creative counter intuitive plagiarism

I had a student come to my office last week to ask about a failing grade I'd given him on a revised essay. His essay didn't receive a grade because of plagiarism concerns. I returned the essay to him with a note to address the concerns, which I didn't take to be intentional. Turns out they were. One of the plagiarism concerns in the essay was an entry in the works cited section that I couldn't find in the body of the essay. In my note, I told him that any material used from that source had been plagiarized. It didn't change during the revision process.

He came to my office and asked why he had failed again. I had to look at his essay to see, not having any photographic memory. I gave the essay a quick read and looked at my comments. When I was looking at the works cited page, I pointed out the source that was not cited in the body of the essay.

"But I didn't use it," he said.

"But it's right here. So anything from it in the body of the essay has been plagiarized."

"But I didn't use it. I just put it there because you required four sources and I didn't need any more than I already had."

"So you just put this here without using it?"


"Well, that's an act of academic dishonesty, the essence of plagiarism, to say you've done one thing when you haven't." (Technically I know he's not presenting someone's ideas as his own. He's just pretending to have the required number of sources the assignment called for.)

"But I didn't use it."

"But you're pretending you did. That's dishonest. You've lied to me."

"But I didn't mean to."

"Didn't mean to?"

"To be dishonest."

"But you were. It doesn't matter if you meant to. What you did was lie by putting that on your works cited page."

"But I didn't use it."

"That's what makes it a lie. See, it's the 'works cited' page. That means the sources on it have been used in the essay, that they have been cited in the essay. But if you didn't use it, didn't cite it, then it has no place on the 'works cited' page."

Okay, this isn't a verbatim transcript of what our discussion was like, but it does capture the essence of it. I have to admit I never thought I would need to teach that if you claim to cite something, it better be in your essay. Usually it happens the other way around, something is used in the essay and not cited either in the essay itself or on the works cited page. I don't know if I'm an old dog being taught a new trick, but it was a new one on me. I told him that purposeful dishonestly was the sort of thing that could get him kicked out of school, maybe fail the class (not in that order) but that failing the essay was the least punitive thing that would or could happen. I could tell that when he left he still didn't get it. It will be interesting to see how the essay he turned in today fares in this vein. I can only hope he gets it done a bit better this time around.