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Honor considers new plagiarism definition

Series of recent plagiarism, paraphrasing cases spurs proposal to clarify details of most commonly reported offense at University

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The Honor Committee discussed a proposal to redefine plagiarism at its weekly meeting Sunday night.

The proposed definition change, drafted and spearheaded by JJ Litchford, vice chair for community relations, would both alter and add elements to the current definition of plagiarism in the Honor Manual.

Litchford said the need to redefine plagiarism became clear after a series of cases involving plagiarism and paraphrasing, including the controversial "Semester at Sea" case in summer 2008, which indicated that the definition needed to be made more clear for students. He also noted that plagiarism is the most commonly reported honor offense.

To help create a new definition, Litchford turned to English Prof. Gregory Colomb, who has authored several books about dissertation writing and proper citation. After working with Colomb, Litchford said he drafted a proposal that includes "two essential changes" to the current definition.

The present definition begins with, "Plagiarism is using someone's ideas or work without proper or complete acknowledgment." To emphasize the question of whether the writer is attempting to pass someone else's ideas off as his own, Litchford proposed the sentence: "Plagiarism is attempting to represent someone else's ideas or work as your own original ideas or work."

Litchford said this sort of change, though minor, would help make the University's definition of plagiarism closer to the nationwide standard, as well as create a definition that is more applicable to all departments, not just the College.

"To center only on citation is grossly ineffective and insufficient to deal with plagiarism," Litchford said, adding that there is more to plagiarism than proper citation.

Litchford also chose to add a sentence about paraphrasing in the new definition of plagiarism. This change, which is more extensive than the first, would be connected to an entirely new section in the Honor Manual that defines and explains paraphrasing. The section would be an explicit and detailed explanation about how to recognize paraphrasing, Litchford said, and could possibly include a definition of paraphrasing and also examples of proper and improper paraphrasing.

Some of the possible benefits of adopting Litchford's proposal include a clearer idea about what plagiarism is, Honor Chair David Truetzel said, as well as an opportunity for the Committee to increase education about its policies and perhaps consequently decrease the number of plagiarism cases reported.

These changes will help not only new students entering the University who are unaware of the policies, but would also become an "integral resource for the investigations and trials process," as it would create a definitive "stance on paraphrasing" for the Committee, Litchford added.

At the same time, the Committee must make the definition flexible enough to cover the variety of cases presented to the organization, Truetzel said.

"We need it to be broad enough to cover everything, but specific enough that it means something, makes sense and is clear about what a wrong act is," Truetzel said.

Although the possible additions offer clearer guidelines, it also introduces a significant level of subjectivity that may not exist now, Litchford noted.

Additionally, the new definition would posit that accidentally citing something incorrectly would not truly pass as plagiarism, an idea with which some professors and students may disagree, Litchford said.

"I think it's really critical to make sure we have a full clear definition because you want people to be on notice of [what is and is not plagiarism]," Truetzel said.

The next draft of Litchford's proposal will be discussed during the coming weeks' meetings, Truetzel said.


Published September 22, 2009 in News









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Lawrence B. Ebert
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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The PROBLEM with this approach is that it goes from an "objective" criterion (citation: yes or no?) to a "subjective" criterion: the presence of "intent" inherent in the word "attempting." The Poshard case at SIU illustrated the concept of "inadvertent" plagiarism and why analysis of intent is likely not a good way to analyze plagiarism. Few people are going to say: yes, I attempted to represent someone else's work as my own. Poshard certainly did not. Verbatim copying of text not generally known without citation is plagiarism. End of story. The presence of copying is something that is self-evident. After copying is established, the punishment should fit the circumstances.

See\nhttp://ipbiz.blogspot.com/2009/09/university-of-virginia-to-change.html


Sam Leven
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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Lawrence - The flaw with your argument is that first, technically intent is already necessary through the intent clause, this change would just make it clearer. Second, as with any other crime that requires intent, you show it through circumstantial evidence. Word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark is going to be taken by a jury as having intent unless you've got a REALLY good explanation.

Finally, our Honor System is designed to deal with people who are threats to our community of trust, not everyone who screws up. Someone who accidentally plagiarizes is not a threat to our community, and this change would recognize that. I'm really glad the Honor Committee is considering this much needed change.


Lawrence B. Ebert
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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My first question would be "what intent clause"? The text above notes: --The present definition begins with,


Michael Pyshnov
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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Dr. Litchford makes a couple of necessary corrections. The definition must refer to the essence of plagiarism - misrepresentation or falsification. Several years ago I proposed this definition: "Plagiarism is a falsification of the fact of authorship". Indeed, what is being misrepresented or falsified is the fact of authorship. The word "acknowledgement" and the word "attempting" are not needed: one either did or did not falsify the fact of authorship. It is the authorship that should stand in the definition; it would be only the next question - the authorship of what (work, ideas, experiments, research, discoveries, words (i.e. expression), etc.) was falsified. The word "originality" is not needed if the word "authorship" is used: authorship implies originality. And, with my definition, we see that plagiarising words is not so dreadful in science as in a literary work. In each area, there is something essential for which we claim authorship; only when we understand the authorship of what exactly is claimed for (or falsified), we can correctly say if paraphrasing in each particular case constitutes plagiarism.

Finally, intent is implied if one is aware of the true authorship of the work (etc.). The only unintentional case of plagiarism is when one has no idea that he/she is not an original author. Many tricks involved in plagiarism and in inventing "justifications" for it can be seen at http://www.universitytorontofraud.com


Michael Pyshnov
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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Dr. Litchford makes a couple of necessary corrections. The definition must refer to the essence of plagiarism - misrepresentation or falsification. Several years ago I proposed this definition: "Plagiarism is a falsification of the fact of authorship". Indeed, what is being misrepresented or falsified is the fact of authorship. The word "acknowledgement" and the word "attempting" are not needed: one either did or did not falsify the fact of authorship. It is the authorship that should stand in the definition; it would be only the next question - the authorship of what (work, ideas, experiments, research, discoveries, words (i.e. expression), etc.) was falsified. The word "originality" is not needed if the word "authorship" is used: authorship implies originality. And, with my definition, we see that plagiarising words is not so dreadful in science as in a literary work. In each area, there is something essential for which we claim authorship; only when we understand the authorship of what exactly is claimed for (or falsified), we can correctly say if paraphrasing in each particular case constitutes plagiarism.

Finally, intent is implied if one is aware of the true authorship of the work (etc.). The only unintentional case of plagiarism is when one has no idea that he/she is not an original author. Many tricks involved in plagiarism and in inventing "justifications" for it can be seen at http://www.universitytorontofraud.com


Sam Leven
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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Lawrence,

I take it you know very little about our Honor Code. I would advise reading up at http://www.virginia.edu/honor if you're going to comment on our Honor Code. There's an intent clause for all offenses. There are legitimate disputes over its clarity and application, but it exists.

Second, when you have a single sanction (all students convicted of an Honor offense are expelled) intent is very necessary. Do you really advocate expelling students who, say, forgot to cite a source without any intent to do so?

The Honor System is not about legal plagiarism or copyrighting. It is about guarding our community. Just because unintentional copyright violations would lead to treatment as plagiarism in the court does not mean, nor should it mean, that our Honor Code should do the same.

Please actually read something about our by-laws and the way our Honor Code works before you comment on it in the future. The coverage of the Routman affair (which I agree was horribly handled, but not for the same reasons you do) in the papers hardly presents a complete view of our Honor System.


Lawrence B. Ebert
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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I ask the question again: what intent clause? The UVa honor code currently defines plagiarism: --Plagiarism is using someone else's ideas or work without proper or complete acknowledgment. Plagiarism encompasses many things, and is by far the most common manifestation of academic fraud. For example, copying a passage straight from a book into a paper without quoting or explicitly citing the source is blatant plagiarism. In addition, completely rewording someone else's work or ideas and using it as one's own is also plagiarism. It is very important that students properly acknowledge all ideas, work and even distinctive wording that are not their own.-- This is not significantly different from the University of Indiana definition and doesn't mention intent. Changing the definition of plagiarism, in the manner reported by the Cavalier, doesn't address intent AND separately begins a departure from the definition of other schools, such as that of Indiana, with no identified advantage. Separately, there is no such thing as a federal "crime" of plagiarism; there is copyright infringement, which does not require a showing of intent. Intent is irrelevant to a showing of copying, whether as plagiarism or as copyright infringement. Copying is something that one DOES know when one sees it. Certainly, the circumstances would dictate the form of penalty. If you see "degrees" of threat to the UVa community, then you should change the form of penalty ["single sanction"}, not the definition of plagiarism. What Alison Routman did in her paper did not constitute a threat to the UVa community, and, under the guidelines given to her for the paper, may not have constituted plagiarism at all. If you think the coverage of the Routman affair was inaccurate, why don't you present some facts, instead of a veiled allusion (illusion?)?


Sam Leven
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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Read the full Honor Code. Plagiarism is an ACT, which is only one element necessary to convict on an Honor offense. For someone to be found guilty of an Honor Offense, they must be convicted of Act, Intent and Non-Triviality. I invite you to read the full constitution and by-laws of the Honor Committee (available at the "Governing Documents" section of http://www.virginia.edu/honor) to familiarize yourself more with the way the Honor Code here works. Amongst the Acts for which one can be convicted is plagiarism, but just because the Act element has been met does not mean that Intent or Non-Triviality have. Because the Intent Clause is ambiguous in many ways, however, adding intent to the definition of plagiarism would solve multiple problems.

I agree it is important that students acknowledge the sources of their work, but at least at UVA, the most common situation with plagiarism is when specific passages are not correctly cited. This can be intentional (and clearly cheating), or it can be an error. It is absurd to expel someone for an act of plagiarism they did not intend to commit, yet including these acts in the definition of plagiarism risks allowing their expulsion. How something is defined in the Honor Code does not bind a professor, a professor is perfectly free to determine that an act of "plagiarism" as you define it has occurred, and grade the paper, and the student, accordingly. How it is defined in the Honor Code, however, directly influences whether or not the student will be EXPELLED for such a mistake, and this gives great reason to have the Honor Code's definition of plagiarism be more limited than any legal definition.

I actually agree that the single sanction is wrong, and think this argument changes entirely if the single sanction is abolished, but it is what is there and is not likely to change in the immediate future.

As for the Routman case, beyond the fact that copying was not clear at all, as I believe you've acknowledged, the larger issues were that she was denied the due process assured under the Honor Committee's constitution simply because she was a participant in the Semester at Sea program. If she had been at U.Va., she'd have had a trial in front of her peers, a defense counsel, and a much more thorough investigation. This made her case fundamentally, and improperly, different from normal Honor cases, and ultimately fundamentally unfair (and "allusion" is the correct word, I believe).


Lawrence B. Ebert
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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Although Sam Leven spends much time saying intent IS an element of an Honor Offense, his conclusion on intent is: "Because the Intent Clause is ambiguous in many ways, however, adding intent to the definition of plagiarism would solve multiple problems." The CURRENT UVa definition of plagiarism does NOT include an element of intent. In an upcoming paper on academic plagiarism, researchers survey definitions of plagiarism at universities on four continents, and find that NONE include intent as an element of plagiarism. In dealing with the PUNISHMENT phase AFTER plagiarism is found, intent IS a factor. Because UVa chooses to have only one punishment (expulsion) for an Honor Code violation, UVa would tinker with the definition of the "crime." Apart from the general silliness of this approach against a background wherein other universities have a fairly uniform definition of plagiarism, the proposed UVa change would foster the concept of "inadvertent plagiarism" as exemplified in the Poshard matter at SIU.

As to the outcome of the Routman case, however ambiguous UVa's Intent Clause may be, Routman was found guilty, meaning there was a finding of intent. Measured against the facts of the Routman case, this finding is difficult to understand, and should cause UVa people concern. Nevertheless, the "Alice in Wonderland" approach of changing the definition of plagiarism is not the answer. [from the book:


Casper Weinberger
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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Mr. Ebert, your density makes one wonder about your sincerity. On the off chance that you are merely very confused, here is the definition of the requisite intent found in the UVA bylaws:


Lucas Beirne
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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I fail to understand Mr. Ebert's refusal to accept the concept of the honor code requiring both an actus reus and a mens rea. It ensures that liability is only applied when the accused actor is culpable for the honor offense. I must ask, what is Mr. Ebert's association with the University and why his refusal to listen or understand the arguments and interpretations of the honor code put forward here?


Lawrence B. Ebert
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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As to Mr. Weinberger, one might ask how his recollection of the Honor Code applies to the facts of the Routman matter. ["that the actor knew, or should have known, that the Act in question was or could have been considered Lying, Cheating, or Stealing. Ignorance of the scope of the Honor System shall not be considered a defense." ] Alison didn't come forward on the ship because she didn't think what she had done was Lying, Cheating, or Stealing (or something else bad). But she was made to walk the plank, with the UVa folks on the ship punishing her for something that does not appear to be a deliberate dishonest act, or even plagiarism as understood by people outside of UVa. Plagiarism is copying without attribution, as defined by universities on at least four continents, but does not extend to fragmentary copying of well-known facts. If the Honor Code was well applied in the Routman matter, one suspects that UVa would not be working to adjust its particular definition of plagiarism. As to "not dishonest unless the student intended to commit it, " this theme was well-worked in the Poshard matter. As to " density makes one wonder about your sincerity, " if Mr. Weinberger's arguments were better grounded, perhaps he wouldn't feel the need to lead off with an ad hominem attack.

As to Lucas, his writing " I fail to understand Mr. Ebert


Lawrence B. Ebert
(12/31/69 7:00pm)
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The Cavalier, on September 29, said basically the same thing as Sam Leven: "The vague intent clause, for example, has been the source of several controversies in recent years," which realization is not reflected in the commentary of Casper or Lucas, who otherwise don't address the Alison Routman matter, wherein there is basically no evidence that Alison intended to do anything bad, but she was convicted anyway.

For those not exposed to criminal law, actus reus and mens rea are terms of art in assessing whether or not a crime has occurred. There is no such thing as a federal crime of plagiarism. [In fact, in the Dastar case, the Supreme Court recognized that the defendant was a plagiarist, but the defendant won the case.] As to copyright infringement and patent infringement, which are generally civil matters, intent is not an element of either, and one does not assess whether the defendant knew or should have known infringement was a violation. Infringement is infringement, no matter what the intent. If one finds infringement (liability), then one addresses the damages.

UVa's problem is that there is one punishment to fit all Honor Code violations. Changing the definition of plagiarism does not solve that problem; it only moves the problem somewhere else. It is a bad idea.



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