Students wrestle with plagiarism boundaries as U cracks down

Latasha Webb

To plagiarize is to “take and use somebody else’s ideas, words, etc. as if they were one’s own,” according to the Oxford Student’s Dictionary of Current English..

In an era when many high schools and higher education institutions are cracking down on plagiarism, many students still don’t know what it is.

“My teachers always told me plagiarism was if you take any considerable portion of someone else’s work,” said Annemarie Brentrup, a University senior majoring in English.

Brentrup said she was unsure what a considerable portion was.

“A sentence maybe. Ideas are free raid,” she said. “You just have to put it in your own words.”

This is where the definition of plagiarism is gray.

Ideas are only useable without attribution if they have been around long enough to be considered common knowledge. Because the time it takes for that to happen varies from concept to concept, students and educators must rely on their judgment.

For example, according to a reference on the University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing’s Web site, “If other people like you know the material you are including (e.g., who is President of the U.S., what “capital punishment” means, etc.) you do not need to include a citation.”

According to the writing center’s Web site, students must cite a source if more detailed or less commonly known information is used.

This kind of definition leaves some students more confused than before they knew the guidelines.

Mary Willms, a second-year College of Liberal Arts student, said under the center’s definition, everyone has probably plagiarized something unintentionally.

“I don’t know. Seems maybe the rules have changed,” she said.

While it seems University students are unsure of what plagiarizing entails, University officials are working to catch them.

“The idea that University students don’t know what plagiarism is, is unthinkable,” said Tom Clayton, a regents’ professor of English and Near Eastern studies. “They should be learning this in high school.”

Over the summer, University Vice President and Provost Craig Swan and other University faculty took a step toward ending plagiarism at the University.

Swan bought Twin Cities University faculty a yearlong membership to Turnitin.com, a Web site dedicated to ending plagiarism.

“We made a commitment over the summer,” Swan said. “Anyone teaching on the Twin Cities campus can use it.”

So far approximately 30 faculty have signed up for access to the service, and none of them are using it regularly, said Linda Ellinger, the University liaison for Turnitin.com.

“If the numbers stay this low, we probably won’t sign up for it again,” she said.

Turnitin.com can cross-reference words and phrases from term papers with a database of material on the Internet.

The Web site then marks certain sentences and phrases in red, green, yellow or blue, depending on how close they are to someone else’s exact words.

But many University students, while agreeing plagiarism is wrong, said faculty should try harder to consider students’ lifestyles.

“I know technology makes (previous work) more easily accessible. We’re a lot busier generation,” Willms said. “A lot of my friends have to work their way through school. Sometimes it comes down to very little time. But that’s no excuse to plagiarize.”

Latasha Webb welcomes your comments at [email protected]