When I was in the seventh grade, I recall having to do a small research paper. I don’t remember my teacher so well, now; but, I remember she was a woman and I found her to be pleasant and agreeable as a teacher. I also recall research papers to have been some of the most difficult tasks heaped upon me in school. Partly because they are indeed difficult; and also because I tend to procrastinate and have trouble organizing, delineating tasks, and planning ahead.
So, as it went, I can recall scrambling to find two or three sources; probably whatever the minimum requirement was; and then subsequently pounding out the paper in one or two long sessions. Some time after turning my paper in, I was brought aside by my teacher, privately. She proceeded to quite harshly tell me in no uncertain terms, I was in trouble. I had plagiarized my whole paper! I was terrified, felt horrible, and cried a bit as I protested the accusation; but, any sympathy coming my way was in short supply and only offered with great hesitation. I had no idea how I managed to do such a thing, even after the fact; I just knew I, had, done something wrong and managed to get myself into trouble. If my memory serves me, I was probably told to fix the paper, and turn it back in. Or, I might have had to take a zero for the assignment; I can't recall anymore.
Now let me tell you what plagiarism really is, from my position. If I'm a comedian and write an original joke (at least a joke I’m not aware anyone else came up with before), perhaps a joke about some quirk of a family member, that makes me the author of that joke. Now, if some other comedian hears my bit, does her own show, and proceeds to use my exact joke, that's plagiarism. Maybe they changed the words around a little bit, or made the aunt an uncle or whatever; but, the theme, as recognizable by me, the author, as well as by at least a healthy amount of other people, along with any other evidence, gives credit to my claim of being plagiarized as well as my claim to authorship.
Plagiarism isn't so much about using someone's words as your own or copying. Plagiarism is the, intent, coupled with the, action, of using someone's original work to make it appear as though it is your own work; with the aim of the results of doing so being: to receive credit that belongs to some one else. Plagiarism, for example, would be if your friend Charles bought a nice necklace for your friend Sherry; but, upon her receiving it in the mail, you told her, you, had bought it for her; when truthfully, you did not. Plagiarism is more of a, 'dishonesty,' than an actual, 'theft.' It may feel, act, and behave a bit like a theft; but, at it's core, it's the dishonesty, the distortion of the truth of origins, that, is what makes it, a dishonest thing to do.
Now, when I was in the seventh grade, and I was accused and found guilty of plagiarism; that was largely bogus, or at least partly. I hadn't engaged in any dishonesty, deceit, or malicious intent; I had simply procrastinated and perhaps cut corners a bit. However, if you are given an assignment to write a two page, double spaced, research paper, and your topic is the history of the steam locomotive engine, already you have some problems.
If an authoritative author, declares, "The steam engine was invented in (such and such year) by (such and such person); how are you going to relay that information using your own words? You can't. That's simply the year the locomotive steam engine was invented and that's the person who invented it. An entire book could be written about the history of the steam engine; but, you, have to condense all of that into a two page, double spaced paper, in the seventh grade, in your own words? That's impossible. There are only so many ways you can convey some of that information. You could, reword, that information: "(such and such) invented the steam engine in (such and such) year." *lol*. And that's what any logical seventh grader, and, adult would do in that situation. That's all you could do, is just rework some of the wordings. It's an informative research paper with high constraints. That's not plagiarism.
The definitive author on the history of the locomotive steam engine isn't going to cry, thief, because some seventh grader changed some of his words around to fill up a couple pages of double spaced words. And supposing one of these seventh graders did actually just copy and paste huge swaths of other author's work and glued it together with some original words? As a teacher, you'd have a hard time telling the difference between that student and the student who honestly tried their best to use their own words in creating that paper. The constraints involve trying to recreate the entire history of the steam locomotive in two or three double spaced pages. The entire situation would be like trying to teach some one stealing is wrong, by locking them in a room for twelve hours with a turkey sandwich that doesn't belong to them.
I had another teacher in college that still seemed to be of the mind that, plagiarism is a mortal sin in the literary world. And I'd agree with that on at least a few healthy levels; but these elementary, high-school, and even low level college research papers, do not give the student's a lot of, if any at all, room to actually breathe any of their own words; most especially if the research paper is simply informative. A lot of information to be found on many specific topics, is simply just stating something that is known to be. This includes, dates, people, places, times, and so forth. I could say, "Sally invented shampoo in 1854;" and that's that. There's only one way to say that. If Sally had blonde hair, was raised by her grandmother, and went to school in England; again, there are only so many ways you could say that. You couldn’t, make those words your own, there's nothing really individually unique about facts being stated as so. Now if I wrote a fiction book about goblins and the main character had two friends, that will assuredly lead to a lot of original work; work which, could, be plagiarized.
I would imagine the real reason we aren't taught what plagiarism actually is, in a way that makes sense, is because the teachers themselves probably don't know either. When I say that, I don't mean they don't, actually, know what it means. Mechanically, they probably do. Their emotional understanding of it, is what may get lost in translation. What I mean is, I think they didn't understand either, why exactly, it was made out to be so bad when they were students themselves.
When they were students, they were probably taught it was a horrible awful thing and they were all scared of doing it by accident or on purpose; most people probably came out of the ordeal, some how, without getting into trouble for plagiarizing; while others probably got painted red handed for it, whether it was intentional or not. And of course, we want to instill proper values in the youth as soon as possible; so often things of a difficult nature to not only grasp, but accurately explain, are foisted upon young ones in confusing ways.
Suffice it to say, if you decide to choose the history of the steam locomotive as your subject of research for any paper due in elementary, high-school, or even early college; I'd say, you are largely in a double bind. It's not really possible for you to, author, original words on a subject that will, for the majority, amount to nothing more than stating facts. That's preposterous. You could intentionally just copy and paste words and glue them together; and that'd be dishonest of you. However, if you did so very elegantly and cleverly, your paper wouldn't be all that different from the person who put the full effort into not being dishonest; just by nature of the circumstance.
So, in my opinion, in my words, plagiarism in itself, is a rather easy thing to explain and avoid doing. Yet, it’s understanding is made, unnecessarily, rather difficult to attain; and by consequence, avoiding doing it becomes unnecessarily difficult. The degrees by which some one could plagiarize vary wildly as well. If you want to avoid plagiarizing something just do two things. Firstly, don't take, or aim to take credit for the work of someone else by putting it forth as your own. Secondly, don't use other's work and put it forth as your own, to avoid having to do any of your own actual work. It's simple; don't be dishonest. If you follow those two rules, and end up with a paper like the history of the locomotive steam engine written in two, three, even four double spaced pages, you've done fine. If it looks like you've plagiarized more than it doesn't, it's not because you actually did (unless you intentionally copied work with the intent to deceive), it's because there was, for the greater part of it, no way to avoid it. A successful, short, informative research paper on the history of the steam locomotive is going to be one long exercise in carefully stringing together a lot of factual information. That's just what it's going to be; it can't be helped.
Facts are facts; state them as they are. Quote and cite your sources as necessary. And when trying to write something, such as a fact, 'in your own words,' you do what you can. If the locomotive steam engine was invented in 1855, there are only so many ways to say that. Say it in the way you would say it if you were telling some one else, and be done with it. If the teacher wants to pass on some of the dysfunction she was raised with, there wasn't much you could do to avoid that anyway. Be honest in your dealings, don't pass off other's work as your own to avoid working; and don't pass on other's work as your own to get praise or benefit that isn't due to you; that's all you need to know.
When the time comes to do actual research on a topic, and present it in a manner that is beyond just stating facts informatively; I imagine you won't run into too many places where plagiarizing could be an issue. There will likely still be a lot of factual information to convey; but their will also be plenty of room for it to be said by you. So, by nature of that circumstance, it will be original; it will be required to be put forth in your own words, as a condition for completing the actual project. As for me, I still carry that ever present fear of, "am I plagiarizing?" I’m sure if I were tasked with writing a uniquely novel, and informative research paper today, I’d still be looking over my own shoulder every few moments, hoping the plagiarism boogeyman wasn’t there, ready to get me.
Students shouldn't have to write an entire research paper being afraid the whole time and thinking, "use your own words, use your own words!" They should be aware of and know simply, don't be dishonest. Don't use other's work to avoid working or to take credit for it. If you give your students a legitimate assignment, with legitimate constraints and expectations; they'll have to use their own words to complete it without being dishonest. And if they choose the path of deception, they'll have to be, very, clever in their dishonesty to fool you; in which case they'll probably end up in business anyway. Simple. Besides, you can't really steal someone's words, when those words were used to state a fact. A fact is a fact. It's not an original idea, it's something that is so.
Now, actual plagiarism does exist; and the tough part about that, is it exists in a huge gray area. The sentiments I express here in this very purging of my thoughts, is probably not, original. It's unlikely I’m the only one to have thought along these lines. These are my own words on the topic though; I’m sure of that. Never the less, plagiarism can be outright and blatant. It can also be extremely subtle, such that, it ranges from undetectable all the way to, barely perceptible but impossible to really prove, and so on and so forth. And it is possible even some of the most blatant and obvious plagiarism, may have been committed subconsciously and unknowingly, by accident. And then you enter a new gray area. You may even know for certain some one stole your material and the person honestly believes it originated with them! Then what do you do!? Perhaps they will have had great success with your work, while you did not; success they'd rather not share. It's also possible for two or more people to come up with the same exact idea at the same time or different times, having had no connection to each other whatsoever. So, it's one of those tough situations about: what's mine is mine! That's just the nature of the beast.
There will likely always be that type of person who uses dishonesty as an instrument in their success, whether knowingly, or superficially unknowingly; and if we are truly honest with ourselves, I think we can all agree we are all a little dishonest from time to time. However, that's a different issue.
The point, if there is one to make, is that, the business of writing, optimally, should be about writing; not tip toeing around the uncountable number of originally, or otherwise, already authored words that are in existence. So long as you embark on and stay on the path of sincerity in your words, that should be the the stressed important bit. Writing should be about writing.
Lastly, I don't know when the first locomotive steam engine or the first shampoo formula was invented; I was just throwing numbers out there for the sake of argument.