back-to-school My plagiarism story

This unfortunate classroom experience delivered a memorable lesson to cite your sources. Professionals should do the same.

I teach a few university courses, and have done so for a number of years. I taught my first university course while I served as Campus Chief Information Officer. Especially when serving in IT leadership at a higher ed institution, teaching helps connect what we do to the impact we deliver.

I also have a number of outside interests. For example, I have written and maintained open source software, and participated in open source software communities, since 1993. I built on that interest when I earned my Master's degree, exploring the usability of open source software as a key theme in my Master's capstone thesis. Since then, I've occasionally published articles about usability testing and open source software, and mentored usability testing in open source software projects.

The above serves as background for an interesting story about citing your sources. 

Teaching a course

The first university course I taught was about usability testing. The course was designed so students learned about usability while building a small usability test where I was the "client." This first usability test became the "practice run" for a larger individual project, where each student would design, execute, analyze, and report on a usability test for an open source software application of their choice. In place of a final exam, students wrote a paper in the form of an industry article about their usability test, including a summary of their results.

As I read each of the papers, I was struck by one of them. The usability test results weren't very surprising, but the student's narrative about the importance of usability testing was insightful. I agreed with the connection the student made to open source software, and how if software is too difficult to use, then no one will want to use it, and that with open source software, if the open source alternative is more difficult to learn and use than the proprietary software it aims to replace, then many users will gravitate to the proprietary version. In one paragraph, the student presented a thoughtful analysis about the importance of good usability in open source software.

Unfortunately, I'd read that paragraph before. And the student hadn't cited the original source. By itself, this was a poor choice by the student.

But it gets worse. Not only had I read that paragraph before, I'd written it.

I dug out a copy of the original article and compared it with what the student had presented. Every sentence from the original was in the student's paper, but the words had been slightly altered or rearranged slightly, such as to avoid detection. But it was all there, a "one for one" reproduction of a key paragraph from my article published several years before.

The lie uncovered

I didn't want to make a knee-jerk reaction, so I decided to meet with the student and discuss the situation. In our meeting, I started by asking about their process when writing the paper. The student shared that they used the outline I shared and basically filled in the blanks.

I narrowed my inquiry further: tell me about writing your conclusions. The student described how they analyzed their usability test data and described what happened in the test. Pressed further about the specific recommendations, the student said they tried to think "outside the box" about how usability affects users. Did the student reference any articles when writing the recommendations? No, the student said, they just had a neat idea about usability in open source.

It was only when I shared my screen to show the article I had previously written that the student finally realized they were caught in a lie.

After some attempts to "walk back" their previous statements, the student finally admitted they found an article about usability that they liked, and thought it would be a good addition to their article. They didn't even look at who wrote it, they figured rewording the original was good enough to include in their paper.

Unfortunately, the student didn't realize at the time they had cribbed from their instructor.

It was a difficult meeting between me and my student that day, one I hope never to repeat. But it was an important one, and I'm sure that student will never forget those lessons about proper citation.

Lessons learned

In any capacity where we perform technical and professional writing, it's important that the author maintain trust and honesty. The Society for Technical Communication's Ethical Principles requires that technical communicators observe the principles of legality, honesty, confidentiality, quality, fairness, and professionalism in all works.

When writing new content, if you find something that you like, it's okay to re-use it. But find a way to cite it. This will depend on the usage. In an academic context, citation is typically in-text parenthetical citation with a bibliography or "Works Cited" section. In professional usage, images can be cited with a note in the figure capture, and re-used text can be quoted.