Faceplam imageWhen people find out that you’re an expert on plagiarism, they tend to ask you a lot of questions.

Some of those questions are good, some of the questions are bad and some are really, really bad.

But of all the questions I get regularly, one stands out. It’s a question that is not only impossible to actually answer, but isn’t a good starting point for a conversation about plagiarism.

The question:

How much do you have to change for it not to be plagiarism?

This question usually comes from students worried about how to avoid being accused of plagiarism in their assignments.

But, while I would understand it if it were a question from students early in their academic careers, I routinely hear it from college and even graduate students.

So today, I want to tear down this question, explain why it’s deeply flawed and what are better questions to ask, especially to your instructors.

Why the Question is Flawed

Mistake ImageThe question is flawed for a simple reason: The amount you change has nothing to do with whether or not it is plagiarism.

Plagiarism, fundamentally, is an issue of citation. If you correctly cite the content you use, it’s not plagiarism. It might have other issues such as copyright infringement or simply not completing the assignment, but it’s not plagiarism.

It’s like asking “How many radios do you need to make a car?” or “How many collars are in a dog?” Sure, cars have radios, dogs use collars and rewriting text is a part of properly citing works, but they aren’t central to the issue.

A better way to rewrite the question would be, “How much do you have to change text to have paraphrased it?”

However, that question is also deeply flawed.

That’s because it begins with the assumption that the way to paraphrase content is to take the source material and somehow rewrite it. However, if you’re correctly paraphrasing, you are writing entirely in your words and only expressing the ideas and information in the source.

In short, the amount you have to rewrite to paraphrase is effectively 100%.

However, that’s not the answer that version of the question wants. That’s a question seeking a specific rule that tells them to change every third word to rearrange the sentences.

This means that,¬†even when the original question is rephrased, it’s a leading question that does little to help educate on how to properly cite.

Fortunately, there are better plagiarism questions that can be asked.

Asking Better Plagiarism Questions

Rather than asking “How much do you have to change for it not be plagiarism?” the focus needs to be on how to ask better plagiarism questions that help students learn how write in an ethical manner.

To that end, here are a few examples:

  1. How Do You Paraphrase Properly? Schools often fail to teach proper paraphrasing. While they explain that you need to write something your words, students often times interpret that a need to rewrite what was written, not write from scratch. Teaching systems and processes to paraphrase is crucial and it starts with this question.
  2. When Do You Quote/Cite? Not every fact needs citation and not every phrase lifted verbatim needs a quote. Facts that are common knowledge typically don’t get citations and common phrases or expressions often don’t get quotes. Helping students understand when a piece of information needs to be cited or a passage needs to be quoted is useful.
  3. What is the Standard of Attribution? Not every work has the same standard of attribution. Some use academic formats such as MLA or APA, some use hyperlinks and others use in-text acknowledgements. Determining that standard for attrinution that’s appropriate for a work is crucial to providing the correct level of citation.

The crux of all of these questions is that they think about citation as part of the writing process, not something separate from it.

It’s about writing so that you don’t plagiarize, not adding citation to a plagiarized work.

Bottom Line

Teaching students how to avoid plagiarism isn’t just about giving them good information, it’s about teaching them how to ask good questions.

After all, if they can’t ask for the information they don’t have, they haven little hope of learning.

Unfortunately, too often students get sidetracked when it comes to plagiarism and ask questions under mistaken beliefs.

Those questions don’t lead to further understanding because, even when rephrased, they are leading questions seeking answers that don’t exist.

Greater wisdom about plagiarism begins with a better conversation. A better conversation begins with better questions.

It’s that simple.

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