Are plagiarism and cheating the same?

By Murray Bourne, 15 Feb 2006

I've been thinking a lot about the difference between plagiarism and cheating. Cheating is a deliberate attempt to mislead, but plagiarism may or may not have an evil intent. Often, it is just due to ignorance about how to properly reference sources.

But a key issue is why plagiarism occurs in the first place. Often, the things students are asked to write almost guarantee a cookie cutter response. It always seems to be a lot more work for teachers to get students to write individual pieces, but I would much rather read something that students are passionate about and have written themselves, rather than some stuff they have downloaded from the Web, have no idea what it means and have even less interest.

If the question is interesting, challenging and individualised to some extent, and if students are encouraged to submit drafts of their work, then plagiarism is less likely to occur. I can hear you complaining that you already have hundreds of papers to grade and you can do without any extra work. Yep, but I maintain that it is better to give students a short meaningful task that they do themselves, than to ask them to write vast amounts which ends up being copied anyway.

This rant was inspired by the thought-provoking article In Praise of Plagiarism by Russ Hunt. He argues that we should not use anti-plagiarism software like Turnitin, since it treats students like criminals and detects copying after the event. Rather, we should spend more time helping students find their passion and write about that. I agree with that, but sometimes you need to put the issue of plagiarism onto everyone's agenda, and one way to do that is to use detection software.

I like what Hunt has to say about how educational institutions emphasise grades over learning, and how this emphasis almost guarantees that students feel the task is not authentic and not meaningful.

Learning by doing has a lot of merit...

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