Intentional and unintentional plagiarism: what’s the difference and what can faculty do about it?


Although the concept of plagiarism is well understood in higher education, the way in which faculty apply its definition to student work varies to include intentional plagiarism as well as more subtle aspects such as misuse of sources or unintentional plagiarism. The Council of Writing Program Administration (2003) makes a distinction between (intentional) plagiarism and a student’s failure to properly use and cite sources in written work, stating that the latter constitutes the “misuse of sources” and not plagiarism. A good faith effort to attribute the work of others and cite sources, even with incorrect formatting of citations or use of quotation marks, is not considered to be plagiarism by their definition but rather the “…result of failures in prior teaching and learning: students lack the knowledge of and ability to use the conventions of authorial attribution” (Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2003, p. 2).

Lack of skill in researching and documenting research notes, and natural mistakes when paraphrasing and integrating source materials can contribute to assignments that appear to be plagiarized (Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2003). Cultural differences can contribute to both unintentional and intentional plagiarism. Erika Scheurer, associate professor of English and director of St. Thomas’ Writing Across the Curriculum program advises that:

When it comes to ESL/ELL students, it is important to understand that some may come from cultures with very different ideas about plagiarism. So a concept that seems very obvious to us--that plagiarism is stealing someone else's ideas--may be extremely hard to understand to someone whose culture values the collective more than the individual. Knowledge in this view is not individually-held property, but created and "owned" (if at all) by the community. Students from cultures like this still need to learn the U.S. concept of plagiarism, but we need to understand that if they don't learn it as quickly as we think they should, it is not necessarily laziness or their trying to get away with something; they are having to adopt a different world view, and that can take time.

When student plagiarism does occur, some of the often cited reasons for it are students’ poor planning and time management, fear of failure, students’ perception of assignments as busywork, and a lack of consequences for plagiarizing (Council of Writing Program Administration, 2003). But as Merrie Davidson points out in her December Synergia article, What’s Behind Student Plagiarism?, the reasons why the current generation of college students plagiarize are more complex and not only include the ease with which electronic content can be repurposed, but also the belief that one’s ability to repurpose content, especially content pulled from the Internet, for one’s own use is “creative use” (not plagiarism). We should bear in mind that the current generation of college students has never known life without the Internet, and having access to an abundance of online material is commonplace. The inherent nature of digital content makes it simple to repurpose and incorporate into new electronic documents. For many students, this “copy/paste” process represents the creation of new, original material.

Instructors both in high school and college play a vital role in helping students develop skills to understand the nuances of plagiarism and digital content. If, as Rebecca Howard (2007) points out, the purpose of writing is to “…help students learn course materials and gain communication and thinking skills” (p. 11) it is important to focus on pedagogy at all instructional levels and develop authentic writing assignments that “…engage[s] students in the topic and the learning process and that persuades them not just that they will be punished for plagiarizing but that they will able to and glad to do their own writing” (p. 12).

Designing assignments to minimize plagiarism and help students understand how to research and properly incorporate source material into their writing can be a challenge. Below are suggestions and ideas that may prove helpful when planning assignments.

The Writing Process

Structuring the writing process can assist students to develop better notes and summaries of sources, and guide students toward ownership of their ideas which can decrease the tendency to plagiarize. (Hamlin, 2011; Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2003). Progressive assignments - breaking down large assignments into smaller elements in which students turn in work along the way – can be an effective strategy (Matto, n.d.). Another option is in-class writing sessions where faculty can observe the process and sources that students use in their assignments (Davis, Drinan, & Gallant, 2009).

University of St. Thomas faculty Scheurer and Susan Callaway, associate professor of English and director of the Center for Writing, emphasize the importance of teaching students the research and writing process within the context of the assignments, and collecting artifacts from the entire process to help deter both intentional and unintentional plagiarism. Callaway often uses this video by Carteret Community College in her class to help students better understand the foundations of research and scholarly writing: The video includes a good example of paraphrasing, touches on electronic sources and why plagiarism is (or should be) important to students.

Ownership and Intellectual Property

Students may not internalize the importance of properly attributing sources, and instead regard plagiarism as more of a faculty issue that is imposed upon students (Power, 2009). When students fail to internalize the idea of intellectual property they may also feel less invested in the assignment and view the assignment as busywork, contributing to the tendency to plagiarize (Power, 2009; Hamlin, 2012).

DeVoss and Rosati (2002) highlight the importance of addressing plagiarism “through the lens of intellectual property” by using actual examples of plagiarism, copyright and intellectual property infringement (see p. 199). In particular, they select examples from popular culture and from the online/virtual world that students can relate to.

To help students become more “self-aware as writers” Erika Scheurer suggests using informal, reflective writing assignments at different points in the writing process where students describe their process (e.g., invention strategies, the revision process). Alternatively, Scheurer recommends designing assignments that play with elements such as audience or genre:

Instead of having students write a traditional thesis-support essay, you could ask them to write a letter trying to persuade a family member or friend who holds a different view on the question. The analytical and persuasive skills needed are the same as with a traditional paper, but the voice that must be created because of the audience and genre makes it harder to lift blocks of text from a traditional source. Another benefit is that students often enjoy writing in the contexts of these scenarios--it can be more engaging and "real" for them.

What students may not always understand is that intentional plagiarism, whether by purchasing papers or by using the work of others without attribution, not only goes against academic integrity and conduct, but also "breaks the bond of trust" between students and faculty.

Online Research & Digital Sources

As most faculty are already keenly aware, students turn first to Google or Wikipedia when beginning to research a topic. Typically instructors will prohibit students from using Wikipedia as a source in part because of incorrect information or because it’s all too easy and tempting to copy and paste from Wikipedia articles. Yet students persist in turning to Wikipedia as a source of information.

The idea of creating and editing Wikipedia content as the basis for writing assignments might seem surprising, but professional organizations and faculty have embraced the opportunity for students to contribute to Wikipedia and improve the accuracy of the content and resources on the site.

If you can’t beat them, have them edit: Using Wikipedia as a learning tool.

In the December issue of Synergia, Roxanne Prichard (Psychology) describes her Wikipedia project in which student teams review neuroscience topics (stubs) for inaccuracies, identify topics needing revision and expansion and proceed to collaborate on revisions to the Wikipedia content. So what did the students think about the assignment? Roxanne writes about the mixed reaction of students and offers her impressions in her follow-up article in the February issue of Synergia.

In their paper It wasn’t me, was it? Plagiarism and the Web, DeVoss and Rosati (2002) offer several options for assignments that address the use of electronic resources; some of which are included below:

  • Students can log the way in which they conduct research and the type of resources they collect, and analyze how and why they used the approach or resource.
  • Have students collaborate on developing handouts for the class on definitions and examples of plagiarism, misuse of resources and correct citations.
  • Develop a set of questions that students need to investigate by searching both library and web resources and then ask students to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Consider contacting your liaison librarian for a consultation on developing assignments or including an instruction session for your students. The UST library staff provide a wide variety of options to help students with research and navigate the use of electronic resources.

Finally, review your course materials for overlooked citations. Are You Committing Plagiarism? Top Five Overlooked Citations to Add to Your Course Materials suggests that faculty check their own PowerPoint lectures, supplemental readings, web links and images for proper citation.

Do you have strategies or tips for creating assignments that minimize plagiarism that you’d like to share with colleagues? Send us an email ( and we’ll compile your ideas for a future issue of Synergia.


Additional Readings/Resources


Bart, M. (2009, October 7). Tips to reduce cheating in the college classroom. Retrieved from

Council of Writing Program Administrators. (2003). Defining and avoiding plagiarism: The WPA statement on best practices. Retrieved from

Davidson, M. (2011). What’s behind student plagiarism? Retrieved from

Davis, S.F., Drinan, P.F., & Gallant, T. B. (2009). Cheating in school: What we know and what we can do. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

DeVoss, D., & Rosati, A. (2002). It wasn’t me, was it? Plagiarism and the Web. Computers and Composition, 19, 191-203.

Hamlin, C. (2011, November 28). The writing process: Step-by-step approach curbs plagiarism, helps students build confidence in their writing ability. Retrieved from

Howard, R. (2007). Understanding “internet plagiarism”. Computers and Composition, 24, 3-15.

Matto, M. (n.d.). Faculty tips on preventing plagiarism. Retrieved from

Power, L. (2009). University students’ perceptions of plagiarism. The Journal of Higher Education, 80, 191-203.

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