Students’ understanding of plagiarism after discussion
Prior to students beginning the research process, we wanted to demonstrate to students just how complicated plagiarism is as a concept by presenting them with multiple scenarios. The first was an article about “contract cheating.” Contract cheating is a problem in many institutions (Alin 2020), and the UAE is not exempt (Farooqui 2020). Like many others, tertiary institutions in the UAE must deal with the problem of students buying entire essays written by someone else. In the class discussion, most of the students agreed that this was a clear violation of the academic integrity policy. But when we moved onto the next activities, this clear boundary seemed to become blurred.
In the next section of the activity, students discussed whether they thought Melania Trump, in a speech given in 2016, had plagiarized a speech delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008. Students highlighted commonalities in phrases. For example, students highlighted the phrase “you work hard for what you want in life.” This phrase was used by both Trump and Obama, but many students agreed that since this is such a common idea espoused in American politics, that it’s unclear who actually gets to own the idea. But the phrase “your word is your bond” was different because it’s a less often used phrase heard in American politics, and that particular use did count as plagiarism. As students highlighted commonalities between speeches, they began to see that plagiarism involves not just similar words, but ideas, the number of occurrences, as well as the speaker’s position. As Ruby noted in the discussion, “Melania should have taken full of advantage of her higher position, her power and resources, yet, she didn’t make use of what she had; it’s annoying [what Melania did]” (POD). Most students again agreed that Trump did plagiarize Obama.
By having these sorts of discussions in class, that is, in an environment where students are not afraid to disagree or question the nature of plagiarism, they can begin to see how the concept is not easy to define. As Maddi stated, “This recent activity helped me identify plagiarism in examples that I would have not noticed before.” And Agatha said,
“I also learned about how it can be tough to identify cases of plagiarism, especially when two authors are writing about similar topics and have shared similar experiences. I think this exercise has taught me how a citation can be the difference between a well researched paper and one that is simply plagiarized” (POD).
Being able to say that plagiarism is not as clear cut as students originally thought was a necessary step as they began writing their own research papers.
Students’ developing understanding of plagiarism and ownership through the research process
Apart from a few students who still were unsure or confused about owning ideas in their papers (Mueller, Sabiha, Abigail), in their SRPR most students felt ownership of their ideas, and their research papers, albeit for different reasons. For example, some students claimed that the way they organized their ideas, how they incorporated their sources, and the general flow and structure of their papers allowed them to claim ownership (Ruby, Elon, Zamir, Agatha, Talida, Jade, Maddi). Others believed that the language used and their choice of words made the ideas in the paper their own (Elon, Agatha, Mishoo, Imaamka). For other students, adding personal opinions and anecdotes were the only true ideas they could claim ownership of (Tea, Malar, Jade, Rima); whereas others felt ownership because of their own interpretations and conclusions drawn from their research (Agatha, Tea, Abigail, Inspira, Maddi). Finally, a few students mentioned that the large amount of time and effort employed in the research writing process was a contributing factor to feeling ownership of the final paper (Talida, Jade, Rima). Below, we discuss in greater detail five students’ written work as each demonstrates different factors influencing their perceptions of ownership and source use.
Individual case studies
Malar is a psychology major originally from India whose L1 is Malayalam. At the beginning of the semester, when prompted to reflect on ownership of ideas, Malar responded:
“I don’t think I “own” the ideas that I discussed in papers because knowledge comes from learning and understanding the world around you. The ideas I use for my papers are knowledge I gained from people and the environment around me so I cannot take ownership” (IQ).
Malar gains knowledge from everyday social interactions; however, she does not feel that she owns that knowledge which seems to disconnect her from those same social interactions.
Malar’s idea of the process of gaining knowledge and ownership was complicated in her research paper on heliocentric views in astronomy. In her SRPR, she stated, “I knew Galileo had constructed his own telescope because in my astronomy course my Professor had mentioned it, but I did not know the date, so I researched the date and how he did it.” In the research paper itself, Malar highlighted in yellow signifying self-ownership: “He watched the skies day and night with a telescope that he constructed” and the remainder of that sentence highlighted in blue (signifying ideas or language from another source) with a citation: “in 1609 that magnified only up to 3 to 30 diameters.” So even though she previously mentioned that ideas gained from other sources are not “owned,” in the research paper itself, she does claim a sense of ownership of the idea.
Also, at the beginning of the semester, Malar focused on language ownership and “writing in your own words” saying this “means to write what you understood from the material you researched or studied” (IQ). In her SRPR, she stated, “This paper is mostly stating facts and explaining how these facts were retrieved. So to say what is my ‘own’ in this paper I have given my opinion on what was done and how things have changed overtime.” She said she did not have a hard time distinguishing between what to highlight. Furthermore, Malar had a perception that when she put something in her own words, she did not need to cite it because it was “her” understanding of an idea. She was using the words of others only when looking up facts. This is further complicated, however, in her research paper. She highlighted in blue the sentence: “Eudoxus of Cnidus, the well famous Greek astronomer, was the first one to believe that everything orbits around the Earth,” but she did not cite any source. Asked whether she could explain not citing this information, in her interview she maintained: “I got the information from class, from a lecture taught by a professor who got this information from somewhere else. I don’t know the source he used, so I cannot cite it. Also, if you google it, there are so many places where you can get this same general information, it is common knowledge.” This example also brings up the issue of “common knowledge,” and whether and how “facts” that are owned by no one and everyone need to be cited.
Malar also demonstrates the idea of entering a discipline and gaining academic discourse. For example, Malar had taken an astronomy course. In her SRP, she wrote: “He also combined eccentricity with an epicyclic model to explain the motion of the planets.” The words “eccentricity” and “epicyclic” did not need to be cited as they had become words that she felt comfortable using, or at least understood from a disciplinary standpoint to draw distinction between common knowledge and disciplinary knowledge.
Mueller is a computer engineering major originally from India whose L1 is Hindi. At the beginning of the semester, Mueller responded: “I do think that I own the ideas that I discuss in papers for classes. Even if it is influenced through other people’s thoughts, it is my own creativity that makes me express these ideas in my own language” (IQ).
This relationship between creativity of language and the ideas of others was complicated as Mueller began his research paper on the childhood trauma of serial killers. When prompted to discuss this relationship in his final paper, he stated,
“The ideas I highlighted in yellow, I can say, are somewhat owned by me. But, on the other hand, they aren’t really my work as these ideas were provided to me through knowledge about the subject which was given to me by someone else” (SRPR).
In a discussion of a draft of the paper, the instructor was curious about a section of the paper that had no citation, but very specific disciplinary language. For example, “delinquents are diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, or various personality or mood disorders.” He had interviewed a psychologist in order to find out more about the topic but didn’t realize he needed to cite that information. In his paper, Mueller summarized the conversation with the psychologist and highlighted the section in yellow (signifying that he owned the words), but he did add a citation with the name of the person and the date of communication. The ideas were provided from “someone else,” but Mueller put the ideas in his own words, and therefore felt a sense of ownership over the language, but still gave credit to the interviewee.
Mueller also commented on the amount of time that he spent working on the paper, which he got from using a research log to take notes: “Over 18 hours. 5 drafts were created in the process. Research took less time. Binding together all the sources took a lot of time” (SRPR). Unlike Malar, Mueller felt some confusion about the boundaries of ownership in the paper, but also a varying sense of ownership of the language and ideas, and clear ownership of the time spent working on the research paper process. In the interview, Mueller discussed a paper with 19 sources he had written in another writing course. Because he had so many sources, he said that the majority of the paper was quotes and paraphrases; as a result he felt “less ownership” of that paper because of the amount of words and ideas he used from his scholarly sources. Mueller’s sense of ownership came from the way he collected and presented the content of his paper.
Elon is a computer engineering major originally from India whose L1 is English and L2 is Hindi. At the start of the course, Elon had a rather simplistic view of plagiarism and “was under the impression that plagiarism is pretty easy to find and is just the use of someone’s work without giving proper credit” (IQ). Throughout his research writing process, however, Elon’s understanding of plagiarism shifted. He wrote:
“[it] depends a lot on the pattern, flow of the text, the ideas and most importantly the context in which it was used. Moreover, the line between plagiarized and original work can be blurred, especially when there is an involvement of “general ideas” and “common knowledge” (SPRP).
Similarly to Malar, Elon started to question “when does an idea become common knowledge?” (interview), implying that once an idea enters the realm of universality, then citing the original source may no longer be necessary.
This newly gained perspective about plagiarism also informed Elon’s growing understanding of idea ownership. Initially, he considered “owned” only those ideas that are a “source of livelihood” for the originator “and thus being stolen would cause supposed damages to the person” (IQ). By the end of the course, and after spending approximately “50 h” (SPRP) between planning, researching and writing his research paper on how artificial intelligence will affect tech industry jobs, Elon concluded that:
“As there is no clear, universal definition of plagiarism and it’s just an idea that we all follow with some basic guidelines, other than the quotes and paraphrases, I believe I own the entirety of the paper” (SRPR).
From this reflection, it seems that Elon moved away from his original thinking that ownership entailed some sort of monetary compensation towards accepting that time and effort spent researching and writing a paper allows for ownership of ideas and specific linguistic terms. In addition, Elon believed that he owned “the way in which the citations are used i.e the way they are ordered and the way they are incorporated into the text” (SRPR); therefore, organization of the ideas also allowed Elon to claim ownership of his work.
What is interesting to note about Elon’s final paper is that the dual color approach (yellow and blue to distinguish perceptions of ownership) did not fully represent what was happening in his paper. As a result, he decided to add a third color. He explained:
“I used green to show that these are my ideas however they have been formulated by studying various other articles and forming an understanding about the subject. These would usually be yellow, however to make it easier to understand what I concluded from research, I highlighted it in green” (SRPR).
By adding a third color, Elon was able to distinguish which ideas he came up with on his own (yellow); which ideas belonged to other authors (blue); and which ideas were the result of his own understanding of the subject based on his research (green). During his interview, Elon clarified this color distinction in the following way:
“during the research process and reading all the research, I noticed that my ideas were actually created by going over all these other people’s ideas and bringing them together. So the third color fit into that category, a little bit of both, the ideas are not entirely mine, although I came up with them. So, their ideas gave birth to my ideas.”
Furthermore, ownership for Elon also meant that the conclusions he came up with were entirely his own and had this to say about the process:
“This was my favorite part about writing the research paper, it really made me feel like somebody could actually read this paper and learn a thing or two that they wouldn’t find elsewhere” (SRPR).
Traditional notions of originality imply being the only one or the first to have a specific idea. In contrast, Elon’s definition of originality implies that the content does not need to be wholly new but that the reader can learn something new from the text. Ultimately for Elon, the process of researching and writing a research paper enabled him to claim ownership of his work in its entirety.
Sabiha is an industrial engineering major originally from Palestine whose L1 is Arabic. In her final paper on racial microaggression, Sabiha followed the assignment instructions and used two colors (yellow and blue, as previously stated) to distinguish areas of ownership. This dual color distinction made it challenging for her to discern what ideas she should highlight in yellow, that is, her own ideas. For example, she stated that:
“mainly in [the] introduction and the topic sentence I always faced a problem as they were not really from one source, [but] it is my own understanding and paraphrasing of various sources, some that weren’t even used in my paper, but I stitched them together to understand better. So, although it is not my own ideas, I still contributed a big factor maybe?” (SRPR).
It is clear from this reflection that Sabiha struggled to distinguish her own ideas from the ideas that emerged as a result of her own understanding of different sources. In the interview, Sabiha expanded on this idea by saying that “some sources were not very useful” to her research paper, but did add to her understanding of the topic. In particular, she felt that the way she organized the ideas taken from the different sources used—even though she did not see them as “her” ideas—nevertheless added to the paper. Moreover, Sabiha’s confusion spilled into her use of quotes and citations, and she claimed that:
“even when explaining a quote I have included, it is my own understanding of it and in my own words, but it is still the author’s ideas, so it was really confusing [...] It is frustrating having to highlight it in blue knowing it was in a way all me [...] and putting in so much effort just for the work to still be credited to someone else is really confusing” (SRPR).
Although Sabiha recognized that “plagiarism is not a white and black thing,” (SRPR) thus expecting some level of ambiguity, she found idea ownership quite baffling and felt annoyed that even with all the effort put into researching and writing her paper, she still needed to give credit. Adding to her confusion was realizing that research is not a standalone investigation, but a continuous exploration of a certain phenomenon, which led her to question the notion of idea ownership. In her words:
“Furthermore, I’ve learned how no one really uses their own thoughts, many times I would find an interesting paragraph that is sourced to another journal, when I open the new journal and find the part which would be beneficial, I find that it is again sourced. Really makes me wonder who had the “first” idea” (SRPR).
Put differently, it was difficult for Sabiha to determine who was the originator—and thus the author who needed to be rightfully credited—of the idea. As a result, she concluded that because all ideas are a result of authors’ own understanding of the same or similar idea, claiming ownership is problematic, a notion that many writers, both novice and expert, share.
Maddi is a design management major originally from Lebanon whose L1 is Arabic. Maddi was one of the few students who, from the very beginning of the semester, connected plagiarism to ownership stating that: “Plagiarism is taking ownership of other people’s work, in other words, using people’s work or ideas without crediting them” (IQ). Nonetheless, she did not feel that she owned ideas written in a research paper but did own the paper as a whole. She explained that:
“if we were to own ideas that are written on paper then might as well own anything I orally discussed in class. I view the paper as a whole to be mine but not the idea behind it. Anyone is free to be inspired by other people’s ideas but what’s important is that they approach it differently and make it their own” (IQ).
For Maddi, claims to ownership are not associated with the idea per se but with the point of view one chooses to adopt when examining the idea in question. In her interview, she explained further by stating: “in the introduction and conclusion, I can see my own voice, but in the body [of the research paper] it’s about how you choose to explain and connect the information you research in your own way even though the ideas you use are not yours, what is original to you is the way you connect the research puzzle together.”
Throughout her research writing process, Maddi’s understanding of idea ownership and its connection to plagiarism did not deviate from her original consideration, but she had this to add about the process itself:
“I learned that the process of writing a research paper is long and multifaceted. Moreover, in order to write a good research paper, you must find the correct evidence that adds to your information rather than just take up unnecessary writing space. As in other English assignments, research requires multiple drafts to assure that the evidence provided from different articles flows together” (SRPR).
Furthermore, Maddi understood “to write in your own words” as meaning “to write what you have read in your own understanding and analysis rather than using the given information as is” (IQ). Put differently, in order “to avoid plagiarizing any ideas for [her] research” Maddi was aware that she needed to provide source information when “using the text’s ideas” even if she didn’t “use the exact wording from the text” and that she needed to approach the “topic in a new light and at a different angle” (SRPR).
When asked to highlight her research paper on physicians’ ethical conflicts with lethal injections in yellow and blue, she claimed to have “had some doubtful moments” because she felt that her “word choice in summarizing or paraphrasing” the source and her way of incorporating it into the paper belonged to her. Yet, she realized that “if you do not cite the source in these situations, even though the word choice is no longer the same, it is still plagiarism because you are still taking the ideas of the author without giving credit where it’s due” (SRPR).
Reflecting on her research writing and on the notion of idea ownership, Maddi had the following final consideration to make:
“As I was writing this research, I realized that for a paper to be yours not every single word in the text must be original, but the way that you guide the reader throughout the text and the way that you portray the message is owned by you” (SRPR).
Maddi realized that using original language to express an idea is not necessarily the hallmark of idea ownership; rather how a writer organizes ideas and, ultimately, how she conveys her message to her readers are the characteristics that lead to one’s sense of ownership.