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End-of-semester meditations on plagiarism.

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Plagiarism -- presenting the words or ideas (among other things) of someone else as one's own rather than properly citing their source -- is one of the banes of my professorial existence. One of my dearest hopes at the beginning of each academic term is that this will be the term with no instances of plagiarism in the student work submitted for my evaluation.

Ten years into this academic post and I'm still waiting for that plagiarism-free term.

One school of thought posits that students plagiarize because they simply don't understand the rules around proper citation of sources. Consequently, professorial types go to great lengths to lay out how properly to cite sources of various types. They put explicit language about plagiarism and proper citation in their syllabi. They devote hours to crafting handouts to spell out expected citation practices. They require their students to take (and pass) plagiarism tutorials developed by information literacy professionals (the people who, in my day, we called university librarians).

And, students persist in plagiarizing.

Another school of thought lays widespread student plagiarism at the feet of the new digital age.

What with all sorts of information resources available through the internets, and with copy-and-paste technology, assembling a paper that meets the minimum page length for your assignment has never been easier. Back in the olden times, our forefathers had to actually haul the sources from which they were stealing off the shelves, maybe carry them back to the dorms through the snow, find their DOS disk to boot up the dorm PC, and then laboriously transcribe those stolen passages!

And it's not just that the copy-and-paste option exists, we are told. College students have grown up stealing music and movies online. They've come of age along with Wikipedia, where information is offered free for their use and without authorship credits. If "information wants to be free" (a slogan attributed to Stewart Brand in 1984), how can these young people make sense of intellectual property, and especially of the need to cite the sources from which they found the information they are using? Is not their "plagiarism" just a form of pastiche, an activity that their crusty old professors fail to recognize as creative?

Yeah, the modern world is totally different, dude. There are tales of students copying not just Wikipedia articles but also things like online FAQs, verbatim, in student papers without citing the source, and indeed while professing that they didn't think they needed to cite them because there was no author listed. You know what source kids used to copy from in my day that didn't list authors? The World Book Encyclopedia. Indeed, from at least seventh grade, our teachers made a big deal of teaching us how to cite encyclopedia and newspaper articles with no named authors. Every citation guide I've seen in recent years (including the ones that talk about proper ways to cite web pages) includes instruction on how to cite such sources.

The fact that plagiarism is perhaps less labor-intensive than it used to be strikes me as an entirely separate issue from whether kids today understand that it's wrong. If young people are literally powerless to resist the temptations presented to them by the internet, maybe we should be getting computers out of the classroom rather than putting more computers into the classroom.

Of course, the fact that not every student plagiarizes argues against the claim that students can't help it. Clearly, some of them can.

There is research that indicates students plagiarize less in circumstances where they know that their work is going to be scanned with plagiarism-detection software. Here, it's not that the existence or use of the software suddenly teaches students something they didn't already know about proper citation. Rather, the extra 28 grams of prevention comes from an expectation that the software will be checking to see if they followed the rules of scholarship that they already understood.

My own experience suggests that one doesn't require an expensive proprietary plagiarism-detection system like Turnitin -- plugging the phrases in the assignment that just don't sound like a college student wrote them into a reasonably good search engine usually delivers the uncited sources in seconds.

It also suggests that even when students are informed that you will be using software or search engines to check for plagiarism, some students still plagiarize.

Perhaps a better approach is to frame plagiarism as a violation of trust in a community that, ultimately, has an interest in being more focused on learning than on crime and punishment. This is an approach to which I'm sympathetic, which probably comes through in the version of "the talk" on academic dishonesty I give my students at the start of the semester:

Plagiarism is evil. I used to think I was a big enough person not to take it personally if someone plagiarized on an assignment for my class. I now know that I was wrong about that. I take it very personally.


For one thing, I'm here doing everything I can to help you learn this stuff that I think is really interesting and important. I know you may not believe yet that it's interesting and important, but I hope you'll let me try to persuade you. And, I hope you'll put an honest effort into learning it. If you try hard and you give it a chance, I can respect that. If you make the calculation that, given the other things on your plate, you can't put in the kind of time and effort I'm expecting and you choose to put in what you can, I'll respect that, too. But if you decide it's not worth your time or effort to even try, and instead you turn to plagiarism to make it look like you learned something -- well, you're saying that the stuff you're supposedly here to learn is of no value, except to get you the grades and the credits you want. I care about that stuff. So I take it personally when you decide, despite all I'm doing here, that it's of no value. Moreover, this is not a diploma mill where you pay your money and get your degree. If you want the three credits from my course, the terms of engagement are that you'll have to show some evidence of learning.


Even worse, when you hand in an essay that you've copied from the internet, you're telling me you don't think I'm smart enough to tell the difference between your words and ideas and something you found in 5 minutes with Google. You're telling me you think I'm stupid. I take that personally, too.


If you plagiarize in my course, you fail my course, and I will take it personally. Maybe that's unreasonable, but that's how I am. I thought I should tell you up front so that, if you can't handle having a professor who's such a hardass, you can explore your alternatives.

So far, none of my students have every run screaming from this talk. Some of them even nod approvingly. The students who labor to write their papers honestly likely feel there's something unjust about classmates who sidestep all that labor by cheating.

But students can still fully comprehend your explanation of how you view plagiarism, how personally you'll take it, how vigorously you'll punish it ... and plagiarize.

They may even deny it to your face for 30 additional seconds after they recognize that you have them dead to rights (since given the side-by-side comparison of their assignment and the uncited source, they would need to establish psychic powers for there to be any plausible explanation besides plagiarism). And then they'll explain that they were really pressed for time, and they need a good grade (or a passing grade) in this course, and they felt trapped by circumstances, so even though of course they know what they did is wrong, they made one bad decision, and their parents will kill them, and ... isn't there some way we could make this go away? They feel so bad now that they promise they've learned their lesson.

Here, I think we need to recognize that there is a relevant difference between saying you have learned a lesson and actually learning that lesson.

Indeed, one of the reasons that my university's office of judicial affairs asks instructors to report all cases of plagiarism and cheating no matter what sanctions we apply to them (including no sanctions) is so there will be a record of whether a particular offense is really the first offense. Students who plagiarize may also lie about whether they have a record of doing so and being caught doing it. If the offenses are spread around -- in different classes with different professors in different departments -- you might be able to score first-time leniency half a dozen times.

Does that sound cynical? From where I sit, it's just realistic. But this "realistic" point of view (which others in the teaching trenches share) is bound to make us tougher on the students who actually do make a single bad decision, suspecting that they might be committed cheaters, too.

Keeping the information about plagiarists secret rather than sharing it through the proper channels, in other words, can hurt students who could be helped.

There have been occasions, it should be noted, when frustrated instructors warned students that they would name and shame plagiarists, only to find (after following through on that warning) that they had run afoul of FERPA. Among other things, FERPA gives students (18 or older) some measure of control about who gets to see their academic records. If a professor announces to the world -- or even to your classmates -- that you've failed a the class for plagiarizing, information from your academic records has arguably been shared without your consent.

Still, it's hard not to feel that plagiarism is breaking trust not just with the professor but with the learning community. Does that learning community have an interest in flagging the bad actors? If you know there are plagiarists among your classmates but you don't know who they are, does this create a situation where you can't trust anyone? If all traces of punishment -- or of efforts at rehabilitation -- are hidden behind a veil of privacy, is the reasonable default assumption that people are generally living within the rules and that the rules are being enforced against the handful of violations ... or is it that people are getting away with stuff?

Is there any reasonable role for the community in punishment and in rehabilitation of plagiarism?

To some, of course, this talk of harms to learning communities will seem quaint. If you see your education as an individual endeavor rather than a team sport, your classmates may as well be desks (albeit desks whose grades may be used to determine the curve). What you do, or don't do, in your engagement with the machinery that dispenses your education (or at least your diploma) may be driven by your rational calculations about what kind of effort you're willing to put into creating the artifacts you need to present in exchange for grades.

The artifacts that require writing can be really time-consuming to produce de novo. The writing process, after all, is hard. People who write for a living complain of writer's block. Have you ever heard anyone complain about Google-block? Plagiarism, in other words, is a huge time-saver, not least because it relies on skills most college students already have rather than ones they need to develop to any significant extent.

Here, I'd like to offer a modest proposal for students unwilling to engage the writing process: don't.

Take a stand for what you believe in! Don't lurk in the shadows pretending to knuckle under to the man by turning in essays and term papers that give the appearance that you wrote them. Instead, tell your professors that writing anything original for their assignments is against your principles. Then take your F and wear it as a badge of honor!

When all those old-timey professors who fetishize the value of clear writing, original thought, and proper citation of sources die out -- when your generation is running the show -- surely your principled stand will be vindicated!

And, in the meantime, your professors can spend their scarce time helping your classmates who actually want to learn to write well and uphold rudimentary rules of scholarship.

Really, it's win-win.

_____

In the interests of full-disclosure -- and of avoiding accusations of self-plagiarism -- I should note that this essay draws on a number of posts I have written in the past about plagiarism in academic contexts.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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