E-Learning | Feature
The Accidental Plagiarists
- By Susan McLester
Is it possible to commit involuntary plagiarism?
Heather Scott would say it is. In fact, she estimates that only half of the plagiarizing she sees in her English classes at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, CO is the result of students "trying to be tricky," as she says, while the other 50 percent may simply be an indication that students don't understand the difference between plagiarizing and paraphrasing or how and when to use quotes or cite credits and resources.
That may seem an unnecessary consideration--what more knowledge of plagiarism do they need other than the understanding that they better not do it? Yet Scott's notion that many student plagiarists are either uninformed or unaware, rather than calculating cheaters, doesn't lack support, including new research concluding that the more effective anti-plagiarism strategy is to increase knowledge on the subject rather than instill the fear of being caught.
For that reason, some educators are starting to rethink the use of plagiarism detection software. Scott herself has taken to using Turnitin, the popular, Web-based anti-plagiarism application from iParadigms, as a preventive tool as much as a punitive one. The solution is a three-part package, offering peer review and paperless grading features in addition to the standard originality check, which sniffs out cheating by matching content from a freshly uploaded essay against all the works already stored in its database.
"At first it was all about the originality check," Scott says, "but I discovered that if you use the whole system it empowers students."
Scott says she finds the software's paperless peer-editing function, which helps guide students in providing feedback to each other, a major reinforcement of writing skills. Students upload their papers and then read and edit each other's drafts online prior to making revisions and submitting them to Scott. A built-in palette of proofreading marks and sample comments offers guidance and training in editing skills.
"Kids used to say, 'You're out to catch us!' Scott says. "But once they got used to the feedback, they started looking forward to it."
A study released last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research added force to the idea that prevention efforts are better at deterring plagiarism than punishment is. In the study, students in half of the participating courses were required to complete an anti-plagiarism tutorial before submitting their papers. The study found that assignment to the treatment group substantially reduced the likelihood of plagiarism. The report concluded that "the intervention reduced plagiarism by increasing student knowledge rather than by increasing the perceived probabilities of detection and punishment."
Some plan of attack is certainly needed, as student plagiarism has been raging ever since the Web made it a simple three-step sequence of Googling, copying, and pasting. "It's so dramatically easier to plagiarize with the Internet," says David Townsend, an 11th-grade English teacher at Richardson High School in Richardson, TX.
Plus, a bustling market of online research-paper providers prods students to take the easy way out. Want to buy a term paper? A Web search lays out about 400 options if you're so inclined. AcademicTermPapers.com, for example, sells them for a mere $7 a page. Or there's OPPapers.com, which offers 50,000 free essays, term papers, and book reports, punctuated with this note on its home page: Life just got a little easier. If you'd prefer a service that will do your reading and critical thinking for you, try Pink Monkey, Cramster, and SparkNotes--all of which provide chapter summaries and analyses.
"The paper mill out there is incredible," Scott says, noting that, without help from Turnitin, "with 150 students there's no way I could stay on top of 'borrowed' content."
Another theory on the rise in plagiarism argues that it may just be a case of copycatting the copycatters. Students may be legitimately confused about what constitutes plagiarism because they have become so used to seeing material taken off the Web and co-opted freely. In an article on cheating in schools that ran last July in The New York Times, reporter Trip Gabriel paraphrased Suzanne Lovett, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME: "... Internet-age students see so many examples of text, music, and images copied online without credit that they may not fully understand the idea of plagiarism."
Agreed, says Townsend, so the need for prevention-based interventions is even greater. The first move, he urges, is for teachers to step up and do their job, which is to educate students on the ethics of citing sources and giving credit where it's due. "You have to teach the kids that this is intellectual property," Townsend says. "It belongs to someone. Someone worked hard to come up with it; therefore, give him the credit for thinking it up in the first place."
Townsend says he instructs students on the way to cite sources along with the need to do it. He adds that a number of citation-creating tools, such as Landmark Project's Citation Machine and Microsoft Office's Source Manager, provide another layer of plagiarism deterrence. The user simply types the source information and the desired format into the referencing tool, and the technology does the rest, creating an alphabetized, correctly formatted works-cited page. "It's like doing math with a calculator," Townsend says. "It's that simple."
Like Scott, Townsend employs anti-plagiarism software to try to help students avert cheating before he has to catch them. He uses SafeAssign, a plagiarism detector that is part of the Blackboard learning management system. Like most programs, after receiving an uploaded essay and checking it for duplicated content against every other file in its database, it generates a report that identifies what percentage of the paper may be lifted from somewhere else. "For example, if a kid has taken something off of SparkNotes, it has a link to the exact page that it came from," Townsend says.
As a precaution, Townsend requires his students use the tool's "rough draft" feature, which allows them to upload a draft of their essay into the system and address whatever passages are flagged before submitting a final essay. "As long as they cite everything that comes up, they're okay," he says.
Both Townsend and Scott include anti-plagiarism software as a part of a wider effort. Along with instructing on the hows and whys of source citing, Townsend has his students sign a pledge not to commit plagiarism. Scott takes steps to try to limit areas where students are vulnerable to plagiarizing. She sees the sophomore year's research paper she assigns as a particular problem spot.
"It's the first major research paper they've had to do so far," she says, "and they haven't had a lot of practice citing sources, creating a bibliography, and so forth."
So Scott tries to tailor the paper in a way that is plagiarism proof. She has students turn in prep work--outlines, sources, drafts--in stages in advance of turning in the final paper. She also carefully crafts assignments. For instance, her end-of-semester final exam requires interviews, poetry, and other nontraditional content, which essentially rules out plagiarizing.
Townsend, however, says he believes that fear still has a significant influence on keeping students from straying. He maintains a strict zero-tolerance policy with respect to plagiarism--if you're caught, you're getting a zero. He says the severity of the problem calls for a combination of prevention and punishment.
"Why can't we do both?" he asks. "I've had students turn in papers where they've cut and pasted and haven't even changed the font. It'll be rocking along in Times New Roman, and then suddenly there's Helvetica, and then Times New Roman again. It's that flagrant and it happens all the time. You educate them that that's wrong and show them that they will be caught if they do it--and you reward them for doing it right. So you've got education, carrot, and stick."
Susan McLester is former editor-in-chief of Tech & Learning magazine.