How do I plagiarize thee?

let me count the ways...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Using the web to fight plagiarism: Links

the post below is a TESOL presentation from 2006; it appeared on the CESL website but was removed in 2010. It is republished here. The site was used for three different purposes; this is its final appearance.

Leverett, T. & Moody, L. (2007, Mar.) Defining, detecting and dealing with online plagiarism. CALL-IS Discussion, TESOL Convention, Seattle, WA. (handout here)(comments here)

___ (2006). Internet Plagiarism. CALL-IS Discussion. TESOL Convention, Tampa, FL,
Mar. Originally appeared at below).

Leverett, T. (2006). Internet plagiarism: an esl/efl learning experience. For the presentation above.

Internet Plagiarism - What is it?

Trying to decide how to handle plagiarism is a recurring theme of writing teachers in teachers' lounges, web rants, and various publications. Particularly difficult is unintentional plagiarism; for example, where the student actually cites the author, even correctly, in the text or near it, yet fails to put the phrase or sentence in quotes, thus implying that it is in his/her own words. What does a teacher do? It was driven home to me how high the stakes were in this particular scenerio when an MA student in sociology was found to have plagiarized a lit review and almost lost everything: his MA thesis, his PhD program, his carefully planned future, etc. So I'm not inclined to just let it go, as if it were a minor offense worthy of little less than a slap on the hand.

On the contrary, I've always made a big deal about it, and have come to make a bigger and bigger deal about it as time goes on. Rather than dock a student a letter grade (or a few points), as has been suggested, I refuse to accept the paper, and hand it back with large letters all over it. I treat any plagiarism that could possibly be unintentional as unintentional, maintain that perhaps the student did not hear me correctly in class (though I go over the rules many times, the possibility that they did not understand, understood but were not able to put it into practice, or simply did not attend on those days is a recurring theme). Thus the student's only real penalty is lateness on the paper in question, but by the time the research paper is due, that lateness can be a fairly big deal (not so much in points as in how much it crowds the student's busy schedule), and the student's inability to learn this basic rule thus interferes with his/her progress in other far more technical areas.

The unintentional plagiarist thus is someone who has not been able to integrate a new system, a system of representing an author's work into one's own paper, into his/her own writing successfully. I explain carefully that I am not comfortable sending someone on to academic classes until they can prove to me that they can do that without my explicit guidance, on their own, in a testing situation or under pressure with a paper. Academic teachers may be more sympathetic than I am, but they won't have more understanding of what the student is going through in terms of the considerable differences in the ways academic cultures deal with the representation of others' work. On the contrary, they are probably more inclined to consider any plagiarism to be due to laziness, moral corruption, or deliberate trickery, as if they are trying to pull one over on the teacher.


Don't let students go on with only a hazy idea of what plagiarism actually is

It's so easy to let go, especially when you're pretty sure it's unintentional. But think about it: what kind of favor is this to the student? If there's anything you want them to carry with them (and forget about the perfect grammar), it should be a clear conception of how serious this problem is treated in places where they're going. Don't undersell it. Don't even dock them a letter grade. Draw the line in the sand.

Present it carefully, thoroughly, and non-judgementally

I say, non-judgementally - because really, for the most part, it is unintentional. And even when it's not - do you think a student would bother doing this if it were possible or easy to do it another way? I agree with one writer who said it almost always comes from a weakness of some kind...from being a poor time-manager, having low confidence in one's ability as a writer, simply not learning the proper method of citation and attribution, or even not bothering to focus on the importance of getting it right.

Use Turnitin (or some similar service) and tell students about it

I haven't tried this, though my campus provides Turnitin to teachers (Zimmermann 2006). The point is to make it clear how serious it is in the academic environment. The entire discussion: how the university pays the big money for Turnitin; how the teachers pay attention to rooting out the plagiarism, is enlightening to students. Many of my students couldn't believe that it was this serious. Another advantage of this is that it puts students on an equal footing:

... I use (my department pays for it), and I fully involve students in its use. Most students are grateful that there are routine checks for plagiarism. Students who don't plagiarize sometimes feel at a disadvantage--rightly or wrongly--and fear that their classmates who plagiarize are getting better grades. The open use of checking for plagiarism (and I check ALL papers, not just questionable ones) levels the playing field for all. Telling students about the services also opens the discussion about the internet and how it can be both a help and a hindrance to writers.(M. Sokolik, from Stanley 2002)

Assume it's unintentional whenever possible; Give a student a way out

How am I supposed to know or distinguish the surprise of finding out that one plagiarized unintentionally, vs. the surprise of finding out that a teacher would read one's paper so carefully as to catch some plagiarism? Both are surprise, and the second turns easily into the first.

If it helps any, I find that assuming lack of intention helps to keep the judgement down, on my own part. It's always a question, really, of whether the student should be able to pass (make up the work) or just be forced to fail a term or a class. And what really matters is that they learn both the seriousness of the issue and the proper way to proceed in the future. To that end my method is: raise the price of unacceptable copying, but be on their side (understanding, sympathetic, helpful) to make sure they can finish the work properly in what remains of the time. Having a paper come back in their face is usually an eye-opener, but it doesn't guarantee that they'll actually learn the proper method.

Put yourself on the student's side - against a hostile and unforgiving world

This is really the gist of the issue. We aren't police, looking for excuses to hold students back and prevent them from getting what they want. A better way of looking at it is that we are trying to provide for them something that American students had an entire high school career to master - and we're trying to provide it for them quickly, before they are damaged by not having mastered it. A couple of well-placed stories, about the PhD student who was almost kicked out of his program for plagiarizing a lit-review, etc. works wonders.

Raise the stakes: make students publish everything

We have found an unusual consequence of extensive use of weblogs: in publishing everything, students become more serious about wanting to follow the law.

Organize assignments so that it is harder to plagiarize:

Base them on things that just happened yesterday

I'm quite serious about this; I've done units on the California power crisis, Wal-Mart as a social issue, and other issues that, upon reading the morning news, occurred to me days before the class started. The idea is to have plenty of news articles to work from, but no real body of papers already written about the subject. By putting current news in front of the students and requiring them to use it, you diminish the possibility that they can find anyone who has done similar work.

Base them on situations that are class-specific

It was always my fantasy that I would have my students invent a country, and then base a paper on what would be the best alternative for that country, in facing, for example, a power crisis. I would have students invent both the names and the conditions existing in the country at that time; they could take their facts from a variety of real countries or make it up entirely.

But one doesn't have to go to such great lengths, or take as much time in preparation.

Don't use assignments that are easily found on the web

In an article on plagiarism I wrote for a Berkeley publication, I said (rather provocatively, I admit): "If an assignment can be downloaded from the internet, maybe it ought to be." An assignment that asks a question that has been answered a million times before, or that doesn't guide the student through the *thinking* process, begs to be plagiarized. -M. Sokolik, from Stanley 2002

Require specific components on the paper and change these regularly

One specific component is an article that you gave them a week ago: you can say, for example, that they must use this (recent) article first- and show you how they will use it- before they start the rest of the paper. If you do this before they even leave class...that doesn't leave them much room to play "choose the topic" (a variant on "choose the topic that would make it most easy for me to use my brother's paper), does it? Other specific components: Connect to a certain place (we have done this for years with an environmental topic that has moved - from Florida, to Las Vegas, to Minnesota, etc.).

Require process steps

This one is pretty well explained in Harris 2004, though we've used this strategy for years, making students read articles and write about them before they even start their term paper. We have a pretty good idea of their thinking, their writing skills, and their organization before we ever see work on the term paper itself. To see the progression of a process writing course, take a personal web portfolio from our highest level class and start at the beginning of a student's work in a given class: summary responses on individual articles, then an argument essay, then the research paper.

Make students talk about their paper regularly

By having frequent conferences, you know what they are thinking and how much work they've done themselves. If you suspect plagiarism, let the student explain his/her thesis and main arguments without being able to read them as he/she explains. If it was a brother's paper, this won't be possible. But if speaking skills are bad, it might not be possible either.

Require metalearning essay

This one also comes from Harris 2004. I have never done this.

Require up-to-date references

Harris 2004 recommends this, though it's a pretty standard device. A variation is to require students to explain recent articles that they have read; we make them write about them first. We ensure that whatever they're using, it's absolutely current; if they then integrate this into someone else's work, it's apparent in that you can line up the papers and see change in direction.

Change the subject every term

Even when we did environment every term in our highest levels, we changed the location of the problems we focussed on, so that, if we did problems of the Sonora Desert one term, we'd be in the Caribbean the next. There were enough locations to keep students from being able to find old papers; or, if they did, they would find the sources in it to be outdated. It's sometimes a combination of prevention techniques that keeps them off balance.

Bibliography and Resources:

Ehrlich, H. (1998-2000). Plagiarism and anti-plagiarism. Resources and discussion. Accessed 3-06.

Harris, R. (2004). Anti-plagiarism strategies for research papers. Virtual Salt. Accessed 3-06.

Hinchliffe, L. (1998, May). Cut-and-paste plagiarism: Preventing, detecting and tracking online plagiarism. Ohio University. Accessed 3-06.

Leverett, T. (2006). Survey on blogs and chat. From tom leverett weblog. Accessed 3-06.

Ohio ESL (2004). Avoiding plagiarism (links and resources). Accessed 3-06.

Stanley, K. (ed.). (2002). Perspectives on Plagiarism in the ESL/EFL Classroom. TESL-EJ 6, 3 Forum. F-1, December. Accessed 3-06.

Zimmermann, A. (2005, Mar. 8). now on campus. Daily Egyptian, Carbondale IL.$332. Accessed 3-06.

Discussion Questions

1. How does a teacher find a balance between the seriousness of plagiarism and the need to sustain and support students?

2. What strategies can teachers use to combat the kinds of plagiarism we are seeing with increasing use of the internet?

3. Does familiarity with the web and with search engines like Google actually make it easier for students to plagiarize?

4. Is it worth it for a teacher to subscribe to a detecting agency like TurnItIn?