Plagiarism: A Guide for Parents
Teachers: Use Grammarly’s online plagiarism because you’re here to improve your students’ writing, not critique some strange adult on the internet.
The indie world has seen a lot of sad cases of plagiarism over the past few years. Every few months, without fail, a story crops up of someone getting busted splicing together two indie romance novels and running Edit>Find and Replace on names. There are so many indie romances out there that the thief usually gets a few months before someone happens to read one of these Frankenstein’s monsters and one of the originals, and then the pen name they were published under dissolves and vanishes. Many indies and fanfic writers are also familiar with the accusations leveled against Cassandra Clare, who now has a movie franchise despite having to change her pen name to avoid sullied Google searches. When it happens in the real world, for profit, there’s a lot at stake and sometimes lawyers get involved.
So what about when it happens at school? As a parent, you should know that this is no laughing matter. As a teacher who catches this crime at least three or four times a year, I’ll give you some tips on how to handle it.
Let them know about the real world consequences
First of all, it’s worth noting that most universities have a ZERO TOLERANCE policy when it comes to academic dishonesty. You steal? You’re booted. No second chances. It doesn’t matter if you’re two credits away from a $50k degree. They don’t care if your parents mortgaged their house to pay for your books; you’re out.
Do it in the work place? Publish a white paper based on someone else’s writing? You had better get ready to lawyer up.
Let them know how foolish it was to think they’d get away with it
Perhaps they’ve done it before. Perhaps they had a teacher who skims essays or doesn’t even read the essays by their high performers because they’ve overburdened themselves with essay grading or checked out. Maybe they just got lucky the last time they tried it and their English teacher had a head cold and decided not to follow through on their suspicion that this writing was a little above the student’s level. You’ll hear a lot of “I never got caught before” or “my friend did it.” If you think your child is playing the odds, let them know exactly how easy it is to get caught. One of the reasons kids plagiarize is a balance of risk versus reward (source), so show them just how high the risk really is.
Show them plagiarism tools (like the one linked above) and explain how easy it is to plug any phrase into Google in quotes and find its exact uses on the internet. You can cut and paste two or three sources together and swap out a few key words, but plugging in a handful of three or four word phrases will catch something if you stole it and bring me right to the source. With grammar checking software, I don’t even have to pick the right combination of words; the software will find it for me. The school I work for subscribes to this kind of software for all the teachers.
Do NOT make excuses for them
Kids plagiarize for a number of reasons. Even good kids will sometimes try it if they panic. Maybe they feel stressed out because of too many AP classes. Maybe there was a death in the family, and they can’t think about essays at the moment. Maybe they are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the assignment and don’t know what to do. There may be reasons, but there are never excuses to cheat. If you start offering excuses up as soon as you get that teacher phone call, your kid is going to learn the wrong thing from you: that it’s okay to steal if you can think of a good rationalization for doing it.
Perhaps life has been hell these last few months. You know what’s better for your child than getting a free B on a school essay? Learning that you can go to people for help when you need it. Learning that sometimes you should admit when you don’t know what to do so that you can learn and grow. Your child is your precious angel, for sure, but if you leap to provide excuses for them as soon as they get caught, the lesson you’ll be subconsciously teaching is “It’s okay to cheat when…” and they’ll start filling in the rest of that sentence with weaker and weaker reasons until they get busted and booted from Harvard.
Don’t stick your fingers in your ears and start shouting denials
It’s hard to imagine that the baby you took home from the hospital could do something like that, but this ain’t the Oceans Eleven heist. It’s Google. Plagiarism is a terribly unsophisticated crime, and many students experiment with academic dishonesty as teenagers and go on to be well-adjusted, moral adults. I know a guy who gave his class test answers in history whenever his teacher fell asleep at the desk, and I have another friend who told me just the other day that she would write song lyrics in the middle of her assignments because the teacher expected her to be a good student and do her work.
Teenagers have underdeveloped brains and will make mistakes. How you react to this incident will be another factor in determining the final shape of that mind. It doesn’t mean that the teacher placing that phone call thinks your kid is a bad person, it just means that your child has tested the limits and found the line. It’s not a good thing, but it’s not a sign of a morally depraved child, either. It’s natural. What’s important now is not defending your child from such heinous accusations (because if we’ve called a parent, we have the proof), but rather making sure that this incident becomes a learning experience.
Forgive, but don’t forget.
After the lecture is over and the sentence is passed, forgive. Let your child know that you still love them. But don’t forget. Make sure they’re managing their time and avoiding the mistakes that lead to the bad decision in the first place, and be ready to provide support when they need it.
Teachers, this goes for you, too. Make sure to remember who plagiarized before in case they try it again, but don’t hold a grudge. It may feel like a personal insult to your intelligence, but rest assured that they weren’t really thinking about you when they made their bad decision.