Dear Dr K,
A few days ago I submitted an essay for my English class, and yesterday I got it back with a big zero on it and a note from the teacher saying that I had plagiarised the entire thing. What exactly is plagiarism? Am I in big trouble? What should I do?
The word ‘plagiarism’ comes from the ancient Latin word ‘plagiarius’ which means to kidnap, and this is a perfect example of one language plagiarising from another, since English essentially kidnapped the word from Latin.
To plagiarise something essentially means to pass off someone else’s work as your own, and if your teacher is right in her accusations, it means that you basically copied your essay from a pre-existing one.
Now plagiarism is viewed as a serious offense in Western world, especially in the academic context. It is viewed so seriously that you can be suspended or even expelled from your school or college for doing it.
In India, however, it’s not such a big deal. Even senior professors do it on a regular basis and often they don’t even take the trouble to disguise the fact. This is because ours is a culture where originality is valued less than the ability to reproduce something well. Your teacher is perhaps one of those types who have graduated from a foreign university and has brought all their grandiose western ideas into your school. Relax — even if you are in some amount of trouble with your teacher, if she decides to take it up with your principal or higher administration, chances are she’s only going to be laughed at. Anyone can be a free-thinking human, but everyone knows that we Indians take pride in our ability to be reproducing machines (as evidenced by our population)! Even in our movies and music we lift plots and tunes from across the seas, but we do it with our heads held high. Even the West is quickly catching on to this, as Hollywood has begun to endlessly rehash ideas and their pop stars have taken up the art of sampling.
The issue in your case is not that you copied the essay from another source, but that you did not demonstrate that you did it from memory. You see, our education system might value inanely reproducing things you have read, but it comes with one caveat: you must reproduce it without looking.
This is why in your exams you are expected to reproduce the textbook or the teacher’s answers as closely as possible, but you may not look into your textbook or notes (or your friend’s answer sheet) while doing so.
Even this condition is waived in many cases, like class projects or your lab records.
Clearly the essay at hand is not such a case. So if your teacher asks you to rewrite the essay, explain this line of reasoning to her, and feel free to write exactly the same essay as before, but keep in mind that you must do it from memory and in front of her so that she can see that you are not copying.