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Technology & Teaching

Thinking and Talking About Plagiarism

In a June Teaching Tip, I criticized Turnitin.com for emphasizing plagiarism detection over teaching about writing with sources and academic honesty. Their model is to police your students, through surveillance (constant surveillance if you have every draft of every student's paper uploaded to the site). The counter argument to Turnitin.com's heavy-handed approach is that smart assignment design, teaching students how to handle sources, and regular dicussions (not harangues) in courses about plagiarism, cheating, and why academic honesty matter are better pedagogic alternatives to constant policing.

But rather than restate in this Teaching Tip the usual assignment advice, which most of you likely know and use, let me share instead some WWW resources and recommend a wonderful book that I've found useful in my own teaching and faculty workshops. These resources address in more detail than I can here assignment design, how to talk about plagiarism in the classroom, how to talk to students you suspect might have plagiarized (and your reading of your students' writing is the best detection there is), how to search the WWW and databases for possibly plagiarized e-text, how to tell if the plagiarism is intentional cheating or poor source handling, and how to proceed with plagiarism cases even when you can't find an originating text.

After these resources, the second half of this teaching tip, shows how I've changed my own syllabus statement on plagiarism after thinking about the central need to communicate more clearly to--and discuss more often with--my students on what plagiarism is and why it's important to think about.

Part 1. Resources for Assignment Design and Understanding Plagiarism

You know the the things to do in an assignment: avoid giving hackneyed assignments, have students write multiple drafts, have students maintain annotated bibliographies, and so on. All very good ideas. More on these strategies is available, in more detail and with some slight variations, at the following Web sites:
 

"Plagiarism: a misplaced emphasis," by Brian Martin (http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/pubs/94jie.html). This scholarly essay looks at the prevalence of ghostwriting, and nonattribution done by teachers and administrators that makes up much of the workaday world of academia (as distinct from the writing done in scholarly journals).
 
"Preventing Academic Dishonesty," by Barbara Gross Davis (http://uga.berkeley.edu/sled/bgd/prevent.html). A broader view of plagiarism, with good teachng strategies and a good bibliography.
 
"Plagiarism in Colleges in the USA," by Ronald B. Standler (http://www.rbs2.com/plag.htm). Standler, an attorney in Massachusetts, provides an overview of case law on plagiarism, and offers opinions on legal issues involving plagiarism accusations and procedures. .
 
"Plagiarism and the Web," by Bruce Leland (http://www.wiu.edu/users/mfbhl/wiu/plagiarism.htm). A good nuts and bolts site; great for a quick reference or as a resource for planning a workshop for faculty.
 
Bibliography of plagiarism articles by Rebecca Moore Howard (http://wrt-howard.syr.edu/articles.html) Howard is one the leading plagiarism scholars in composition; this page lists several of her most important articles.
 
"The New Plagiarism: Seven Antidotes to Prevent Highway Robbery in an Electronic Age," by Jamie McKenzie (http://fno.org/may98/cov98may.html). This piece offeres just what it says. I especially like the graphic of six variations of the same house used to explain synthesis.
 
"Downloadable Term Papers: What's a Prof. to Do?," by Tom Rocklin (http://www.uiowa.edu/~centeach/newsletter/online/term-paper-download.shtml). Rocklin's message: better assignments, better assignments, better assignments.
 
"Busting the New Breed of Plagiarist," by Michael Bugeja (http://awpwriter.org/bugeja1.htm). A good overview of how to use search engines to look for those phrases that seem out of place in your students' prose.
 
"Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers," by Robert Harris (http://www.virtualsalt.com/antiplag.htm). This site offers good assignment strategies, a reminder to distinguish between intentional cheating and poor source management and integration (mistakes in paraphrasing and quoting).

I've been visiting Harris' pages for years, not only on plagiarism, but also for his advice on teaching research online. I've always found his advice sensible, balanced, and consistent. Harris is also the author of a new book on plagiarism, The Plagiarism Handbook: Strategies for Preventing, Detecting, and Dealing with Plagiarism (2001, from Pyrczak Publishing). Details on how to order it, the table of contents, and other information can be found at the Web site for the book, (http://www.antiplagiarism.com/).

I really like Harris's book because he reminds teachers again and again to remember the student point of view. Here are some (not all) of his major points:

  • Don't assume students know what plagiarism is.
  • Teach plagiarism not from a punitive approach, but rather by emphasizing good writing and source management skills.
  • Distinguish between writing mistakes and deliberate cheating.
  • Talk about plagiarism in class, and not just as a hectoring admonishment warning students to avoid it.
  • Make the writing process visible to students (and you) by collecting drafts, annotated bibliographies, and copies of sources used.
  • Teach students how to manage sources.
  • Design assignments to both mitigate against plagiarism and at the same time help students learn good scholarly habits.
  • Know your school's plagiarism policies and procedures before you begin the course, so you know your options and rights as a teacher in advance.
  • Remember due process and student confidentiality if you need to make a plagiarism charge.
  • Put students at ease in office conferences to discuss plagiarism. Give students a chance to explain their paper.

Harris also reminds us that we don't need to have a copy of the plagiarized source in hand. By talking to students about the piece, how they came about writing it and where they got the ideas in it, we can learn enough to determine whether it is likely that they cheated or merely made mistakes in handling their sources. And very often, notes Harris, in the course of answering these questions about their paper's content, when the student is hemming and hawing, perhaps a little bit nervous or defensive, a gently asked, "is there anything you want to tell me?" will lead students to admit they didn't do the work.

To help you talk about plagiarism with your students, his book offers a collection of cartoons that illustrate various points of views about plagiarism (two examples can be found on the Web site), which teachers are invited to use as handouts, for class discussion, or in teacher training workshops. Harris also includes several appendices with exercises to help with correct quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing; sample plagiarism statements and policies; a list of useful search engines, including databases; a list of term paper mills (which can often be searched by teachers); and useful Web links and articles.

All in all, Harris offers in this book a good starting place for developing your own wise response to plagiarism, giving you the tools you need to be proactive rather than reactive. Unlike the message from Turnitin.com, the book emphasizes the role of good teaching and classroom planning, doesn't assume students are criminals, and offers a range of resources teachers can use to be better prepared.

Part 2. A Syllabus Strategy for Talking About Plagiarism with Students

It was after reading Harris's book and thinking about the many plagiarism discussions that have come up on professional listservs, and my own complaints about the kind of police-state rhetoric used by sites like Turnitin.com, that it occurred to me that the first place to begin a better discussion with my students on plagiarism is in my own syllabus. The syllabus, after all, is the contract I make with my class. It's the document that conveys my personality, my view of writing, and sets the tone and approach I want to take with my students (and them with one another). Teachers use syllabi to set parameters, to layout conditions, to explain grades. How a syllabus talks about things like grading, writing, and plagiarizing matters.

I want an open, inviting class, where students feel comfortable taking risks with their writing, have a clear idea of what I expect, and can comfortably share their work at any and every stage. But the plagiarism statement I had in the first draft of my syllabus, which I inherited from a syllabus used by a previous teacher of the course, and which is the kind of statement I've used before, worked directly against those goals. It read:

The Emerson College Statement on Plagiarism in The Emerson College Student Handbook warns that "plagiarism is the use of the words and/or ideas of another as if they were one's own and without acknowledgement of their source" (63). Please familiarize yourself with this policy by reading this section of the undergraduate catalogue.
 
Intentional plagiarism will not be tolerated. Any student who plagiarizes another's work will automatically fail this course. In addition, Emerson College will take disciplinary action and an official record of such action will become part of your permanent file. Plagiarism can result in probation or expulsion from the College. Most importantly, you are here to learn and gain skills that will serve you during your entire career and life; to plagiarize is to cheat yourself of this opportunity.

My conflict here is that I don't lead any other discussion with threats, so why one on plagiarism? Why start off scolding? Why build anxiety and fear when I know that I'll be asking students to learn complex literacy skills, writing skills, and academic conventions? Why make myself a state trooper to their novice driver? So I deleted the above language and swapped in this instead:

Plagiarism
You should read your student handbook. (Has anybody read it?--I've never met a student who has unless and until they have a question it answers. It's not exactly scintillating stuff.) It has all the legal warnings you'll ever want to hear. But since you're likely not going to read the handbook, let's think about plagiarism more carefully and realistically than the handbook does.
 
Unfortunately, the term plagiarism is more technical than practical. It's used to describe equally mistakes in handling and citing sources and deliberate cheating and lying about the authorship of the work you hand in. In fact, one refuge of many cheaters is to say that they merely made mistakes in source handling. So by plagiarism in this course I want us all to distinguish between fraud and cheating, which is always wrong, and mistakes in learning, which are inevitable, correctable, and for many people, necessary for learning. Mistakes are welcome; deliberate fraud is not.
 
To help explain some of these differences, and how they play out in practical terms in the course, and to give us a way to talk about these issues, I'd like to invite you to think about plagiarism as a matter of Don'ts and Do's. Some of the Do's will vary in other courses, but most all teachers will agree and assume you'll abide by the Don'ts.
 
We'll talk about this stuff as the course goes on.
 
Don'ts
Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't steal. Don't misrepresent others work as yours. Don't go to places like schoolsucks.com, evilhouseofcheat.com, termpapersrus.com, or any of the other hundreds of online and off line sources where term papers can be commissioned or bought or borrowed for <wink>research purposes only</wink>. Don't make up fake sources. Don't make up fake quotes. Don't make up fake interviews. Don't think that by copying something over and changing every couple of words that you've put it in your own words. Don't think that because something is on the Net it doesn't need to be cited. Don't think that because a lot of textbooks and other printed matter you read don't site sources that you don't have to cite them either. Don't think that because politicians have speech writers and actors have script writers who often go unacknowledged that you can get a writer to "secretary" your paper for you; rules that apply in other settings are different here, where the purpose is for you to do the writing. Don't go to the library, find a book that hasn't been checked out often, then find a source in its bibliography, and then copy that source into a paper as yours. Don't procrastinate on assignments and homework so that you end up under too much deadline pressure and become tempted to take shortcuts. Don't be afraid to come see me if you feel overwhelmed, unsure, fear missing a deadline, or start falling behind. Don't try to get around any of these Don'ts by working so hard to disguise them that you might as well have just done the Do's.
 
Do's
Do share ideas with one another. Do swap writing. Do help one another write. Do edit and rewrite sections of one another's papers from time to time; writers do that kind of thing all the time, and editors do it with them. Do learn to like your writing; even when it's bad, hand it in any way, and know I'll always find something to like about it. Do expect to make mistakes managing and citing sources. Do expect to correct them. Do take care in downloading sources and taking notes. Do find a way to use sources wisely and fairly. Do learn the myriad rhetorical purposes that including and citing sources can serve. Do use the word processor to help you manage sources (for example, put sources you're quoting or paraphrasing in a different font and font color until the final draft so you don't accidentally forget they came from some other writer). Do have fun with sources, think of using them as weaving, building, playing with blocks, or any other metaphor that you associate with "taking what's at hand and making something of it." Do write before, while, and after you research, but especially before. Do discover an argument so you have a distinctive voice in your own essay, and aren't overwhelmed and intimidated by sources. Do come see me whenever you have a question about the course, are feeling overwhelmed, or unhappy with an assignment or your work; we can talk and find a way to make things work.

As you can see, there are some contradictions in these lists. My students asked, "but isn't someone editing and rewriting my paper cheating?" Well, no, not if it's done right. It depends on the circumstances and the assignment, but most published writers benefit from this kind of help. Students need to learn how to manage that kind of help. (I want this to be an issue, by the way, because I know a lot of students, especially in other courses, will do what so many of us do--ask someone to proofread their paper. And sometimes that proofing is simple punctuation correction, but sometimes it gets into sentence level revisions. So it is important to know to ask, when is that okay and when is it not?)

The Don'ts and Do's also link plagiarism and cheating to writing skills (drafting, revising, editing), research skills (evaluating sources, file management, planning), and student skills (time management, talking to teachers, learning to ask for help). That is, I found the lists give me a framework for talking about plagiarism and cheating in context, as things which come from daily decisions, sometimes small, in doing the work of being a student.

I know this approach might not appeal to all teachers; certainly my list of Don'ts and Do's will not. But I found this semester that using this approach has really helped me in day-to-day workshops and discussions. It has given me a vocabulary in everyday language to talk about writing, plagiarism and cheating in a way that supports writing rather than polices students. I guess I see it as the difference between gatekeeping and hosting, between warning and inviting, between suspecting and trusting.

bedfordstmartins.com/technotes
(Emailed 10/27/01; Archived on the Web 12/3/01)