Talking Plagiarism in 3 Steps

September 22, 2016

A new school year means the return of every kid’s favorite thing: Homework!

Jokes aside, it’s important to remember that online research and sourcing often figure heavily into the assignments that children complete. But it’s not rare that kids don’t know where proper research ends and plagiarism begins.

In fourth grade, I was tasked with a report on George Washington Carver. I loaned a biography on Carver from the school library, scanned through its pages at home. I then copied the book word for word onto looseleaf paper. Predictably, my mother was not a fan of this.

With the readily accessible information the Internet provides, my ill-fated copy job would likely have been easier and quicker to do. And, because so much online content is freely available, it’s inevitable that kids may take this as invitation toward reference without credit. However, educators often consult resources to check students’ assignments for such plagiarism.

As the consequences of plagiarism later in life -- in high school, at the university level, in the professional world -- can be much greater, it's a good idea to talk about plagiarism with a child early on. It's a talk that's easy to broach when you break it down to three simple steps.

Discuss the term.

Plagiarism is defined, according to Merriam-Webster, as "the act of using another person's words or ideas without giving credit to that person." Emphasizing the last part of that sentence is key to clearing up confusion for kids. The use of ideas other than one's own is okay, but only when proper credit is given.

The digital age has given us the convenience of hyperlinking within text to a source, providing a clear point of reference back to the original material. However, as classic citation methods (the bibliography) are often still requested by teachers, it’s best to frame these new web techniques as a supplement to -- rather than a replacement for -- their predecessors.

Explain the possible consequences.

While the severity of punishment naturally varies by teacher, there's an inevitable impact on a child's assignment grade due to plagiarism. Convey to your child that the potential for this outweighs the convenience of not properly citing their work.

Outside of school, the failure to give credit where it is due can have a professional impact. Presenting others’ thoughts and ideas as their own is not beneficial to a workplace group dynamic, for instance. In industries like journalism, where citation is considered an ethics must, a tendency toward plagiarism can even hinder one’s job prospects.

Know their teachers' expectations.

As we’re still in the beginning of the school year, it's a good idea to review some basic citation and research questions with your kids: Does their teacher have a preferred form of citation? If so, what is it? Do they know how to use to it?

While technology can make plagiarism easy, it can do the same for proper citation. To show just that, here a few sites that kids can reference when writing reports and other research-based assignments.

You can also check out the FOSI Bibliography and Citation guide for additional resources.

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Written by

Rafael Smith

Rafael Smith is an office assistant with the Family Online Institute, lending support to the organization's social media and research projects.