is, as a result, the U.S. public university with the largest number of international students.) This change in classroom demographics has gotten many folks interested in learning more about these students, whose writing may look different from that of “native speakers.” In this blog entry, we wanted to talk a little about who ESL students are and how you can support them in class. (See also our annotated resource list for instructors working with ESL writers in their classes.)

Like all labels (e.g., multilingual, non-native speaker, English language learner), the term ESL contains certain assumptions about students. We employ it here because it’s widely used to describe students of diverse linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds. At the same time, it identifies English as a student’s second language (instead of, say, a third), it can carry a stigma, and it tends to blot out the complexity of a student’s language and literacy experiences.

Wan Shun Eva Lam, for instance, illustrated the depth and breadth of an “ESL” student’s competence in several language varieties when she followed Kaiyee, a high school junior who migrated from China to the U.S. when she was 15. In communicating online with family and friends in different countries, Kaiyee marshaled, to varying extents, “standard American English, hip-hop English, the Shanghainese dialect that she used in her family, Cantonese and Mandarin that predominated in her immigrant community, and both Mandarin and Shanghainese that connected her to people and events in China, particularly her hometown Shanghai” (p. 393).

Every ESL student has experiences like Kaiyee’s. If part of your first-day-of-class routine involves asking students to submit answers to a few questions about themselves, you could add a few like these to help you get a better sense of the backgrounds of all your students. (And if you have a chance to meet one-on-one and talk, even better.)

In fact, like your ESL students, we all command a unique blend of partial, ever-changing language varieties—dialects, registers, genres, styles. Linguistic anthropologist Jan Blommaert prefers to view everyone’s language competence as “truncated repertoires” because, he states, “We never know ‘all’ of a language, we always know specific bits and pieces of it. This counts for our ‘mother tongue’ as well as for the languages we pick up in the course of a lifetime, and this is perfectly normal” (p. 23).

Think about all the different repertoires you have little or great proficiency in (e.g., French conversation? computer programming languages? certain translations of the Bible?  journal articles in a certain field?). Just because you are fluent in “English,” for example, does not mean that you can easily write a literature review on a topic in abnormal psychology, say, or design and present a poster at an ecology conference without study, practice, feedback, and other kinds of support.

The idea that one can “master” writing, or English, in a single course or in a discrete period of time, is what Mike Rose has called the “myth of transience”: the idea that “if we can just do x or y, the problem will be solved” (p. 355).  And the idea that all of “writing,” or all of “English,” can be mastered is tricky, too. It is better to think of language and literacy acquisition as lifelong, “embedded in content and tied to specific contexts” (Zamel & Spack, 2006, p. 147). This goes for everyone—not just ESL students.

Writing-across-the-curriculum approaches aim to help all students develop the disciplinary “bits and pieces” of their repertoires and participate more deeply in general. “When students are given multiple, meaningful opportunities to write (not just to read) as a way to learn within their courses,” write Zamel and Spack, “they can engage actively with the material they are studying, make sense of their texts, generate ideas and interpretations, make connections, experiment with unfamiliar language and literacy practices, and construct new knowledge” (p. 138). For all writers, and especially for ESL writers, this rich blend of active learning and writing is the way to grow.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lam, W. S. E. (2009). Multiliteracies on Instant Messaging in negotiating local, translocal, and transnational affiliations: A case of an adolescent immigrant. Reading Research Quarterly, 44, 377-397.

Rose, M. (1985). The language of exclusion: Writing instruction at the university. College English, 47, 341-59.

Zamel, V., & Spack, R. (2006). Teaching multilingual learners across the curriculum: Beyond the ESOL classroom and back again. Journal of Basic Writing, 25, 126-152.