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Writing With Integrity: Serious Talk About Plagiarism

  • Lee Ann Dickerson Educator
  • Updated Oct 22, 2014
Writing With Integrity: Serious Talk About Plagiarism

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.

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.

Young writers with limited knowledge and experience who are not yet able to tackle writing reports can still benefit from writing assignments that allow them to strengthen their writing skills. They can practice writing descriptions of a day, event, or person in their lives. Imaginative writers may enjoy inventing alternative story endings or creating their own stories. Direct them to write their names on their work as the author, encouraging them to recognize their ownership of their creative efforts.  

Ensuring that children understand what they read is an opportunity to teach a variety of summarizing skills. I still read aloud with my teenagers, and I use several techniques that give my children the opportunity to explain what they understand about our reading. I have them examine passages for structural patterns or recurring ideas. They may construct outlines of chapters to demonstrate that they recognize the order and detail in which information is presented. Before a new reading session begins, they orally summarize events or explain a character to me. When we discuss our understanding of what we are reading, we refer to the author by name, which encourages the idea that the author is not disembodied from the message, but rather is communicating to us through his words.  

Encourage children to interact with their reading. Many textbooks ask comprehension questions at the end of a chapter or work, but why wait until the end to ask questions? I used to want to read stories to my children without their interrupting, but then I realized that their interruptions meant that they were processing the story as I read. They benefited more from their interaction with the story than from my reading straight through. Now, I am never afraid to stop in the middle of a story and react to it. I use these breaks as an opportunity to have my children practice a paraphrase of what we just read or formulate their responses to an idea that particularly struck them.  

Finally, teach good note-taking and citation practices. Each of my children keeps a notebook of verbatim quotes, with sources noted, that they add to as they read things that cause them to stop and think. This gives them practice in handling direct quotations and reminds them to give special credit in the form of quotation marks when they use the exact words of another. Citation formatting styles are quite easy to learn, and my son began to keep his own reading lists in MLA format when he was 8 years old. My daughter, about to begin her final year of study at home, now easily evaluates the research of others and conducts her own.

Encouraging my own children to respect the work of other authors has meant that they learned to regard that work with honor from the time in their early education when we began to read together up to the point at which they learned to collect research and formulate theses of their own. Practicing summarizing and paraphrasing has made my children more easily able to distinguish their own voices from the voice of another and thus recognize when a citation is necessary. Interacting with and responding to our reading has negated any temptation to plagiarize the thoughts of others, because they have ample thoughts of their own. They have accepted the responsibility of paying a debt of honor to the authors they read by learning how to take good notes and create proper citations.

Writing is a necessary skill that we are privileged to teach our children. We watch an amazing process as they flex their creative abilities on paper in words and ideas. Good writers can be a people of influence and authority, and encouraging good writing means encouraging writing with integrity as well as skill. Teaching our children to honor and respect the work of others will result in writing of their own in which they can take honest, genuine ownership.

Lee Ann Dickerson is a writer, tutor, speaker, and home educator in Kentucky. Specializing in language arts, Lee Ann coaches GED prep, college, and homeschooled students to become better writers. She offers general writing assistance, mentoring, and workshops in writing résumés, transcripts, letters, and essays, and in other grammar and writing topics. She is the author of The Great Learning Awakening: A Homeschool Apology. You may contact her directly at ldickerson0026@kctcs.edu.


1. Paula Wasley, “Ohio U. Revokes Degree for Plagiarism,” Chronicle of Higher Education 53, no. 31 (April 6, 2007): 10 (Academic Search Complete, via EBSCOhost, www.ebsco.com). 

2. Don McCabe and Daniel Katz, “Curbing Cheating,” Education Digest 75, no.1 (2009): 16-19 (Academic Search Complete, via EBSCOhost, www.ebsco.com).

3. Dominic A. Sisti, “How Do High School Students Justify Internet Plagiarism?” Ethics & Behavior 17.3 (2007): 215-231 (Academic Search Complete, via EBSCOhost, www.ebsco.com).

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in Winter 2010-11 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com  or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Publication date: January 30, 2013