Is plagiarism a problem? Is there a solution?
By Carolyn Schurr Levin
with the research assistance of Paola Guzman
The article raised red flags immediately. The topic was studying tips for final exams. The student writers on the staff love pitching this type of “list” assignment. The stories do not entail a lot of investigative reporting and are relatively easy to write. The school newspaper  publishes them routinely. But, this one didn’t sound right to the faculty adviser, when she read it as part of her weekly newspaper laboratory course . The story included sentences like, “Leave yourself ample time.” The adviser’s students simply did not use the word “ample.” So, she plugged the story into a free online plagiarism checker, something that she does not routinely do when she reads stories written by the students in her class. Within minutes, she found the blog post that the story was copied from, essentially verbatim.
The adviser emailed the student, a senior broadcasting major poised to graduate from college in a mere few weeks, and asked her to stop by the adviser’s office before class the following morning. The student inquired in her email response about the purpose of the meeting. The adviser told her that she had some concerns about the story submitted that week.
The adviser and the student met the next morning in the adviser’s office. The adviser showed the student her story, side-by-side with the blog from which it had been copied, with the identical paragraphs highlighted in yellow. The student looked at both, wide eyed, and said unflinchingly, “We can’t do that?”
The adviser later showed the two articles to the student newspaper’s editor-in-chief and managing editors during their weekly round-up meeting. The article was never published. They had caught this one, but the adviser and the student editors wondered together how many others may have slipped through.
The newspaper’s staff is filled with journalism majors, but also with students of other majors who want to contribute to their school newspaper for personal reasons, or to build a professional portfolio of published work. Like most college newspapers, the staff is open to any student who wants to join. Many members of the staff, therefore, have not taken the class on media law and ethics that is required for journalism majors. Many staff writers have no previous journalism experience at all.
Lack of Understanding About Plagiarism
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics (SPJ 2014) is clear: “Never plagiarize.” But, of course, as the SPJ Ethics Committee Position Paper on Plagiarism aptly points out, “The digital age we’re currently in offers both the most opportunities to verify the authenticity of original work and also misuse it without giving credit to the original reporting source.” (SPJ, n.d.). So many professional news outlets have experienced plagiarism “scandals” that it seems unnecessary to even provide examples. They are well-known and frequently the subject of their own news stories. From Janet Cooke at The Washington Post to Jason Blair at The New York Times to Jack Kelley at USA Today and Jonah Lehrer at The New Yorker, a myriad of renowned news organizations have dealt with plagiarism accusations, even before the digital age.
The SPJ Position Paper provides at least one explanation for the increasing prevalence of plagiarism. With reporters “working on a freelance basis more and more frequently, not subjected to or sometimes aware of news outlets’ ethical guidelines,” and “[s]ometimes not having that regular touch point for reinforcement,” there may be a tendency toward “laziness.” But, it continues, “[w]hether inadvertent or deliberate, there is no excuse for plagiarism.” (SPJ n.d.). The increase in plagiarism is not just at the professional level. Whatever the excuse, one of the only points that college media advisers seem to agree upon is that plagiarism is rampant on campus. A simple Google search for ‘plagiarism at student newspapers’ reveals multiple instances of plagiarism at colleges big and small, all over the country, and those are just the ones that have been uncovered and reported in the media.
Less in the spotlight than the lapses in ethical conduct at professional news organizations are instances of plagiarism at student newspapers. A study conducted in spring 2018 and again at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester aimed to discover how common plagiarism is at student newspapers and what those newspapers do to prevent it, including what plagiarism training is provided, if any.
Instances of Plagiarism At College Newspapers
Plagiarism is defined by Merriam-Webster as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; use (another’s production) without crediting the source” (Merriam-Webster 2018). According to plagiarism.org, “Plagiarism is a common (and often misunderstood) problem that is often the result of a lack of knowledge and skills” (Plagiarism.org 2018). The website is sponsored by turnitin.com and “supports the education community with a comprehensive set of resources to help students write with integrity” (Plagiarism.org 2018).
Plagiarism is an ethical term, not a legal one. It describes academic dishonesty, usually defined by professional or academic bodies (SPLC 2014). Copyright infringement is a legal wrong. The two concepts are related, but different according to the Student Press Law Center: “Simply stated, a plagiarist is a person who poses as the creator of words, ideas or methods that are not his own. In contrast, a person infringes on another’s copyright by making unauthorized use of material that is protected under copyright law” (SPLC 2015). The SPLC provides the following example to explain the difference between the legal and ethical concepts:
INDENT [F]or purposes of plagiarism, the material stolen need not be protected by a copyright. For example, a person could plagiarize Shakespeare’s works by not giving The Bard proper credit. He would not, however, be guilty of copyright infringement because all of Shakespeare’s works, now about 400 years old, are in the public domain and can’t be protected by copyright. (SPLC 2015)
The College Newspaper Plagiarism Survey was administered during the months of May and June 2018 and again in October 2018. The survey had three parts: (a) experience with plagiarism during the 2017-2018 academic year, (b) plagiarism or copyright training held for staff, and (c) previous experience with plagiarism. The survey was disseminated to members of the College Media Association via the CMA email distribution list, the discussion group of the association. The survey was also emailed directly, both in spring and fall 2018, to 50 college media advisers and college newspaper editors in a random selection of schools and states. A small, but representative, sample of 21 college media advisers responded to the survey. The names and identifying information for the advisers who uncovered plagiarism have been purposely omitted because of the sensitivity of the situations for the students, the campus newspapers and the universities involved.
Data reveal that college media advisers are well aware of the increasing risk of plagiarism. Although the survey found that less than half of the advisers had experienced an instance of plagiarism during the 2017-2018 academic year, approximately 70 percent of the 21 respondents had experienced at least one instance of plagiarism at their school newspaper within the last five years. Specifically, nine of the respondents indicated that they had experienced at least one instance of plagiarism with stories or other materials submitted to their student media outlet during the 2017-2018 academic year. A significantly larger number, 14 of the 21 respondents, stated that they had experienced an instance of plagiarism within the last five years. At least one adviser reported that he experienced “probably at least one [instance of plagiarism] per school year.”
The newspaper advisers surveyed uncovered the plagiarism in various ways. “In one case, a sports editor was taking articles straight from our university’s sports information [department] posting and putting his byline on them. The sports information director contacted me when he noticed it,” one adviser wrote. Another adviser responded that a “source called us to let us know he had never been interviewed for the story we published–even though he was directly ‘quoted’ by the reporter.” A reader pointed out the plagiarism in at least one instance reported. Yet another adviser stated, “I discovered it because the student had copied and pasted entire sections of a story from the daily paper into [his] story. In addition, the source’s name he used seemed unusual, so I checked with academic services, and no such student exists.”
The ramifications for the uncovered plagiarism also varied greatly among the respondents. When a staffer “copied and pasted several paragraphs from a music program in writing about it. . . we had to flunk her, per our policy,” one adviser wrote. Punishment ranged from warnings, to receiving a zero on the assignment or an F in the class, to termination. “The offending author was confronted by editors. When she admitted the column had been lifted, she was immediately terminated from the newspaper staff,” wrote one adviser in response to the survey. Several advisers reported that they have increased the penalties for plagiarism. One adviser stated this:
Intensive staff training, and [the] editorial board adopted a much more stringent policy on plagiarism and fabrication–essentially, any allegation is formally investigated and, if found to be true, staffer is removed and can never return. Previously, there were sanctions but not a policy of permanent firing in every case where the reporter is found to be at fault. The thought was: The students know it is wrong. They are well schooled in it, both in staff training and in every journalism class. They cannot commit plagiarism or fabrication “by mistake,” so it is considered an intentional act, and one who would do that is not welcome on the staff.
Several advisers indicated that instances of plagiarism are handled by their editors-in-chief. “All such situations are handled by the EIC. In most, if not all cases, our editors opt for what they call ‘the death penalty’–that is, immediate termination,” one media adviser wrote. Another reported that in addition to terminating the reporter after uncovering plagiarism, they chose to publish an editor’s note to inform readers of what had happened.
Many journalism schools and programs have their own codes of ethics. The Code of Ethics in the 2018-2019 Student Handbook of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, for example, reminds its students that “Our society grants journalists and the news media enormous freedom and privilege. With that freedom comes great responsibility” (Journalism.cuny.edu 2018). Among other topics, the “What Not To Do” section of CUNY’s Code of Ethics provides a section on plagiarism and use of others’ content:
No student shall knowingly represent the words or ideas or photography or video or audio produced by another person as his or her own. Such information must be fully credited to the original source by attribution, quotation marks, footnotes, and/or other established journalistic practices and professors must be apprised of the use of any material that is not the student’s own independent work. Be advised that all student work may be analyzed electronically for violations of this code and may be checked against a database for plagiarized content. Please ask your instructor if you have any questions about how to distinguish among acceptable research, attribution and plagiarism. (Journalism.cuny.edu 2018)
Columbia University’s Journalism School has similar language in its “Journalism School General Policy on Conduct and Discipline,” and goes further to include the penalty of ‘dismissal’ for plagiarism: “Fabricating a story, making up quotes, or plagiarizing, constitute grounds for dismissal.” The policy encompasses pitches, emails and presentations as well as stories written for class. According to the policy, plagiarism includes:
Verbatim copying of material that appears in a newspaper, magazine or book, or on the Internet, radio, television or other published and unpublished sources (including student work) without proper attribution; Paraphrasing of material that appears in a newspaper, magazine or book, or on the Internet, radio, television or other published and unpublished sources (including student work) without proper attribution; Use of another person’s research, phrasing, conclusions or unique descriptions without proper attribution. (Journalism.columbia.edu 2018)
Michigan State University’s School of Journalism includes a simple, blunt statement in its Journalism School Code of Ethics: “1. Do not plagiarize. Plagiarism occurs when you fail to attribute information, passing it on as your own work” (Jrn.msu.edu 2018).
A topic for further investigation is whether student media outlets have their own codes of ethics, or rather rely upon the SPJ Code or their university or school codes of ethics. Some college media advisers have indicated that they do have their own policies. Cynthia Mitchell, adviser to The Observer at Central Washington University, shared with the CMA email distribution list the four-page, in-depth plagiarism and fabrication policy that she uses for the newspaper and magazine. “We go over it in class, post in on Canvas, and require every staffer to sign it to indicate they’ve read and understand it before they can write for us,” she wrote in her post to the email distribution list.
Whether or not students read, are aware of, or are reminded about, their school or student newspaper ethical codes, is a different matter. “Talking with students about plagiarism and fabrication before an incident occurs is key,” according to Mallary Jean Tenore, who was the managing editor of Poynter.org, and is now the assistant director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas (Tenore 2012). “To help prevent plagiarism and fabrication, college newspapers need to be upfront with students about the consequences they’ll face” (Tenore 2012). Tenore’s advice includes: offering training to writers and editors; seeking teachable moments and letting students know help is available; creating sourcing notes and accuracy surveys; having multiple editors look at each story; involving students in the editing process; revising the newspaper’s ethics guidelines; using plagiarism software; and determining how the paper’s adviser can help (Tenore 2012).
“The best way to prevent plagiarism is to educate students on how to properly conduct research, cite, quote, and produce unique and original work,” according to plagiarism.org. Many college newspaper advisers may justifiably believe that once students arrive in college, they have already had this education. So, how much additional training is needed, or actually provided, at student newspapers?
Of the 21 respondents from the 2018 summer survey, 18 stated that they provide plagiarism or copyright training for their staffs in some form. Dave Clark, director of student publications at Central Michigan University, for instance, responded that his media organization convenes an “Editor Boot Camp,” a five-day training session at the start of each fall. “We also host weekly seminars for new reporters,” Clark said, adding that he also provides “training using Poynter and other material.”
Other advisers provided similar survey responses about training. Kelley Callaway, director of student media at Rice University, stated, “We do a presentation on copyright infringement, plagiarism and such during our fall training. For the newspaper staff, the entire editorial staff attends. For the yearbook staff, the entire staff attends. For the radio station, it’s in the handbook and they must pass a quiz.”
Scott Morris, student media adviser at University of North Alabama, said, “We do training with the new staff at our annual boot camp in August. The training includes all editors, graphic designers and the social media coordinator. The training is provided by communications faculty, alumni, students and myself. We also provide a student media handbook, which addresses plagiarism.”
Jessica Clary, assistant director of student media at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, said, “Every contributor does an orientation training where we go over the basics, then every quarter there is a refresher session during a staff meeting. Then, all editors get a more in-depth session during new editor orientation.” The survey results support the proposition that student media advisers recognize the importance of plagiarism training and largely already provide such training.
Training students in plagiarism avoidance is undeniably critical. Because the majority of survey respondents stated that they already provide training in some form, the question becomes whether enhanced training, reinforcement training or training of a different kind is warranted.
Avoiding plagiarism is not difficult.
The Student Press Law Center advises,
When relying on others’ work, give credit—frequently. This last suggestion points out what is probably the most important thing to keep in mind to avoid getting caught in the plagiarism tangle: when in doubt about how to use material in some way derived from someone else’s hard work, simply attribute it. (SPLC 2014)
The Society of Professional Journalists provides perhaps the ultimate reason why plagiarism avoidance matters: “Journalists should be proud of their skills and their voice. They should let their own words speak for them, rather than those of others” (SPJ n.d.).
-  Names and identifying information for the student newspaper, the faculty adviser and the student described in this incident have been purposely omitted because of the sensitivity of the allegations for the student, the campus newspaper and the university. The incident occurred during the spring 2018 semester.
-  The school, like many colleges, offers a “newspaper laboratory” course in which students can earn college credit for reporting and writing a weekly story for the student newspaper.
-  This is apparently not an uncommon reaction. “[M]any students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed,” Trip Gabriel wrote, eight years ago, in The New York Times. “It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism. Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.” Gabriel, Trip. August 2010. “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in the Digital Age.” The New York Times.
- Plagiarism.org. “About Plagiarism.org,” accessed July 2018. .
- “Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism 2018-2019 Student Handbook,” City University of New York, accessed July 2018.
- “Columbia Journalism School General Policy on Conduct and Discipline,” Columbia Journalism School, accessed July 2018. .
- Gabriel, Trip. 2010. “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in the Digital Age.” The New York Times.
- “Definition of Plagiarism,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed July 2018.
- “Michigan State University School of Journalism Code of Ethics,” Michigan State University, accessed July 2018.
- Society for Professional Journalists. “SPJ Code of Ethics.” Last modified Sept. 6, 2014.
- Society for Professional Journalists. “SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers: Plagiarism.” n.d. Accessed July 2018.
- Student Press Law Center. Jan. 19, 1994. “Avoiding Plagiarism in Student Media.” Accessed August 2015.
- Tenore, Mallory Jean. 2012. “10 Ways to Prevent Plagiarism, Fabrication at College Newspapers (and in any Newsroom).” The Poynter Institute, Oct. 8. Accessed July 2018.
Carolyn Schurr Levin is an attorney specializing in Media Law and the First Amendment. She has practiced law for more than 25 years. Levin is a lecturer in Media Law & Ethics at Stony Brook University and the media law adviser for the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. She has also taught Media Law & Ethics at Long Island University, Baruch College and Pace University. At Long Island University, she has been the faculty adviser for the student newspaper, the Pioneer, since 2010. She was the recipient of the CMA Distinguished Adviser Award in 2017. Levin has also been an editor and consulting editor with Anton Media Group, a contributing writer for the Student Press Law Center Report, and a judge for numerous journalism competitions and a reviewer for several media and communications textbooks.
Paola Guzman is a senior English major, journalism minor, at Long Island University, LIU Post.