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Plagiarism by Design

November 11, 2013

Barbara Opar and Barret Havens, column editors
Article submitted by Barret Havens, Assistant Professor and Outreach Librarian, Woodbury University

With so much emphasis on team-based projects and collaborative learning, the distinction between plagiarism and “sharing” can become blurry for students in any discipline. However, this distinction is especially difficult for students of architecture and other design-related disciplines to make. In her article, “New Twists on an Old Problem: Preventing Plagiarism and Enforcing Academic Integrity in an Art and Design School,” Beth Walker highlights a few reasons why this is the case. I have used her article to generate discussion in the information literacy course I have taught for several semesters now. Here, I will present some concerns unique to architecture and design schools with regard to plagiarism. Most have arisen from those discussions and my own musings on the topic.   

An obvious reason why students in design-related disciplines may run afoul of academic honesty policies is the time crunch (48). Design-intensive majors, especially at the undergraduate level, are synonymous with all-nighters in studio and putting the finishing touches on projects hours—if not minutes—before they are due. Survival, rather than adherence to campus plagiarism policies may be an architecture student’s foremost concern after pulling an all-nighter in studio, regardless of whether the work requiring documentation is a major-sequence course or a writing course required of all undergraduates. 

In addition, students have been encouraged to learn by imitating the masters for millennia (49). The recreation of another’s work or the incorporation of principles gleaned from case studies is a practical approach to learning. But where does one draw the line between “studying” and plagiarizing, and how do architecture faculty and architecture librarians convey to students how to draw that line for themselves? 

Further complicating the matter is the fact that detecting plagiarism in visual representations is not easy to do. For instance, when comparing forms, how would architecture faculty or librarians establish that one form bears enough resemblance to another to determine that plagiarism has taken place? The landscape of “visual plagiarism” is a nebulous one indeed. Defining the rules and applying some objective method of defining plagiarism within this landscape is far more challenging than evaluating a case of text-based plagiarism. 

And last, but not least: architecture students have not been asked, consistently, to cite the sources that have influenced their design projects. Instead, they are typically given a list of precedents that serve as a palette from which they might draw ideas or principles. Though they may, during reviews or pinups, discuss how and where they incorporated these ideas, written attribution is often overlooked. So, though they may have been asked on a relatively consistent basis to cite textual sources that have been incorporated into the academic writing they complete, architecture students may come to view visually-based works as an exception to the rule.  Some may even generalize further that rules of plagiarism don’t apply to their discipline.

The key to tackling these challenges is communication. Librarians must continue to reach out (and reach out even further) to architecture faculty by offering resources and techniques for detecting plagiarism and citing sources, along with ways to bring students into the conversation.  Librarians and architecture faculty must explore whether the two camps are even on the same page regarding the necessity of citing sources in the aforementioned scenarios. If they aren’t, then we may be sending mixed messages to students. By entering into a dialogue about where and when citing sources is necessary, architecture faculty and librarians can combine forces to enhance students’ understanding of plagiarism and how to avoid it. Time spent now by all parties will reap benefits down the road.


Walker, Beth. “New Twists on an Old Problem: Preventing Plagiarism and Enforcing Academic Integrity in an Art and Design School.” Art Documentation 28.1 (2009): 48-51. Print.


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