Plagiarism is not only stealing, but when done intentionally, it is lying. The Bible contains clear prohibitions against both. Yet something even deeper may also be at work here: honor. We are to give glory and honor to God above all for who He is, and at the same time we are responsible for honoring others above ourselves. (See Romans 12:10) Giving honor is a way to give credit or respect to whom it is due. We are wholly instructed to “render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7). When we build even our words on a foundation laid by others, we owe a debt of honor to those who have given us the basis on which we cause our own words and ideas to stand. Citing an author is a proper way to pay that debt.

Choosing to Cheat

Colleges and universities view plagiarism as serious academic dishonesty, and most have taken preventive measures against the practice in the form of written honor codes. Breaking the trust of higher education by plagiarizing can result in the failure of an assignment, failure of the course, or worse. In 2007, Ohio University revoked a former student’s degree when it was shown that he plagiarized his master’s thesis.1 The following year, the University of Virginia ordered two students sailing on a study-abroad trip to disembark in Greece when they were accused of plagiarism. One student’s defense was that “no one had ever defined paraphrasing for me.”

To my knowledge, there is no research on plagiarism and home-educated students, but research aimed at uncovering the reasons other students choose to plagiarize reveals common themes that are avoidable in our homeschools. Researchers Don McCabe and Daniel Katz report that students tend toward committing plagiarism or other forms of cheating on “tests or assignments that students see as unfair, having little learning value, or are too difficult.”2 Because we know our children’s weaknesses and strengths so well, we can assign work that is challenging, but not too difficult for them to accomplish. If our children complain of assignments we have selected for them as being unfair or pointless, we would likely deal with these as issues of disrespect of our authority long before they would be allowed to become excuses for cheating.

In other research regarding plagiarism specifically among public high school students, Dominic Sisti uncovered rationalizations for plagiarism that include time constraints, a lack of confidence in personal writing ability, and boring topics.3 Because we can allow our children time to explore their interests and practice their skills without artificial deadlines, time constraints are unlikely to be a reason for plagiarism in our home environments. We can encourage our children to become confident writers by concentrating on areas of their writing in which they may struggle—e.g. writing paragraphs, varying sentence structure, transitioning to new ideas—as they appear. Finally, our familiarity with our children’s likes and dislikes means we can assign or encourage writing topics that genuinely interest them.

Researchers will likely continue to explore issues of student cheating and plagiarism from a variety of perspectives. The best guard against plagiarism in our homes, however, may simply be to honor other authors by learning to recognize, respect, and respond to their work.  

Respecting the Work of Others

Reading aloud to our children can give us early occasions to establish the practice of reading the title of a work and the author’s name. This step helps children recognize that the writing belongs to someone. As they grow older and learn to synthesize ideas, make connections, and draw conclusions, this habit can remind them that the ideas of others become the basis for forming their own opinions and making their own discoveries about a matter.