Approaching Plagiarism

Plagiarism has been on my mind a lot recently. As I grade, I find that most of my students are plagiarizing, and they don’t even realize they are doing it. Quoting the source isn’t the problem. The problem comes in with paraphrasing, which is hardly discussed in these articles, especially in “Cultural Constructions of Plagiarism in Student Writing” which discusses Chinese teachers’ concepts of plagiarism. All the professors related plagiarism to direct quoting, but they neglected to address the type of plagiarism that occurs when students read an article online (and by “an article,” we all know they’re really reading Wikipedia) and reword what is being said without citing the source. While not stealing the words, the students are stealing the ideas, which is a form of plagiarism, a concept the students (and apparently the majority of these professors writing about student plagiarism) aren’t really acknowledging. Luckily, I am able to know, for the most part, when this is happening in my classes. A student who said they never read a comic before who suddenly becomes an expert on the backstory of Harley Quinn probably had to look it up.

From these articles, I feel like defining plagiarism becomes difficult, and reliant on intention. The WPA definition, for me, is really wonderful because it includes room for plagiarism beyond direct quoting: “Definition: In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its sources” (“Defining” 1). Including definitions like this on the syllabus would be helpful, but I feel like definitions without examples causes problems. When I first introduced integrating sources, part of the lesson was the three major ways to do so: summary, paraphrasing, or direct quoting. Part of the lesson was giving the source the proper citation. I found that students understood the concept with scholarly sources, citing paraphrasing of articles, but failing to cite online or quickly googled ideas. Granted, the lesson was not directly about paraphrasing. However, I wonder if using a similar exercise when discussing plagiarism initially would have been beneficial. In “Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism,” Rob Jenkins discusses the importance open dialogues about plagiarism with the students, and I wonder if part of that open dialogue could include explicit examples that coincide with the definition.

Further, I like Jenkins idea of “making plagiarism difficult.” He suggests in-class writing assignments, but he quickly points out that he finds in-class writing problematic, using drafts instead. Taking it a step further, the initial discussion of the papers could include an in-class brainstorming session where the students are forced to pick their texts and begin drafting observations, with the ultimate goal of finding an argument to make in their paper. I suggest this over just drafts for one main reason: my roommate was recently telling me of a friend who would pay someone to write their paper before the initial draft was due and create a really crappy version of it to turn in for a draft. While brainstorming might not completely get rid of plagiarism, it might be a step in some direction.

I guess, my ultimate questions are: can we expand the definition of plagiarism to be more descriptive for students who aren’t from the Western culture to fully grasp the concept? Is there a way to standardized the process of “punishing” plagiarism without biases? Or, is a bias an integral part of dealing with plagiarism because it allows professors to be more lenient, understanding, and willing to accept second chances?

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2 Responses to Approaching Plagiarism

  1. adouglass says:

    For me anyway, I find that approaching this topic from the angle of plagiarism and punishment is a bit backwards — not necessarily in a pejorative sense, but in the sense of a reversal. In the same way that we teach methods of constructing an argument as opposed to warning against ineffective structures, or we (hopefully) teach ways to make language clearer and more precise as opposed to harping on what “bad” sentences look like, it seems to me that we should be approaching this topic from the perspective of how academic arguments should be built in the first place, as extensions of other people’s ideas, rather than from a place of assumption that they’ll do it wrong. I know that when I talk to my students, I try to make them see that most arguments are not spinning a whole set of ideas from scratch, but are rather painting a picture of an intellectual pyramid that’s already in place and then placing one or two bricks on top of it. My hope is that this kind of strategy allows them to see that, not only is taking other people’s ideas unacceptable, but, more importantly, it is counterproductive: by leaving out a documentation of the reading they’ve done, they’re shortchanging themselves by making it look as though they aren’t aware of the writing that’s already out there (which they clearly are, because they’re pulling from it). I also hope that it relieves them of some of the pressure of trying to come up with five pages worth of brilliant, original insights, so that they can lean a little more on the work done by others and make one additional point really thoroughly. I also try to have very pragmatic conversations with them about why academics (professors) care so much about citation (because their livelihoods are based in their intellectual property, etc.).

  2. Giselle Shohet says:

    A response to Kristi from Giselle
    I’m trying to establish the role of public school teachers in this complex problem of plagiarism so my thoughts turn to elementary school book reports. We were assigned summaries of independent reading books. As I didn’t know how to summarize an entire text in a page or two, I plagiarized, but wasn’t called out for it. With these thoughts in mind, I review the directions and rubric for the ELA Common Core regents. The essay asks for a source-based argument; which should establish a claim and distinguish it from an opposing claim; and use, specific, relevant and sufficient evidence from three out of the four provided texts, to develop the argument. Students are to identify their chosen text as follows: (Text #1, line 4) or (Text#4, graphic). Is this again a message that a paper is merely another person’s ideas? Although plagiarism is on the rubric of the regents, all texts are provided. A Works Cited page is not to be included. For any passing grade (4,5, or 6) students must “demonstrate proper citation of sources to avoid plagiarism when dealing with direct quotes or paraphrased material.” Significantly, the concept of taking the author’s arguments or ideas are not explicitly added to the rubric. This is an illustration of Kristi’s thinking: “ students understood the concept of plagiarism with scholarly sources, citing paraphrasing of articles, but failing to cite online or quickly googled ideas.”
    When teaching plagiarism, I do give them students a definition, like the WPA’s that Kristi posts, and provide some general examples to help clarify students’ responsibilities in avoiding plagiarism. Then the students and their parents must sign a contract saying that they understand what plagiarism is and that it is a crime that will result in a failing grade for the assignment, at least. As additional support, my students read and respond to a poem that compares plagiarism to kidnapping.
    Kristi and Jenkins recommend to “make plagiarism difficult.” (2) Here it is important to note that high school teachers may or may not have access to plagiarism detection software since this is an additional expense for the individual school. In any case, it is best to take the advice. Jenkins suggests that students respond to current published work, like editorials, or poetry found in journals. Although this is not always possible, given set curriculums, it is good to keep it in mind as we tweak assignments, with the aim that students think and write for themselves. For educators, they payoff is that we avoid problems down the road.

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