Possibly, each anecdote deserves a separate entry but since they seem to be interconnected somehow, here they are together.

I show a student where the plagiarised sentence she’s used comes from (a website) and she claims not to be aware of having copied –her defence is that the complete sentence stayed in her mind like that and hence appeared in her essay. I point out to one of my mature students that a whole paragraph in his essay comes from an unacknowledged source and he claims he didn’t know that this particular source could not be used (Yahoo. Answers) –he doesn’t quite defend himself but still demands to pass the subject. He tells me he sympathises with my worries about plagiarising as he’s a secondary school teacher. Third, a student explains to a colleague that he doesn’t understand why she considers that his exercise is plagiarised, as the suspect text comes a from a book (quoted in a website, I think) and not from a website. The same colleague has her students sign a document stating that the whole content of their essays is in their own words, and still finds plagiarised text. Finally, a student demands his right to be re-assessed and when I catch him plagiarising he answers that since I hadn’t noticed the plagiarism the first time around I should not fail him.

Recently I came across a website with a banner warning students not to plagiarise its contents and explaining, once more, what plagiarising consists of. The concept is very simple and we’re truly puzzled as to why students have so many difficulties to grasp it: you plagiarise when you pass off as your own text copied from another source, which remains unacknowledged. This source can be from the internet or printed, that is irrelevant; what matters is that work you submit as 100% yours actually includes paragraphs, complete sentences or fragments of long sentences that you have not written. One thing is a quotation, which is a borrowing properly identified between quotation marks and accompanied by a bibliographical reference to the source text, and quite another plagiarism, which is an intellectual offence, as you steal from others words and ideas that you present as your own.

The difficulties to see plagiarising as a serious offence have much to do, of course, with the weakening of the sense of authority that the internet is responsible for. The main source of information we use today, Wikipedia, is anonymous and, as such, often copied by other websites. This might give the wrong idea that anything on the net can be freely used, no matter whether it has an author or not. The author is not quite as dead as Barthes supposed but the idea of authorship (and the rights it entails) is being questioned. ‘Copyleft’ discourse even supposes that this is at it should be, as ideas and knowledge should circulate freely regardless of copyright regulated by law. The problem with this approach is that it can’t apply to texts on which merit is assessed, such as students’ exercises. We assess on an individual basis, checking the originality and the effort put into each assignment. If a student borrows text produced by someone else’s efforts, then s/he is cheating in his personal assessment. Students who plagiarise just don’t make the effort of making themselves responsible for their own work.

I’m not sure what example to quote, as we’re surrounded by blatant examples of ‘legal’ plagiarism. Just this week a judge has declared that Zara has a right to use red soles in its high-heeled shoes, even though this is a gimmick plagiarised from French designer Christian Louboutin. Some fashion ignoramus might indeed think that Zara have great original ideas, without realising that the credit is due to Louboutin. And that is the whole point of plagiarism: that you arrogate to yourself merits that others deserve (Zara could have used green or asked Louboutin for permission, instead). Here, of course, the judge is establishing a dangerous precedent by allowing Zara to plagiarise for quite unclear reasons (it seems Louboutin didn’t copyright the specific Pantone red). The universities, in contrast, have very different ideas about plagiarism because we teachers, as producers of ideas, are all Louboutins (or aspiring Louboutins). We know how hard it is to think and this is why we don’t welcome Zaras in our midst. They do exist, but we ‘don’t buy them’… (I hope you get the analogy and don’t go telling everyone that teachers are snobs who don’t shop in Zara and that we earn enough money to buy red-soled Louboutins!!).

I hope this explains to you, students, why you should not plagiarise and to you, teachers, why it’s so hard to prove that plagiarising is a crime.