In Acknowledgement

I resent that what most students know about plagiarism is merely that “it’s bad.” Lately I’ve had the opportunity to glean an insight to how students see–and often don’t see–plagiarism in the work they submit, and it has gotten me thinking.

Mostly in my own teaching and writing experience, plagiarism is fairly easy and obvious to define–we focus on quoting, paraphrasing, and summary of the ideas of other writers, scholars, and primary sources. We assume plagiarism is coming from extant print sources–the original exists somewhere to be seen and compared against.*

Until recently, I’ve had very little practice with the trouble posed by ideas that aren’t so clearly traceable–like when a parent does too much work editing their student’s paper. What is too much? Our English teachers have eloquently articulated the ways that individual word choice, something that a parent or student may see as subtle editing, can actually change the inflection or specificity of an argument enough to substantively change the meaning of the paper. Our policy is that nobody else should take pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), otherwise it is not wholly the students’ own work. But, what about tutors? If the tutor never touches the student’s document but coaches them through the argument and structure of an essay is that the student’s work, or are the ideas really the tutor’s? At what point in that process does it become so muddy whose ideas are whose that the student feels like the ideas are their own? There is a lot bound up in the question of plagiarism, editing, proofreading, and tutors. Some of it is culture, some is about equity, others about policy, pedagogy, and more.

As my school works to unify, clarify, and share our policies, I found myself mulling over how these issues play out in “the real world,” that is, in publishing and professional writing. How can I draw on long established practices that, while there are legal consequences for copyright infringement, are essentially ethical and therefore not always absolutely cut and dry?

In scholarly writing, we rely on citations for attribution. But, citations are for the scholarship and evidence, not for how the writing process was guided by the ideas, conversations, editing, and peer review of others. And yet, those other contributions are indeed acknowledged in scholarship. The opening sentence of the acknowledgements for the historical monograph, To Her Credit, puts it nicely: “This study is born from an assurance that, when we break down an act into its component practices, the essential contributions of previously unseen individuals come into view. That insight is even more true with the publication of my book which would not have been possible without the generous help of numerous individuals and institutions.” She then acknowledges the contributions of thesis advisors, graduate advisors, faculty members, mentors, and seminars, all of whom shaped the way she thought about her subject and her scholarship. The graphic artist who produced the maps, the anonymous reviewers of the manuscript, the editor and copyeditor at the press all are credited for the role they played in the finished book, along with librarians and archivists. A scholarly monograph is never the sole product of one individual. Nor, would we want it to be so. The work is improved by the contributions of others in so many ways.

Fictional works are the same. Smart writers recognize the many people who influenced their work for the better. In There, There, Tommy Orange thanks writers communities, mentors, faculty, and his editor and agent. When Leigh Bardugo thanks two folks who “helped me find the heart of this story when all I could see were its bones,” you can feel the importance of their conversations and the impact on the author and the shape of her book. She also thanks folks who contributed to her knowledge needed for the book, for “help in thinking about sleight of hand and grand illusions,” and another for “helping me finesse the chemical weevil and auric acid.” Deborah Harkness does the same in A Discovery of Witches, listing the colleagues who “generously lent me their expertise as I wandered far from my own area of specialization.”

I suspect that our students don’t read acknowledgements. Which means that they also don’t see all of the conversation, support, and work that goes into a published work of writing. If we make the contributions of others more visible we create a novel (haha) opportunity to discuss the role of authors and contributors in creating new works. Once the work, and the need to acknowledge it, is visible and modeled for students perhaps they will be able to reflect more meaningfully on their own efforts. An English teacher who is clear that a student’s paper should only be their own could, for example, have students practice drafting an acknowledgment for their essay. If a student finds that they would need to include someone other than their teacher it is a cue that someone else’s work is being co opted as their own, and that they are committing academic dishonesty.

I admit too, that astute students may parry, pointing out that many authors do thank their family members (parents, spouses, siblings) for contributions, that those authors have editors who help to copy edit and polish the authors’ writing, so why can’t they have a parent edit their work or a tutor assist them with their assignment. I can imagine that “well then I’ll just put a line on my paper that thank’s my mom for helping me proofread,” will be brought up somewhere. And that is where we open the space to be transparent about the fact that their essay project is not a published piece of writing, the appropriate person to give feedback is the teacher, and that is not just about acknowledgement but about pedagogy. That a teacher cannot help them grow as writers when their feedback is on mom’s (or dad’s or big sibling’s, etc.) words and ideas. That essay writing and other creative and information driven projects at school need to be wholly their own for a host of pedagogical reasons. Rather than enumerate those reasons, I’ll simply suggest that anyone who is having this conversation with their students has made more meaningful inroads to a robust understanding of plagiarism and academic integrity than I have seen among high school students to date.

Please share your reflections in the comments! How does your school address the too-much-outside-involvement type of plagiarism? What has worked best for you in getting students to understand plagiarism and academic dishonesty?

*I’m putting a pin in the AI wrinkle to all of this for the time being.


Sara Damiano, To Her Credit: Women, Finance, and the Law in Eighteenth Century New England Cities, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.
Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches, New York: Viking, 2011.
Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2016.
Tommy Orange, There, There, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.