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Fair Use or Plagiarism?

There has been a lot in the news lately about plagiarism, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about what it is and how we can avoid it. On the surface it may seem obvious, but in practice it can get somewhat confusing.


The Oxford Dictionary defines plagiarism as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” But what does this really mean?


When I taught middle grade social studies and high school history classes, I regularly assigned research papers as homework. And I saw all kinds of plagiarism. The most blatant plagiarism was when students found a paper on a similar topic on the Internet and put their own name on it and turned it in. This outright stealing of someone else’s work is the blatant kind of plagiarism but is also the most easily spotted.


I also had students use what we called “cut and paste” plagiarism. This was when students would cut entire paragraphs from various articles and paste them into their documents. One student was so extreme in his use of this practice that the entire paper was cut and pasted paragraphs. Now in this case, the student did cite where he got the articles. However, since there were no original thoughts in the paper, I was not able to accept it. That led to a fight with the parent who claimed that it was not plagiarism since the kid had cited his sources. The parent took the matter to our principal, who referred it to the head of the English Languages Arts Department.


So, was this plagiarism? The ruling was that yes it was. Why? APA Style guidelines specify that no more than fifteen percent of a paper should be direct quotes. The MLA Style Manual says that “writers preparing to publish their work should keep copyright laws in mind and consider the principles of fair use. They are currently updating their fair use guidelines and referred me to the United States Copyright Office and the Association of University Presses. The gist of that legal rabbit hole is that “it depends” on the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work, and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Not particularly helpful. Though most universities will not accept more than twenty percent of direct quotes in a paper. And as I explained to the irate parent, the purpose of the research paper assignment is to see how the student takes information from different sources and draws his own conclusions about the topic.


This leads me to the most common use of plagiarism, inspiration. We are inspired by lots of different things we have read, watched, heard, and experienced. The saying goes that “there is nothing new under the sun.” It is true that we all learn from one another and are inspired by books and movies we love too. The problem comes when we don’t give credit where credit is due, or we create something that too closely resembles someone else’s work. The best way to avoid this type of plagiarism is to combine find inspiration from many different sources and to then combine them in a unique way. And of course, give credit to those who inspired you.


A blog I enjoy reading from Hidden Gems did a great article on this topic where the author broke down the types of plagiarism into eleven different stages, listing them from least egregious to most. And as he admits, he based his article on the Somerton Scale and links to a video by British YouTuber Tom “Tomska” Ridgewell. Both are worth reviewing if this topic is one that interested you.


In this of easy access to “free” information on the Internet and now AI, it is more important than ever to be aware of these kinds of issues, both to stay out of trouble and also to protect our own work.


I suspect this issue is also becoming a larger problem for teachers across the county. Is it time to go back to handwritten papers researched in actual brick and mortar libraries with actual paper-bound books? Maybe not. (Yes, I know plagiarism existed then too, but was perhaps harder to discover … sigh. At least students had to work harder to do it.)


Until next time, let your imagination soar!


“I am enough of an artist to draw to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” – Albert Einstein

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