Plagiarism Instruction in the MLA Handbook

A great resource for teachers is the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. If you go on to the MLA (Modern Language Association) website, you can email MLA to request a free copy. Besides all the information about MLA formatting and citations (the standard for all Humanities classes), the handbook provides a concise chapter on plagiarism—a clear definition, types of plagiarism, consequences of plagiarism, and tips on how to avoid plagiarism. I have created of the handbook which you can see at the end of this post.

The MLA Handbook’s section on plagiarism is very student friendly, addressing the student directly. I have culled a few insights from the chapter that I think is most helpful for teaching students about plagiarism:

  • Because research has the power to affect opinions and actions, responsible writers compose their work with great care. They specify when they refer to another author’s ideas, facts, and words, whether they want to agree with, object to, or analyze the source. This kind of documentation not only recognizes the work writer do; it also tends to discourage the circulation of error, by inviting readers to determine for themselves whether a reference to another text presents a reasonable account of what that text says. Plagiarists undermine these important public values. (52-53).
  • Plagiarists are often seen as incompetent—incapable of developing and expressing their own thoughts—or worse, dishonest, willing to deceive others for personal gain (53).
  • Student plagiarism does considerable harm. For one thing, it damages teachers’ relationships with students, turning teachers into detectives instead of mentors and fostering suspicion instead of trust. (53).
  • To guard against unintentional plagiarism during research and writing, keep careful notes that always distinguish among three types of material: your ideas, your summaries and paraphrases of others’ ideas and facts, and exact wording you copy from sources. Plagiarism sometimes happens because researchers do not keep precise records of their reading, and by the time thy return to their notes, they have forgotten whether their summaries and paraphrases contain quoted material that is poorly marked or unmarked (55).
  • If you realize after handing a paper in that you accidentally plagiarized an author’s work, you should report the problem to your instructor as soon as possible. In this way you eliminate the element of fraud. You may receive a lower grade than you had hoped for, but getting a lower grade is better than failing a course or being expelled (56).
  • If you have any doubt about whether or not you are committing plagiarism, cite your source or sources (59).

Besides these insights, the sections on “Forms of Plagiarism” (56-58) and “Summing Up” are also great for students. Check out the PDF file below and consider sharing these two sections with your students.



MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed. (New York: Modern

Language Association of America, 2009).



I Didn’t Know!!!: Students Claim Plagiarism Ignorance

Plagiarism CartoonI am the head of the Student Plagiarism Review Committee at our school (Yes, I know it is an awful name . . . any suggestions?). The committee is an ad hoc committee to determine student plagiarism and consequences. We are not quite six weeks into the new school year, and, unfortunately, I have had to oversee four committee meetings already. Each time, the student accused of plagiarism pleaded ignorance–“I didn’t know that was plagiarism!” This is an all too common occurrence.

The purpose of this website is to give teachers the tools to educate students about plagiarism so that they can learn how to avoid it. If you are a follower of, you know that my school has focused on this issue for over year with a blitzkrieg education program (see Nonetheless, students who sat through each one of these information session–one even wearing our stop plagiarism bracelet–pleaded a lack of knowledge about what constitutes plagiarism. I was baffled.

As I reflect on these four sessions, I have learned one thing–teachers need to constantly teach students about the gravity of plagiarism as well as the benefits from avoiding it (not just the consequences!). English teachers around the world are checking off the obligatory beginning of the class speech about plagiarism. They will not revisit the issue until the following year. Don’t do this, for the sake of your students. Every so often–at least once a month–briefly revisit something related to plagiarism to keep the issue at the forefront of the students’ minds. Remind them every paper to be original, creative, and critical and not cheat themselves by committing plagiarism. Only be constantly reminding our students can we help them see how serious an issue it is and help them avoid sitting in front of the dreaded plagiarism committee.

Too Naive!: The Saturday Night Live Plagiarism Case

A week ago, Saturday Night Live, a comedy sketch show that’s aired for forty years, was accused of plagiarizing one of the week’s sketches. The admittedly hilarious skit depicted a team asked to draw Muhammad during a kind of Pictionary contest. It was very popular and elicited a lot of laughs. However, within two days of the show’s airing, news outlets were crying plagiarism–in fact, that’s the second time this year SNL has seemingly committed plagiarism.

Here is the SNL skit:

Interestingly, a Canadian comedy show, 22 Minutes, aired a similar sketch this past January. The sketch has been available on Youtube since January 15, 2015. Here’s the video:

Looks pretty similar right?

This past week, I showed both videos to my students asking them why it appears SNL plagiarized. After doing so, I gave them this CNN article ( which argues that SNL did not intentionally plagiarize. Instead, the writer argues, it’s just coincidental. I asked my students to argue against the article. They were easily able to destroy the writer’s arguments citing his ridiculous naivety.

I agreed. Try it out on your students.

In the end, I see the article as assuming that no one will plagiarize because no one wants to get caught, therefore, it has to be a simple error or mere coincidence. The writer fails to recognize, even though he does point out that it exists, the super-competitive environment an SNL writer inhabits. This alone creates the temptation to cheat. That temptation sometimes outweighs the fear of getting caught. It’s the same thing for students. It’s not just bad students who plagiarize, good ones do too. When the desire to succeed at all costs outweighs the fear of getting in trouble for cheating, THEY CHEAT. It’s our job to create a learning environment that does not push success at all costs and utilizes originality and creativity as requirements to complete assessments. The students picked up on this. It’s a pity that CNN is so naive to think that good, talented writers are above the temptation to cheat.

Famous Cases of Plagiarism


“Mrs. Simpson, don’t you worry. I watched Matlock in a bar last night. The sound wasn’t on, but I think I got the gist of it. ” –Lionel Hutz

There have been a lot of high profile plagiarism issues recently.  These cases can be used as tools to highlight the consequences of plagiarism for students. For example, Senator John Walsh suffered public shame and had his master’s degree revoked when it was discovered that he had plagiarized his thesis (  Recently, potential presidential candidate Ben Carson came under fire for plagiarism in a recent book of his (  Ben Carson’s scandal along with past plagiarism scandals by Joe Biden and Rand Paul promise to bring the issue of plagiarism into the spotlight during the upcoming presidential races.

Unfortunately, other cases of plagiarism are rampant. The actor Shia LaBeouf has had a long history of passing off other ideas as his own ( and Vladimir Putin is apparently as good at plagiarism as he is at warmongering (  Other famous people who plagiarized include activist Jane Goodall, Roots author Alex Haley, and many more (  Sharing with your students these cases and the embarrassment committing plagiarism brought them can help students begin to realize the seriousness of plagiarism.

*Lionel Hutz picture and quote from