Responding to Plagiarism

While children as young as seven have an innate belief that copying someone else’s work is wrong [1], students may have trouble seeing plagiarism the same way because it feels like a victimless act. If nobody is hurt then we are unlikely to feel empathy, and without that it’s hard to see something as being morally wrong.

When we talk about plagiarism and academic dishonesty we have to make students understand that they do have victims: the students themselves, of course, who rob themselves of what may be an important learning experience (would you want to be operated on by a doctor who cheated on his exams?), and also the other students in the class – in part because the more time a teacher has to devote to detecting plagiarism, the less they have to prepare lessons and help students.

Another way to help students appreciate the issue emotionally is to get the idea across that plagiarism of any kind is disrespectful to the author. It can be helpful to draw parallels with other forms of copying that are more tangible and personal, such as the copying of work by independent artists and crafters exposed on the blog You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice?

Or by positioning youth as content creators:

“Remember how you sold your drawings at the school craft fair? What if someone took a picture you drew, copied it, and started selling it? How would that make you feel? Is it fair?”

While youth culture has a strong effect on students’ attitudes towards plagiarism, home and school cultures may be even more important. When the main focus of parents and teachers is on grades, plagiarism is more common; but when more attention is paid to the value of the content and the learning process, rates of plagiarism drop [2].

Teachers can also communicate the values of their “class culture” through the assignments they give. The more heavily assignments rely on things like simple fact questions, rather than asking students to synthesize ideas and make evaluations, the more likely students are to plagiarize or otherwise cheat. Before giving out an assignment, it can be useful to ask whether students would be able to complete it if they only read a summary of the text rather than the text itself. If so, you may be able to show students that doing the assignment is a more worthwhile experience than stealing it.

Traditionally, the main way of dealing with academic dishonesty was through rules. That approach is less effective than it once was for a variety of reasons. One is that students may not necessarily understand how the rules relate to the different activities we’ve classed as plagiarism. As we’ve already seen, even those students who are aware that what they’re doing is against the rules often don’t feel that it’s wrong on an emotional level, which means that the main factor in deciding whether or not to plagiarize is how likely they are to get caught. What may be more effective than having strict rules against plagiarism is to implement procedures that make it more difficult. Rather than simply asking for a final project, for instance, teachers (and parents) can ask to see all of the different steps in a project, from research or brainstorming to the outline to the rough and then final drafts. The teacher doesn’t necessarily have to mark each one of these steps, but insisting that they be handed in gives more opportunities to catch plagiarism and makes it more difficult.

As with other ethical issues, youth tend to think that academic dishonesty is more common than it genuinely is: for example, a 2009 study found that two-thirds of teens believed that other students in their schools used cell phones to cheat, while only half as many reported doing it themselves [5]. Studies also suggest that roughly one in ten students have knowingly committed plagiarism by Grade 10 – which means that 90 percent have not [6].

If we approach academic honesty correctly, it’s not out of step with youth culture at all. Getting facts is a trivial matter today: what students need is to become skilled remixers of information. Just as a good remix takes different songs or videos and builds them into something new, an essay or other student work should use its sources as tools towards a larger purpose. By treating students not only as consumers but also as producers of media, we can teach them to use sources in a transformative way.

Moral Dilemmas about Plagiarism

Here’s a scenario that can help youth explore the issues involved: late one night, Nate is finishing an essay due the next morning when he discovers that he did not record the source for one of his most important facts. He’s unable to discover where he originally found it and doesn’t have any more time to put into it. Should he leave the fact out, even though it will weaken his argument and probably lower his grade; include the fact with a made-up citation; or include the fact but ask to be given more time to find the citation (which may also lower his grade)? Remember, it’s important that a moral dilemma not have a clear right answer, so that it gives youth practice in moral reasoning.

In terms of moral judgment, the most important thing is to get kids past simple considerations of risk and reward. We might ask students whether it’s fair to the other students for Nate to expect to be exempted from a rule that should apply to everybody, or whether it’s wrong to deprive the author of the original source of her right to be recognized for her work.

For younger children, we can use a more concrete example: Fiona and Dexter, students in the same class, are both working on an assignment to invent a superhero who will star in a short comic. Fiona gets to work right away and invents Monkey-Man, a superhero who can turn into a monkey. Dexter sees her working on her comic and starts drawing his comic, Lemur-Man. How close does Dexter’s imitation have to be before it’s wrong? Should he give Fiona credit or ask her permission? Is it worse if Dexter’s comic gets a better grade?

We can ask kids to consider how Fiona is likely to feel when she realizes Dexter has copied her and how that might make Dexter feel. We can also ask them to think about how other students will see Dexter if he gets a reputation as a copycat and to think about how much stress the assignment’s rules should put on originality.


[1] Kristina R. Olson and Alex Shaw. ‘No fair, copycat!’: what children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science (2010), pp 1–9.
[2] Jason Stephens. Why Students Plagiarize (webcast). <>
[3] HiTech Cheating. Common Sense Media, June 18, 2009. <>
[4] Common Sense Media, 2009.
[5] Samuel C. McQuade III and Neel Sampat. Survey of Internet and At-Risk Behaviors. RIT Center for Multidisciplinary Studies, June 18, 2008. <>
[6] Jason Stephens. Why Students Plagiarize (webcast). <>

Resources for Youth

Stay on the Path

Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.

Learn More