plagiarism: n. the offering of another’s artistic or literary work as one’s own.
If you’ve taught writing for very long, you’ve doubtless run across an instance or two of plagiarism, or at least suspected plagiarism. It’s a difficult thing to deal with. As teachers, we often give students writing exercises where they model a piece of writing–perhaps a poem–on a pattern found in a published work. This is a valid teaching strategy, and there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as students understand that “copying to learn” or changing a few words here and there does not make the result one’s original work.* It’s okay to borrow an idea, image, or occasional phrase, but not whole paragraphs and more!
I’ve struggled for years over the best way to handle instances of student plagiarism, especially if the plagiarism is only suspected. I’ve known writers who were unjustly accused of plagiarism as children. The hurt of the accusations stayed with them as adults, so I always approach suspected plagiarism cautiously, inquiring about where ideas came from, how the piece was written, etc. to get as much information as I can. And of course I would never confront a child with evidence of plagiarism in front of his or her peers.
I think it’s a good idea to discuss the issue of plagiarism long before any incidences occur. Perhaps a frank discussion early in the year would help to head off actual incidences. Several times I have come across plagiarized material in well-know magazines that routinely publish student work. Printed below are letters I sent to the editors of those magazines, and the editors’ replies to me. It is my hope that you’ll be able to use these letters as a basis for class discussion.
*To further confuse things, retellings of public domain works such as fairy tales are not instances of plagiarism, and neither is parody. (Of course in parody the writer is consciously aping a work which he expects–indeed wants— his readers to recognize.)
Dear [Editor’s name withheld]
I’m afraid the poem [title withheld] in your Winter issue has–with a few minor changes–been plagiarized. It is a song sung by the Oompa Loompas in Roald Dahl’s quite famous novel, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATEFACTORY. (From the end of Chapter 21 –Goodbye Violet.)
How sad that [name withheld] didn’t submit work of his own. In addition, the poem “I’m Thankful” by [name withheld], while not plagiarized,is likely not “original.” The popular children’s poet, Jack Prelutsky, has written a poem of the same title in THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK. The first stanza of Prelutsky’s poem reads as follows:
I’m thankful for my baseball bat, I cracked it yesterday,
I’m thankful for my checker set,
I haven’t learned to play,
I’m thankful for my mittens, one is missing in the snow,
I’m thankful for my hamsters, they escaped a month ago.
Perhaps other careful readers have already alerted you to these two poems. In any case, I thought you’d want to know. How do you handle such things?
Dear Suzanne Williams,
Thank you for your letter regarding the poem, [title withheld]. You are not the first to respond to the poem.
[Name withheld] submitted the poem and in his letter he said that he got the idea from watching the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” [He] attends a school that submits student work quite regularly. We have never had a problem with this school before. I have never read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, therefore I did not realize he had taken it straight from the story. And, a lot of kids write things after being inspired by something else they’ve read or seen.
When a work is accepted, we have the student sign a License of Copyright stating that it is an original work. This sheet must be signed by the student’s parent as well. [Name withheld’s] mother signed this document. Since we are performing a service for these kids by publishing their work, we feel that they should at least be honest with us. I realize that this honor system of ours has failed us. As a result of this our guidelines will be restructured so that statements of originality signed by a teacher and/or a parent must be included in each submission. Other requirements may be added, as well.
[Name withheld] has been notified and will not be allowed to submit material to our publication again.
Thank you for taking time to read our magazine. I hope this incident will not cause you to think badly of our publication.
Letter to another magazine:
Dear [Editor’s name withheld],
My daughter Emily was pleased to win second place in the Spring Contest, and when her copy of [the magazine] arrived, she proudly read her own poem, then searched for the first place poem to see what her competition had been. After reading the first verse of [poem title withheld] she said to me, “I think I KNOW that poem. It’s from a Calvin and Hobbes book.” An avid fan of the cartoon, she quickly found the poem in one of her three Calvin and Hobbes collections, IT’S A MAGICAL WORLD. The poem appears on p. 89. Your young poet has virtually copied the poem word-for-word (except that he omitted one verse) . He made one substitution, changing “parents” and “grown-ups” to “teachers.” Though aghast that someone would do such a thing, my daughter was pleased to think that she’d come in second to Bill Watterson, a grown-up, and a professional writer/artist!
Somewhere out there is a child who should have gotten second place honors, and I believe my daughter is entitled to First place and an additional $15.
Because I am a children’s librarian, I am familiar with several magazines that publish children’s work, and yours is not the first publication in which I’ve seen plagiarized material. Last year I recognized a poem that was taken from Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Other readers also let the editor know the material was plagiarized. Indeed, since Calvin and Hobbes is a favorite of many children, I suspect you’ll be getting a good many letters.
I am curious as to how you will deal with this situation. Will you let readers know that the contest winner did not submit an original poem? Perhaps you’ll want to write a column on the topic of plagiarism. It’s a difficult issue, but I’m sure you’ll agree that we must help kids learn the distinction between “copying to learn,” and passing off someone else’s work as your own.
Dear Suzanne Williams,
You were not the first one to notify us about this plagiarized poem. In fact, [name withheld’s] teacher sent a note to inform us that her worst thoughts were true – her student had plagiarized the poem. We searched in our Calvin and Hobbes books, but could not find the original. Therefore, I appreciate your calling it to our attention and sending along the original.
You are right, your daughter did quite well coming in second to Bill Watterson. However, now she will have to settle for first place in the contest. We will be sending her a check for an additional $15.00. We will also be writing about this event in our next issue. I may use an excerpt of your letter and several others when I address this issue next month. Please let me know if that is okay with you.
Once again, pass on the new congratulations to your daughter. I will personally send her a note with another check in the next week.
[Editor’s name withheld]
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com