The Plagiarism-Personality Connection

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By Molly Wright Starkweather

A recent blog post by Teresa Kelly focuses on showing student writers how plagiarism has a real impact on their quality of education. A related way to frame plagiarism mistakes is to see them in the context of personality, as part of a student writer’s developing authorial identity. A 2010 article by Elander, Pittam, Lusher, Fox, and Payne found the less a student sees himself as an author with authority, the more likely he is to plagiarize. Here are two very common examples of the plagiarismpersonality connection:

1. Patch-writing. The patch writer reminds me of someone that only talks in movie quotes. The patch writer’s work is filled with obviously copied and pasted source material. The writer might feel like he does not have anything original to say, so try to meet him where he is.

Solution: Give the patch writer templates, a la Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s (2006) They Say/I Say, but with a difference—tailor a template to improve the individual student’s work in progress. Just recently I wrote my own template for a nursing student to fill in to re-frame her thesis statement: “By examining _________ and _________, it becomes clear that the influenza vaccine is _____________, despite the risks.”  (All of the answers to the blanks, by the way, were already expressed in one form or another during her introduction.) It might seem counterintuitive to give a patch-writer a template, but a template is the model of academic discourse that the student was trying to create through patch-writing in the first place.

2. Self-plagiarism. The self-plagiarist strikes me as someone who has both too much– and not enough– confidence in her writing. She wrote the perfect paper in History 201, so obviously she should be allowed to submit the same paper for History 301, right? Seeing a paper that shows up as the same paper submitted for a different class might appear as laziness or cockiness, but there could be more to it than that.

Solution: When a student asks how to re-use something he wrote before, I immediately ask, “Why is this previous piece of writing so useful for this new assignment? Did you realize that it is less strenuous and risky to revise the previous work than to try to cover your bases in quoting and citing it?” Just two questions help determine whether the student writer understands that being respectful of a source also means being respectful of himself as a writer, and that means writing original work for every assignment. Either the student is overly confident in his previously written work and needs to be reminded that yes, in fact, it can (and should) be improved upon; or,  a student is intimidated by the prospect of coming up with more new ideas. Sometimes, the writer is going through both confidence issues at the same time.

While it might seem too touchy-feely to discuss confidence or a sense of authority among adult student writers who are struggling with plagiarism, it is important to remember that writing in an academic setting can be uniquely emotional. The core-shaking frustration of working one’s way into an academic conversation requires the collective empathy and creativity of both teachers and students.

What ideas do you have for students as they learn to navigate academic writing and plagiarism issues?


Elander, J., Pittam, G., Lusher, J.  Fox, P., & Payne, N. (2010). Evaluation of an intervention to help students avoid unintentional plagiarism by improving their authorial identity. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(2), 157-171.

Graff, G. & Birkenstein, C. (2006). They Say/I Say: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York, NY: Norton.

2 Responses

  1. J. Sammy says:

    A very interesting perspective on Self-Plagiarism. You are the first professor to ever consider recycled material from a student. Best quote ever, “…being respectful of a source also means being respectful of himself as a writer” (Starkweather, 2013)

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