Friday, May 21, 2010

To: San Francisco State University Administrators
Re: A Reform in the Plagiarism Policy

In My English 114 course the theme of our class was highly based on college culture and plagiarism. For the majority of the class time we did reading on the different aspects of plagiarism and the reasoning behind why students commit this offense. Modeled on Susan Blum’s book, My Word our classroom conducted our own research of college culture and plagiarism in San Francisco State University— the results were astonishing. In the survey we passed around campus, out of the 44 students surveyed 42 admitted to plagiarize. To me this was very alarming and very curious. How is it that so many students are resorting to plagiarism in a higher education institution? I refuse to believe that the majority of the students are “cheating” in college—I believe that there are other components as to why college students are plagiarizing. Susan Blum says, “If more than half of students plagiarize, then there is clearly some cultural influence urging them to do so” (Blum, 2009). In the research my class conducted, the reading I did in the course and in my own personal experiences I have concluded that students who commit plagiarism is unintentional—this may be because students lack the knowledge on what to cite or it may the that they simply do not understand the work they need to write on. I think that the University should address these issues that are causing students to plagiarize rather than just dismissing the students needs by punishing them and to punish according to the degree of the offense.

Plagiarism can be very ambiguous to a student sometimes because there are many gray areas within what plagiarism can be. We can all agree that buying a paper from a paper mill, or contracting another student to write your paper is clearly an intentional act. Yet there can also be instances where a student may unintentionally plagiarize as well. The notion that “common knowledge” does not have to be cited differs on what is “common knowledge” from person to person. This is further supported by Rebecca Moore Howard’s article Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty where she states that, “‘common knowledge' varies from community to community”(Howard, 1995). San Francisco State University does not make it clear on what “common knowledge” is and they do not teach students what kind of information does not need citation. Failing to cite sources is under the umbrella term of plagiarism because it is taking the work of another as your own work. If SF State does not teach students what “common knowledge” is, students may not feel the need to cite a particular piece of information—potentially causing them to plagiarize unintentionally. The university should take the responsibility to teach its students on what “common knowledge” means. Since every student in San Francisco State University has to take General Education classes this is the perfect setting to teach what “common knowledge” is in each department since it differs from “community to community” as Howard states in her article (Howard, 1995). In the survey our class passed out to San Francisco Students, twenty percent of the students plagiarized because they failed to cite a source. It could be that in those twenty percent students felt anxious because they did not know when citing was appropriate or not. Personally, not knowing what to cite is my own issue when writing academic papers. I know first hand on how a student hesitates on what needs to be cited. If San Francisco State professors teach students what needs to be cited the anxiety and percentage of students who fail to cite may significantly go down.

More often than not knowing what plagiarism is, students do not understand the work they have to write about. When students do not understand the material they often conduct in “patchwriting.” Patchwriting is "copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one synonym-substitutes." (Howard, 1995) This can be considered plagiarism because it is paraphrasing without giving credit to the author. In the group that researched the extracurricular culture of SF state students they wrote in their report, “Variations in the academic world of what is considered plagiarism could affect the way students answered the surveys and viewed they’re actions. On such way is the idea of patchwriting, which is common among lower level English student writers.” (Yuen et al, 2010) The students who are committing this type of plagiarism are those who are not at the college level writing standard. San Francisco State University should not punish those who are in need of extra help. Although the university considers patchwriting as a form of plagiarism it should be adopted as learning mechanism instead. Howard states, “To treat it negatively, as a ‘problem’ to be ‘cured’ or punished, would be to undermine its positive intellectual value, thereby obstructing rather than facilitating the learning process.” Patchwriting has been proven to be a beneficial learning mechanism to those students who are learning to write in an academic setting. Patchwriting therefore should not be considered as a punishable act of plagiarism. The university should address this issue of patchwriting by allowing those students that are not at the expected standard or do not understand the material, to emulate the language of the textbooks as a foundation for learning purposes.

San Francisco State University should not treat all plagiarism offenses as the same. In this letter I wanted to give you some examples when plagiarism is not the student’s fault. Therefore what I purpose is a new policy for San Francisco State to categorize the offense by the degree of intentional offense. I think it is unfair for a student to be punished because they failed to cite a source—especially if they thought it was considered “common knowledge” or just because they tried to emulate the academic language from a source. As I had stated before, there are two kinds of plagiarism—intentional and unintentional and each should be treated differently. In my report on the research conducted my group mate wrote, “Someone who is knowingly plagiarizing should be punished however the student who simply doesn't know how to cite his or her sources, should be educated on how to do so rather than be punished.” It is San Francisco State University’s responsibility to teach their incoming students what plagiarism means in the institution because “plagiarism has so many meanings and definitions it is very tough to determine what is or is not plagiarism for someone who is not educated on the topic.”(Guillen et al, 2010) How can a student commit a crime when they did now it was one from the beginning? In conclusion what I ask for you to consider is to change the policy so that the punishment is more appropriate to the crime and to educate the professors and students on what plagiarism is so that it can be prevented in the future.
Thank you for your time,
Cynthia Guillen

Works Cited:

1. Blum, S. D. (2009). My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

2. Extracurricular Activities. (n.d.). ilearn. Retrieved May 17, 2010, from

3. Guillen, C., Acala, K., Echaves, F., Zuniga, V., Stus, A., & Sedlak, G. (n.d.). Demographics. ilearn. Retrieved May 17, 2010, from

4. Howard, R. M. (1995). Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty. College English, 57(7), 788-806.

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