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Plagiarism: Strategies for Prevention

This is part two of a two-part article. In part one, I presented a brief overview of the problem. This week I discuss a few potential strategies for preventing plagiarism.

As noted in part one, statements about academic misconduct on course syllabi are not very effective in preventing plagiarism.  In effect, they function like an End-User License Agreement, which serve an important legal purpose but are ignored by almost everybody as the “I agree” button is selected as quickly as possible. In the case of the academic misconduct statement, it is often little more than a passing notice inserted in the syllabus-as-contract and doesn’t get invoked except during a misconduct process. In short, an instructor can point to the statement so that a student cannot claim he or she wasn’t notified of the rules. Yet just because students are notified of the rules, does not mean they actually understand how to play by them.

To be certain, many instances of plagiarism are willful, planned actions – a more or less adept understanding of the rules and how to flout them – but many instances are consequences of a genuine lack of understanding.  In both cases, though, we miss important teaching and learning opportunities so long as we continue to treat this issue as a mere legality, no more important than a short notice buried in the syllabus and mentioned in passing on the first day of class. Because plagiarism can be an instance of willful manipulation or a lack of proper understanding, at least two different strategies are necessary if we are to become more pro-active.

Concerning lack of understanding, the problem is ignorance not naivety. Almost every student has at least a vague awareness that mere copying of another’s words is not acceptable academic practice in the West (*see special note at bottom). Where awareness falters, however, is in the details, for example the need to cite a source from which you get an idea, even if you don’t use the exact same words. Such ignorance is quite understandable, given the lack of basic writing skills many students bring with them to the university. Many aware instructors thus include, along with misconduct statements, links to online resources (such as the UO library site or this site by Jon Mueller) that provide an overview of plagiarism and its various details, such as when and how to cite sources.

Some universities are taking a larger step and requiring that students complete online tutorials or quizzes in which they demonstrate awareness of academic conduct rules and the consequences of breaking them, and demonstrate skill in abiding by them, particularly concerning plagiarism. Examples of online tutorials and quizzes can be found at the University of Southern California, Rutgers University, the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Texas, and this joint effort by Colby College, Bates College, and Bowdoin College. This strategy can be effective and certainly makes untenable the “but I didn’t realize it was plagiarism” excuse.

Yet awareness strategies do not necessarily prevent conscious acts of rule breaking. Thus, the second major strategy is to counter willful acts of plagiarism. As noted in part one, many instructors and institutions are now using plagiarism checker services to screen student work. The assumption is that some students will inevitably attempt to break the rules, even with full awareness of the consequences. Again, as previously noted, the continuation of high incident rates and increasingly sophisticated paper writing services only indicate that, in and of themselves, screening services are not solutions.

To be effective, services such as SafeAssign need to be used in a transparent manner.  This means clear explanation for why one is using such a tool, how the checking process works, and what constitutes plagiarism (i.e. what will get flagged by the screening process).  This strategy can be even more effective if one also highlights the consequences of “being caught,” for example highlighting the academic misconduct statement on the syllabus, and provides students with additional resources for learning, such as the online sites and tutorials noted above. In short, one can use paper checker services both to raise awareness and deter acts of misconduct, whether willful or accidental.

One more potential tactic exists – one that should be obvious – although it is rarely mentioned in discussions about plagiarism prevention. Let me use a personal anecdote as an example. When I was in sixth grade, a young adult literary magazine (I don’t remember the name) published the winning entry in a short story contest, a noir written by another sixth grade student from somewhere in the U.S. The problem was, “his” story was copied word-for-word from a cartoon anthology that I happened to know by heart – literally, one that I loved. That same day, full of rage transformed into noble purpose, I wrote the magazine and informed them of this injustice, and included a copy of the original story. The winning story was subsequently disqualified, and the magazine was forced to publish an apology to its readers and a stern warning against plagiarism. I didn’t know at the time what plagiarism was, but I certainly knew dishonesty and stealing when I saw it, and the sense of injustice I felt was palpable – enough to inspire me to take action to right an obvious wrong, and enough to keep me on my toes ever since.

The learning lesson and strategy in this example should be clear: it is not enough to be told about something or even to demonstrate one’s awareness via a basic test, one also has to connect with and feel something at a deeper level to assimilate it as a lasting skill or ethic.  This is true for everything we teach, in fact. Students need to feel a connection with subject matter – need a clear sense of its relevance and significance for their lives – if they are to develop a proper appreciation for it (from our discipline-specific eyes, at least), let alone a passion for it. Lacking such a connection, students tend to engage the material simply as something to be endured, i.e. memorized, in order to pass a test and move on. In my personal example, the connection I felt was the love I had for a particular story that happened to get plagiarized. This connection, and its violation, sparked my sense of injustice.

There is no easy formula for facilitating among students a “deep” connection with things. Yet, regarding plagiarism, one professor has identified a potential strategy to take students deeper than mere awareness.  As documented in a recent article at Faculty Focus, Deborah Zarka Miller appeals to the value of justice by forcing students to feel victimized. First, she has students submit an original form of creative expression, such as a poem, story or video that articulates their understanding of one core value promoted by their university.  Next, she has students share their work in class and asks each student to choose the project that he or she admires most, which may or may not be one’s own. Once everyone has chosen a project, she instructs students to cross out the name of the projects’ owners and write in their own names as the creator of their chosen project.  She then tells them that, when she grades the projects, she’ll give credit to the student(s) who claim each project, not the student who created it. As one might imagine, this ignites a storm in the classroom and generates a host of emotions, from anger to shame. At a certain point, students inevitably figure out that Miller is provoking them purposefully in order to experience the guilt or injustice associated with plagiarism. According to Miller, while not all students may be “convinced of the immorality of plagiarism” as a result of this exercise, more of them nonetheless “understand what is at stake when they make decisions bout how to use the information and ideas that they find in published sources.”

Miller’s tactic may or may not work in all contexts, but I like how it involves students actively in a hands-on learning situation that is serious, albeit not the “hard way” of the academic misconduct procedure.   No one – students, instructors, administrators, parents, etc. – wants to undergo the ordeal of the latter. Moreover, this is often too late to prevent serious damage to a student’s psyche and academic record.

There is no magic bullet to prevent students from committing acts of plagiarism. Many students feel tremendous pressure to say the “right thing,” and snatching a few turns of phrase from here or there seems like a reasonable strategy.   Even so, instructors can be pro-active and vigilant in their approaches to “plagiarism-proofing” (see also Plagiarism 101), including helping students become better writers who depend on their creative minds to engage interesting topics, and not the cut and paste features of their computers. The discussion about plagiarism will continue, and I welcome your thoughts about plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct.  What is your experience? Should we be more pro-active and creative in how we address this issue? What has or hasn’t worked for you?

 

*Special Note: Some cultures venerate the words of sages and great teachers, and it can be a mark of one’s intellectual capacity to use such words without citation. In such cases, citation would be an insult to the reader’s own intellectual acumen. Such as been the case in the West, in fact, as Sarah Bakewell notes in her recent book on Montaigne (who, ironically, originated the essay form that is so often the site of plagiarism):

Plutarch was to Montaigne what Montaigne was to many later readers: a model to follow, and a treasure chest of ideas, quotations, and anecdotes to plunder. ‘He is so universal and so full that on all occasions, and however eccentric the subject you have taken up, he makes his way into your work.’ [Montaigne writing about Plutarch] The truth of this last part is undeniable: several sections of the Essays are paste-ins from Plutarch, left almost unchanged. No one thought of this as plagiarism: such imitation of great authors was then considered an excellent practice. [p. 66]

 

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