Remember when you were a kid and your friends or siblings would purposely annoy you by imitating you, usually in a confined space like the car where you couldn’t get away? I have three brothers and there was no lack of the echo game in our house, but friends and peers would also copy you in more subtle ways – like buying the same outfit or throwing their birthday party at the same place. When we were kids imitation definitely did not feel like flattery, it was annoying.
Plagiarism is Everywhere
Apparently, imitating is not something easily outgrown. In just these last two weeks the viral politics editor of Buzz Feed was fired and the Senate Campaign of John Walsh in Montana was threatened, both due to plagiarism.
Plagiarism happens on the public stage but is also quite common on the smaller scale of admissions personal statements. I can tell you from first hand experience that it may be difficult for admissions officers to pick up on subtle or minor instances of plagiarism, however, it is very easy for an experienced reader to sense when an applicant is not using their own words or ideas or even just embellishing accomplishments.
I can personally attest to having read at least a handful of residency personal statements that I instantly knew were plagiarized. Just as the internet has made it easier for applicants to “imitate” or “borrow” ideas, it has also made it easier for admissions officers to confirm their suspicions.
Just in case you are wondering, there are also tools out there specifically developed for academic institutions and admissions committees to check for plagiarism.
Turnitin, Exposing Plagiarizers Since 1997
Turnitin for admissions is a product specifically used by admissions committees. In a originality report conducted by Turnitin they reviewed 452,964 personal statements submitted to an online application service for institutions of higher education. They uncovered that 44% of the personal statements contained matching text and 36% of those statements contained significant matching text (more than 10% matching text) when compared against their database.
Where are students plagiarizing from?
- 49% came from Internet sources;
- 29% came from other student documents;
- 2% came from proprietary subscription content (newswires, periodicals, eBooks, academic textbooks), and
- 20% came from other personal statements
A review of approximately 5,000 residency applications across five (5) specialties (using Turnitin) in one institution identified about 5% of personal statements contained plagiarism1. Although the use of such tools is not without controversy it seems the demand for them has come from the intuitive knowledge and frustration of admissions committees that applicants are submitting “borrowed” material.
This is a disturbing but not new trend. Plagiarism is not just dishonest but a disservice to both the applicant and the school. The personal statement is meant to be “personal”. In general, admissions committees are not looking for the next Hemingway. They are looking to hear about “YOU”, your experiences, and your personal reflections on those experiences. When writing a personal narrative I cannot think of a single reason to use someone else’s words or ideas.
However, it is understandable that the personal narrative may feel like a new or uncomfortable format for some applicants. They may seek out examples online or review other people’s personal statements for inspiration, a general idea of how to format a personal statement, or to overcome writer’s block. It is possible for people to unintentionally plagiarize due to lack of knowledge about plagiarism or even to self plagiarize (yes this is possible).
There are programs available for applicants to check their own personal statements for plagiarism, but in general, if you have not used any other sources while writing it really should not be an issue. I strongly encourage applicants NOT to read other personal statements when writing theirs to avoid any unintentional imitation. If they need guidance in writing they should contact their English teachers, pre health advisors, or other trusted or virtual advisors.
What constitutes plagiarism?
So, let’s be clear about what constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as deliberately using someone else’s language, ideas, or other original materials without acknowledging the source. Many universities have clear policies and guidelines regarding plagiarism and a quick Google search could clarify what is and what isn’t generally considered plagiarism. This guideline from the University of Regina gives a good example of what personal statement plagiarism looks like.
The US Dept. of Health and Human Services office of research integrity has an online guide to avoiding plagiarism. There is always an opportunity to teach and learn around plagiarism since some students may not truly understand it. There may be many compelling forces behind plagiarizing an admissions personal statement including lack of time, lack of personal insight, poor mastery of English, or fear of not standing out. Some of it is the same motivator behind the copycatting we did as kids. Unfortunately, just like when we were kids, most of these reasons reflect a lack of maturity, which does not bode well for success in higher education or medical practice.
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Scott Segal, MD, MHCM; Brian J. Gelfand, MD; Shelley Hurwitz, PhD; Lori Berkowitz, MD; Stanley W. Ashley, MD; Eric S. Nadel, MD; and Joel T. Katz, MD. Plagiarism in Residency Application Essays. Annals of Internal Medicine. July 20 2010
Disclosure: Compensated Affiliate.