Yesterday I spent a complicated morning dealing with students whose papers presented evidence or suspicion of plagiarism. It used to be the case that students plagiarised from solid academic sources in full knowledge of what they did. The explanation that our very surprised students are now offering is that they have no idea how a sentence evidently copied from elsewhere has slipped into their papers without their noticing it. They also complain that it’s unfair for them to fail a subject just because of a few borrowed lines.

Let me explain a few cases.

Students A and B failed the exam but managed to produce an acceptable paper. The problem with their papers is that they seemed clearly full of what I’ll call ‘microplagiarisms’, that is to say, unacknowledged borrowings of just a few words, two or three. How do I know? Because the register that students use is logically quite even and coherent –that is to say, a student does not write a very poor sentence followed by a very good sentence, rollercoaster style, unless the better sentences are not theirs. There’s a natural cohesion in the style we produce, it’s poor, average, good or outstanding according to our linguistic skills; nobody can mix poor and outstanding linguistic performances in the same paragraph without attracting attention to themselves.

In both cases, the average mark meant the student in question did get a pass. Just look at their reactions: student A didn’t even bother to answer my email message accusing him/her of plagiarising. Student B answered at once and came to my office to offer an explanation: s/he had not really revised for the exam but had made an effort with the paper. Now, if the effort includes searching Google for more advanced vocabulary, this is fine as long as the advance vocabulary is common usage –and not someone else’s original invention. That would be (micro)plagiarism.

Students C and D had copied between one and three lines of texts we could easily identify: Wikipedia, even the handbook. The lines copied were not very important for their paper, in that they just contributed general background information and not argumentation. We reminded them that the Department’s policy is very serious about plagiarism, and that no matter how small the plagiarism this results automatically in a 0 for the exercise, if not for the whole subject (in the fourth year). Were they aware of this? Yes, they said. Unfortunately, they added no apology and even insisted that it was just a matter of a few lines. This is like telling the police that you have just killed someone a little. Either you have or you haven’t (and, no, I’m not saying that plagiarising is as serious as killing).

Curiously enough, student C claimed s/he could not recall having inserted the copied line on purpose in the paper –this is something I’ve heard too often: students make notes without keeping references as to where they borrow material from and then, they claim, are confused about what is theirs and what is someone else’s. If this is the case, I’m mystified, for I cannot explain how someone can identify as theirs borrowed text. I’m also worried because a basic point in academic methodology is that one must keep track always of all the text copied from other sources.

Case three: student E. S/he was so worried that s/he would never pass the subject that s/he asked other persons (unidentified, possibly an English language teacher) to correct the paper. This is wrong to begin with, as we need to assess your individual performance. If the review results in minor corrections of typos and very basic mistakes, it may be acceptable, with many, many doubts. However, when the review results in a rewriting so through that the student’s style appears to be completely different from that of the exam written in the classroom, we have a serious problem. Passing as your own production something which someone else has substantially modified is, well, cheating.

Several German ministers have lost their positions because it was proven that they had plagiarised their MA and PhD dissertations. The Germans take this so seriously because they correctly understand plagiarism as a blatant form of dishonesty. Here, in true Spanish fashion, we downplay it as a minor the fault. The students who told me that it was very unfair for them to fail a whole subject just because of a few copied lines should understand that the point is not how many lines are copied, but the intention to deceive.

The words ‘I’m very sorry, I’ve made a mistake, it won’t happen again’ are almost a joke now in Spain in view of King Juan Carlos’ hollow apology but they do sound much better than ‘I’m not aware that there’s plagiarised text in my paper’ or ‘But it’s just one line’, or ‘The language may not be mine, but the ideas are.’

Students: just consider how much trouble a pair of quotation marks and a reference can save you.

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