Can Plagiarism Charges be Racist?

Towards the end of her chapter on plagiarism in Bad Ideas About Writing, Jennifer A. Mott-Smith makes the claim that plagiarism charges could be racist. I paraphrase and perhaps exaggerate her claim. What she says in the chapter “Plagiarism Deserves to be Punished” (where all chapter titles need to be read as “bad” ideas, so she disputes the claim that it should be punished), is that studies have shown some instructors “let inadequate attribution go” if they feel the paper is generally well-written: “They tend to more readily recognize authority in papers written by students who are members of a powerful group… Thus, in some instances, plagiarism may be more about social inequity than individual deceit.” (251)

This is an issue I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. As a department chair, I see a lot of plagiarism cases, and I’ve noticed patterns that might be seen as racist. It’s not that only students of color run afoul of plagiarism, by any means, but that there seem to be more who do. If you also factor in other socio-economic factors, then the trend, though anecdotal, starts to seem troubling.

I don’t think that any instructor is consciously being racist, of course, but unconscious bias can often play a role. Students who come from poorer school districts often have had poorer training in how to write. Their papers are likely to sound less authorative and therefore, it’s more likely that plagiarized passages will stand out. It also stands to reason that these students are more likely to have been trained to write by copying and they may face the kinds of insecurities about writing that often lead to plagiarism.

Mott-Smith’s title suggests that her point is that plagiarism doesn’t need to be punished, not that it should be ignored. Harsh punishments for plagiarism, a 0 on a major assignment or an F in the course, can have a significant impact on a students’ progress in college. If other students are let go for inadequately documenting their sources, then harsh punishment for some is problematic. On the other hand, Mott-Smith seems to suggest that there are better ways to handle plagiarism, though she doesn’t go into those in this article. She does point to resources for further reading that can provide some of those strategies.

Racisim is not the main reason Mott-Smith gives for viewing plagiarism as something other than a crime, but it is a possibility that is quite concerning to me. Other reasons are the ways that students have been trained to write and the way we use and borrow from other writers in online discourse or in non-academic writing. The argument could be made that plagiarism is an issue in academic writing, and therefore students’ confusion over how non-academic writers borrow language isn’t a valid excuse. We do need to teach students to use sources appropriately in an academic setting, but Mott-Smith’s point is that punishment is not the best way to do this.

Understanding why students plagiarize and treating it as something they need to learn about, but not as an issue of academic dishonesty, can help instructors find ways to avoid plagiarism, a topic I am planning to take up next time.


Work Cited

Mott-Smith, Jennifer A. “Plagiarism Deserves to be Punished,” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, West Virginia U Libraries, 2017. pp. 247-252. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

3 thoughts on “Can Plagiarism Charges be Racist?

  1. I looked at plagiarism this way–if it was obviously unintentional, I gave the student the highest F grade possible rather than a zero. Often this happened when a student would copy but give a citation and do a “Work Cited” entry It was clear that they weren’t cheating, just uneducated on how to paraphrase or summarize the information on the topic. If it was obviously intentional (say throughout the paper with no citation and no work cited entry), I let the hammer down and failed them for the course, particularly if it was easy to google their plagiarized words to find the source.

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