Imagine graduation day for your homeschool, the day you will hand a hard-earned diploma—representing endings and beginnings of achievement—to your child. Together, your family will celebrate this culmination of years of teaching, learning, planning, and prayer. Now imagine that at this celebration, a total stranger intrudes and claims he wrote all the lesson plans that made this day possible for your child.  

Next, imagine a writer putting the finishing touches on a laboriously crafted essay—every phrase polished, every sentence carefully stitched together, and every paragraph flowing from meaning to meaning. All of that work comes to naught when another, in a handful of seconds, merely changes the byline and presents the work as the product of her own pen.  

Both of these scenarios are incidences of plagiarism, and while I have never heard of the former actually happening, in my work as a college-level instructor and tutor, I have seen variations of the latter happen too often. That plagiarism is occurring with increasing prevalence in higher education is only one reason that it is a matter we should not ignore in our homeschools. Here, I discuss what plagiarism is, why it is taken so seriously, and what direction we can find from Scripture in the matter. I explore some of the reasons students give for committing plagiarism and demonstrate how these are easily avoidable in our home education programs. Finally, I share some of the ideas and perspectives from which I have taught my own children to respect the written work of others. Though indeed plagiarism has serious educational consequences and damaging professional ramifications, it is most important that we recognize it and address it for what it is foremost: an issue of integrity.

A Definition of Plagiarism

The word plagiarize is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: use (another’s production) without crediting the source.” Plagiarism can occur deliberately, or it can occur accidentally by neglect or carelessness.

Often, unintentional cases of plagiarism result from a misunderstanding of the protocol for referring to other works. It is acceptable to restate or quote a portion of the words and ideas of another in our own writing in order to establish a point or argue an alternate view, for example, as long as we make known the origin of those ideas. This is done correctly in a process called citation. Citation styles vary, usually according to academic discipline, reflecting the agreement of scholars within the field on a uniform process for acknowledging established research or opinions. A citation contains the name of the author, the name of the work, the date of publication, and other information that aids readers in locating those original works for verification or further review.  

Intentional plagiarism, however, constitutes theft. Authors of written works own an original copyright to their creations, a legal right of protection against someone’s stealing and profiting from that which he himself did not create. Information about copyright law, the types of materials that are entitled to a copyright, and other matters pertaining to copyright may be obtained from the website of the United States Copyright Office. An original copyright, or “right to copy,” is owned by a writer from the moment of the written page. Copyrights may be filed with the office, but it is a misconception that a copyright must be registered or applied for in order to exist. Copyrights are inherent and automatic.

In a society where what one says and thinks can be a valuable commodity, plagiarizing a writer or researcher is akin to stealing from his table. It happens when writers copy and paste from websites, forum posts, or other electronic media without properly citing the source. It happens when writers paraphrase, or re-state unique phrases in their own words, and then neglect to identify where the original idea came from. It happens when writers replicate even the structure of an existing work without acknowledging that it was someone else’s idea first.