Related: Education, Honor Code

Wiki-Ethics: The Debate Continues!


Trinity Alumna (and Development Consultant) Aimee Dolaway Olivo weighs in with this observation:

“I read your Wiki blog with great interest… In the workplace, I also perform the same sort of cut and paste to which Johnson refers. After all, once text has been approved on an institutional level, such as in press releases, it only makes sense to use parts of it in correspondence with alumnae, etc. I agree with Johnson that this is a particular skill. Taking certain phrases or paragraphs written by someone else and melding them into one “voice” for a different audience is indeed a challenging task.

“However, I also write a great deal of original content in this job as I have in all my previous positions. I argue that Trinity’s commitment to teaching writing through research papers and other academic means is critical to our students’ ability to successfully function in the workplace. A substantive academic background in writing such as the one I received at Trinity not only serves as the basis for the ability to cut and paste and form one coherent document, but is important for those times when original work is required.”

Let me reiterate: what Ms. Olivo and Mr. Johnson refer to — using text in the workplace over and over again — is NOT plagiarism because the writers prepared this text specifically for the purpose of institutional or corporate use, knew that it would be repeated in many places, and wrote as agents of the corporation, hence, they did not “own” their particular text and they knew in advance that others would use it for institutional purposes.

Here’s an example of how such text COULD BECOME plagiarism: Presume the Widget Corporation had a particular piece of technical writing on its website. The writing explained a particular scientific process. Let’s assume, for argument, that one staff member of the corporation wrote that text, perhaps for a brochure, and later other staff uploaded the text into other corporate materials, and eventually the webmaster of the Widget Corporation used the same text for a corporate website on the scientific process that produced a new product called Osprey. So far, nobody has committed any plagiarism.

Now suppose that a student is writing a paper for a course on advertising. The student selects the Widget Corporation for her study. She visits the Widget Corporation website and finds the material about their new product Osprey and the explanation of the scientific process behind the product. She selects, cuts and pastes all of the text directly into her term paper. She writes an opening paragraph saying, in essence, that this paper is about the marketing of the Osprey product, and she writes a closing paragraph that summarizes the marketing campaign. The rest of the paper is taken directly from the Widget website, but she does not use quotation marks and does not provide a citation at the start of the material. Moreover, the material copied from the website is presented as the body of the paper. However, she does provide a “Bibliography” in which the website address of the Widget Corporation is listed.

Has plagiarism occurred? Yes. The folks at the Widget Corporation surely did not expect a student to present their text as if it were her own. Her generic reference to the Widget website in her bibliography is insufficient to escape a charge of plagiarism, which is using text created by someone else and presenting it as if it were your own writing. In academic matters, this is considered to be cheating, stealing someone else’s work product instead of creating your own.

Would a citation at the start of the excerpt have solved the problem? Most unlikely, because the excerpt was the majority of the paper. Quotations from other sources cannot simply be strung together to make a paper. Students must use their own intellectual skills to analyze information and present their analysis clearly. There is no easy way out — original writing and analysis is very hard, yes, but as Ms. Olivo points out above, honest writing is one of the most precious life skills that any student can acquire.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: