Copy Cats


I often plagiarize myself. I write phrases or concepts in one essay and use them in another, or, often, both. Sometimes subject matter blends across pieces and some semblance of work I wrote elsewhere peeks out its phrases in new work. It happens. Tim O’Brien does it. Hemingway. St. Luke. Borrowing from oneself for reuse is more dangerous due to accusations of repetition than for self-plagiarizing. I’m just saying it isn’t taboo.

When I was a student in a world with card catalogues and reference librarians, where no one—no one—knew what a computer was, where you wandered through “stacks” at the library looking for documentation in old reference books from deep in the bowels of the building, plagiarism would have been easy. Odds were low that some keen-minded prof would think: I know exactly what reference book from the library’s bowels this came from! The professor would rely upon consistency of voice within the paper and through other papers and compare the writing to other work done in class. Today for every one site a student has for plagiarizing a paper, we have three sites to find it. Hell, just Googling some key phrases often brings up the original source. Sometimes colleagues and I will order pizza and hang out and search sentences from a stack of papers. It’s addicting.

One night at work last semester I started wondering what motivates them to steal other people’s work. Time and laziness, I am sure, are at the top of the list, since they think it is easier, though I still claim it has to be just as hard to search around for other people’s papers which meet my requirements as it is to just write the thing themselves. Fear is another factor “forcing” them to plagiarize. Fear of bad grades, of losing their grants, of disappointing their parents, of disappointing themselves or me. So I went to work and gave them an assignment. I wanted a 750-1000 word argumentative essay on any subject. I told them what concepts should be in each section and how it should be structured. And then I instructed them to “not write one single original word.” That’s right, they were required to “lift” every aspect of the paper, and if they were good, the entire paper all at once, from some other source or sources.

Word quickly spread I was requiring their papers be plagiarized. Many questioned my motives and suggested I wasn’t teaching them anything valuable. I assured them the most essential part of the lesson was the students’ discovering we are keenly aware of the difference between their writing and someone else’s.

The papers they turned in were mostly choppy and poorly structured. A few met the mark with seamless transitions and flawless sentence structure while still meeting the paper’s requirements. But a few lazy students tried to get away with turning in their own work! Can you believe it?! When I asked why they would do such a thing, they said they didn’t have time to plagiarize. Punks. Still, those who did successfully steal other people’s writing said they believe they had a better understanding of what I was looking for in an essay and they believe it made them better writers, or at least better at structuring, which is not a small thing in freshman English.

Still, the first day of every semester I read them the Plagiarism Riot Act, which is also printed clearly on my outlines:

Do not turn in anyone’s work but your own. Do not turn in someone else’s writing, answers, ideas, proposals, or bad humor; do not, as some have, turn in an article published in Time Magazine or written by Hemingway; do not, as some have, turn in work written by me; do not put quotation marks around the entire essay and declare you did give credit. If you do plagiarize, do not ask for an incomplete; do not come to class anymore; do not contact me, do not pretend you have a future. God gave you one face and you paint yourselves another by doing something stupid like quoting Shakespeare and allowing others to suppose your thoughts are original. Stop pretending you can do college level work. Stop pretending no one will notice. Stop pretending you’re anything more than howl-at-the-moon-lazy-ass-stupid.

 Go ahead and copy this and pass it along. I’d be honored



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