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STUDENTS AND PLAGIARISM: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

By Jonathan Cook

college attorney for student plagiarism defense

What is plagiarism? Definitions of Plagiarism vary from school to school. The dictionary's definition of plagiarism is the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own. 

Why Does the Definition of Plagiarism Matter? The way in which your College or University defines Plagiarism could be the difference in a slap on the wrist or a permanent notation on your transcript. The primary question to be answered is whether or not your College or University requires plagiarism to be intentional. When I was a student, I thought of plagiarism as conduct intended to deceive. However, at most Colleges and Universities, intent is explicitly deemed irrelevant.  

For example, Georgetown University's "Zero Tolerance" policy provides that "[p]lagiarism, in any of its forms, and whether intentional or unintentional, violates standards of academic integrity. Plagiarism is the act of passing off as one's own the ideas or writings of another."

As a Student Defense Lawyer, I Find This Approach to Be Draconian. Students are typically overworked, stressed out, and tend to get complacent from time to time. As a result, it is easy to mistakenly omit quotation marks, citations or improperly source research material. However, As I explain to every student charged under this kind of code, this is not a Doomsday scenario. A skilled Student Defense Attorney knows how to approach allegations on every level of the plagiarism spectrum. 

Many Colleges and Universities Have Poorly Written Definitions of Plagiarism. Time after time  students and parents are left scratching their heads trying to figure out if intent is required to substantiate a plagiarism charge. 

For example, students at George Washington University are often confused by the University's  definition of plagiarism:

"Plagiarism: intentionally or knowingly representing the words, ideas, or sequence of ideas of another as one's own in any academic exercise; failure to attribute any of the following: quotations, paraphrases, or borrowed information." See GWU Code of Academic Integrity.

While it may seem the rule requires intent to be present to substantiate a plagiarism charge, the second clause "failure to attribute any of the following..." swallows the rule right up. Does "intentionally" apply to the clause following the semicolon? According to some administrators the answer is yes, while others say no. Fortunately, a skilled Student Defense Attorney understands how to use confusing or ambiguous definitions to your advantage.

Should a Student Be Subject to the Same Sanctions for Unintentional versus Intentional Conduct? Academic sanctions imposed against a student for Plagiarism can damage a student's future just as much as a criminal conviction. An experienced Student Defense Attorney understands how schools operate and can help to ensure a fair resolution. 

Remember: although it is extremely important to hire an experienced Student Defense Attorney with experience with plagiarism cases and plagiarism checker software tools like Turnitin.com as early in Campus Disciplinary Proceedings as possible (as soon as a notice of charges is received, if not before), it is never too late. Whether a student has already been sanctioned and is in the appeals stage or even after an appeal has been denied, a lawyer with extensive experience representing and defending college students can offer invaluable help.

Jonathan Cook at New England Student Defense has represented over 150 students at Colleges and Universities nationwide from Yale University and Georgetown University to the University of Houston and Tulane University.  

These materials have been prepared by SRT for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

Jonathan Cook