A True Case of Accidental Plagiarism

By July 17, 2010 July 19th, 2017 Personal Stories

One college semester, long ago, I had an English class that ended with one very unfortunate event. It left me accused for something that I did not intend to do, forever changing the way I approach my written works.

Back then, it took me up to 2 1/2 hours of travel time to get to school, and 2 1/2 hours to return home. I did this every day, and so I didn’t have much time to relax when I got home. Think about it, I left home – it was dark out. I get home, dark – the only sunlight I saw was during my breaks at school. I’ll likely focus on my transport stories in another post – it’s a fascinating tale in itself; however, I mention it now because it meant my focus was largely on my core Computer Science classes. Knowing I was quite good in English, I decided I could put it on the back burner for the start of the semester, knowing that there was one big, valuable assignment at the end. As long as I did well on that, I knew my mark would be pretty good. I trusted my skill with the English language, I was sure I could pull this off.

Eventually, I approached the date where the big assignment had to be handed in. I was busy with other classes, and couldn’t devote time to the English assignment until the last three days before it was due. Though I was running out of time, I knew I would succeed – so I planned my last three days:

  • Day 1: Finish reading the material, and take notes of areas I want to reference in my paper.
  • Day 2: Complete rough draft.
  • Day 3: Polish and refine until I have a final version.

It was a lot of work, but I knew I could pull it off – and I did, with one unfortunate detail.

Desk covered in paper and a laptop

Photo by Tim Riley

While finalizing my rough draft, I found I was missing a section of text that would allow two paragraphs to flow properly. Looking for ideas, I did something I never did before – I used Google to locate similar papers written by others. My intention was to see if anyone else focused on the same points as me, and if they did, how they structured their points. I eventually found what I was looking for – a crucial 3-4 sentences that would perfect the flow of my paper, most of which was taken up by a quote from the book. I copied this text into my rough draft, with the intention of removing it later, and instead writing my own text that covered a similar set of points. This was a fatal mistake – given how much work I had to do, I ended up being so absorbed in the paper that I forgot about the sentences from the external source. When I reached the end of the 3 days, I was pleased with what I managed to achieve – it was a lot of content to produce in three days. I handed my work in the next day, and waited for my marks.

A few days later, our English teacher published her schedule for giving us our papers back – she wanted to meet with each of us. When I went into the classroom, shutting the door behind me, I was expecting to hear mostly positive remarks, but instead, I was told I got 0%. ZERO. PERCENT. She told me it was due to plagiarism, and at first, I was completely stunned – I would never plagiarize… it’s completely against my moral code. Then, it hit me. The external text – I completely forgot to change it. Shocked, I explained the situation to the teacher, but she then replied asking me if that was true, why did I change the page numbers in the (accidentally) plagiarized portion?

A classroom

Photo by James F Clay

I had a good answer to that, and it was related to the fact that I spent time with a particular individual while in English class. We’ll call him Fred. Fred was fun to hang around with, but it was pretty obvious he was a into the marijuana. I was never into that stuff, but I wasn’t one to alienate people because they had such habits. So, given all our other classes were together, I usually sat with him. Unfortunately for me, I’m convinced that factor played a huge part in my 0%. You see, Fred wasn’t the taking English very seriously, though he was aiming to finish his most valuable assignments, like me. He called me as I was working on my paper – and I provided him with some of my quotes. Just quotes from the book – that, unbeknown to me, had wrong page numbers, because I found some of them online. He later called me back to warn me about this, and so I proceeded to correct the page numbers, so that they were all valid according to my physical copy of the book. Since the forgotten text also had a quote, I corrected it along with the others – unknowingly making it seem like I was trying to cover something up. I later found out that Fred got 0% too, also for plagiarism. I didn’t know the details, but knew that I only gave him quotes from the book, nothing by another author. Regardless of his reason, it really looked bad next to me – considering I had shared with him some of my quotes.

Despite my attempts to explain this to the teacher, she didn’t believe me. It didn’t matter to her that only 3-4 sentences were accidentally plagiarized, even though it was a tiny percentage compared to the overall content I wrote. I remember clearly asking her – considering the ratio, why would I plagiarize? If I need 4 sentences, I’ll write them – that’s nothing compared to the size of the whole paper. It doesn’t make sense that anyone would plagiarize in that scenario. She still refused to budge from her mark of 0%, dismissing what I considered to be a rational, logical argument. Then again, I was really unlucky – the circumstances were aligned against me:

  • I was friends with Fred, who really didn’t come off as mature, and who may have even plagiarized in the end.
  • I corrected the page numbers in the quotes, one of which just-so-happened to be in the accidentally plagiarized text.
  • I didn’t do much work up until that point, so the teacher probably assumed I was slacker/irresponsible by nature.
A man looks out of a dark jail cell

Photo by Luigi Caterino

I tried taking it higher up within the college, but eventually decided to end the frustration. The higher ups told me the incident would be seen as a fluke if nothing else happened in my further education. I decided to leave it at that, but to this day I feel anger and frustration when I think about it. Nothing is worse than being accused of something you would never do. When you try to tell the truth, no one believes you – might as well have been trying to convince someone from a jail cell. I had to drop the English class at that point, as the assignment was too important – my chances of passing were almost impossible. Had I tried to pass English, I would have had to spend much more time on it – and to get what… a mere 60%. It didn’t see the point.

So, as you can imagine, this changed my views on a lot of things. The most obvious: now whenever I temporarily copy external text into a document, I make it bold, size 20, and red. That way, there’s no chance I can mistake it for my own content. I’m also more cautious about who I associate with.