Have you ever been pulled over for speeding on the highway? If so, you know that you can handle that situation in one of two ways: first, you can bow your head humbly, admit your mistake, and accept your ticket from the officer; or, second, you can try to talk your way out of it. If you choose the second option, however, you should also know that one particular excuse will not work. You cannot claim that you “didn’t know the speed limit.” If you try that particular line, you are definitely going to receive a ticket.
If you’re caught speeding, you can claim that you’re on the way to the hospital. You can claim that your accelerator got stuck. You can even claim that you’re trying to make it to class on time to take a critical exam. But you cannot claim ignorance of the speed limit. After all, claiming that you didn’t know you were speeding is a lot like claiming that you didn’t know you were plagiarizing. As a licensed driver and as a serious writer, you are expected to know both the speed limit and the rules of documenting sources.
So why, then, do you sometimes hear students and teachers talk about “unintended plagiarism?” Is it possible to steal another’s words or ideas without intending to do so? Probably. Does it happen at the college level? Most likely. But should the excuse, “I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong,” be an acceptable explanation for an academic offense? Before answering that question, here are a few examples to consider.
In 1970, former Beatle George Harrison wrote and recorded a song entitled “My Sweet Lord,” a song that produced earnings of over two million dollars. Unfortunately for Harrison, a songwriter named Ronald Mack claimed that Harrison had essentially recorded Mack’s 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” — recorded by the Chiffons — with different words. When the claim went to court, Harrison himself admitted that the songs were “strikingly similar,” and he admitted that he had heard the Chiffons sing the song “at least a few times” (ABKCO Music v. Harrisongs Music, 24 Nov. 1982). Thus, while Harrison did not consciously steal Mack’s song, the court ruled that Harrison had “subconsciously plagiarized” (ABKCO Music v. Harrisongs Music, 19 Feb. 1981).
As another example, in an article entitled “Dear Teacher, Johnny Copied,” teachers and authors Louise Jackson, Eileen Tway, and Alan Frager wrote that young students often plagiarize unintentionally for three main reasons. First, a student “might internalize a piece of writing so thoroughly as to be sincerely unaware some months later that it is not his or her own” (qtd. In Lathrop and Foss 170). Second, some students lack confidence in their own work, so they innocently copy the words of another. Finally, some students simply do not realize that they need to let others know the source of their information (Lathrop and Foss 170–171).
So do Harrison’s case and the circumstances of the young children parallel the situations that may occur on a college campus? Yes. Definitely. In fact, in all of the situations mentioned, those in authority agree that unintentional plagiarism does occur. However, plagiarism, even when it is unintended, does have consequences. In Harrison’s case, he had to surrender a substantial portion of his earnings from the song (ABKCO Music v. Harrisongs Music, 19 Feb. 1981). In the children’s cases, the children have to be informed that their copying is inappropriate, and they need to be educated about proper documentation. And in the case of college students who plagiarize, they will, most likely, face an academic sanction. These sanctions generally depend on the extent of the plagiarism and range from failing the assignment to failing the course to being suspended from school.
The punishment occurs because most colleges expect their students to know about plagiarism and to document sources properly. In fact, the Hudson Valley Community College pamphlet on plagiarism specifically states “when it comes to plagiarism, ignorance is not an excuse” (Plagiarism Policy). So, as a college student, if you’re cruising toward the end of the semester and you’re tempted to speed up the completion of your work by plagiarizing, just remember that if you get pulled over, the excuse about not knowing won’t work. You will be ticketed, and you will face consequences.
ABKCO Music v. Harrisongs Music, №71, Civ. 602. U.S. Dist. Ct. for the Southern Dist. of N.Y., 19 Feb. 1981. LexisNexis, www.lexisnexis.com/en-us/gateway.page
ABKCO Music v. Harrisongs Music, Nos. 82–7421, 82–7461, Nos. 505, 600. U.S. Ct. of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 24 Nov. 1982. LexisNexis, www.lexisnexis.com/en-us/gateway.page
Plagiarism Policy — Hudson Valley Community College. Hudson Valley Community College, 2005.
Lathrop, Ann, and Kathleen Foss. Student Cheating and Plagiarism in the Internet Era. Libraries Unlimited, 2000.