Monday, February 14, 2005

Some Thoughts on Plagiarism

As a teacher, I lose a lot of sleep. Not because I'm up late grading papers or planning assignments necessarily, but because I'm worried. Am I doing a good job? Are they learning anything? Do I really know good writing when I see it? Am I too easy? Too hard?

But the one thing I don't lose sleep over is plagiarism. Now, I know many of you do. The studies are there that show us how many students plagiarize in their two or four years of college. The Internet papermills make it as easy as point-and-click. The writing handbooks contain increasingly longer sections on what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Plagiarism detection software abounds. And at every gathering of writing instructors, the topic comes up: what do we do about plagiarism?

At my college, we used to have access to,* and some instructors used it religiously, having students hand in their papers on disc and telling them that all their work would automatically be "turned in." I was opposed to the practice from the start simply based on the classroom ethos I believed it created: an ethos of distrust. Call me naive, but I refused to assume that any of my students intended to cheat; it was a bridge I refused to cross until--no, when--I came to it.

But rarely do I come to it, despite what some would call my lax approach to the issue. I make very little of plagiarism in my classes. Other than a brief talk about why we do MLA documentation when I go over how to do it, I don't talk to my students much about the issue. And yet, in the eight years I've been a full-time faculty member, I can count on one hand the number of students I've caught plagiarizing. How do I explain this? I think it comes down to two basic elements of responsible teaching: good assignment creation and relationship building. In other words, give assignments that are creative, specific, and not easily fulfilled by generic, downloadable material and get to know your students and their voices. I never allow students to choose their own topics, I never assign "the research paper" on a topic they are "interested in,"** and I read enough of their writing closely enough so if there is a change in voice, I'll hear it. Most of my assignments call for responses to texts we are all reading in class, and I change my texts regularly. I address unintentional plagiarism when it happens, by reviewing the concepts of summarizing, paraphrasing and effectively quoting and documenting. This usually solves the problem.

Does a plagiarizer ever get away with it in my class? I'm sure it has happened. But I still don't lose sleep. Someday, somewhere, either he will get caught or she will become a executive at an Enron-like company, but it will not change the way I teach. I will not adopt practices in my classroom that assume all are guilty from the start, nor will I create an atmosphere where students are terrified to incorporate other sources into their work for fear of improperly giving credit. We live and work in a world increasingly based on collaboration and the use of the Internet, and some of these issues of whose work is whose are becoming moot anyway.

No, I don't lose sleep over plagiarism.

*For more on the sinister side of, read Nick Carbone's excellent piece here.

**I think the open topic research paper just begs to be plagiarized.


At 11:49 AM, Anonymous timna said...

I agree about the open research paper as a disaster.

The best assignments, for me, evolve organically from the classwork. Last semester one class was highly critical of a text I had chosen. The research project became selecting one problematic issue, finding the sources cited in the text and reporting back whether they had been used fairly, correctly, comprehensively, in the context of the discipline and/or the argument. Not a down-loadable project, and while it was complex research for some of the students, the resulting papers were satisfying for both the students and for me as the reader.

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Katherine said...

Cindy, I couldn't agree more: the "research paper" assignment begs to be plagiarized. And, I'd go so far as to say the "research paper" assignment--open or assigned topic--ought to be banned. Every assignment requires some sort of research unless it's personal narrative. I could say more here, but back to plagiarism.

The only time I've confronted the issue in a class was when I was in grad school and had yet to learn how to craft assignments that make outright plagiarism possible.

I usually talk about plagiarism early in the semester and present it in the context of the academic tradition and convention of acknowledging the work of others. Inevitably, I'll have a student or two who is so afraid of plagiarizing that s/he can't write, and so I work with him/her on an individual basis to help him/her see that it's not a huge problem.

But the best way to avoid having students plagiarize is, as you note, crafting good assignments and working with students so you know their voice. I do, however, allow my students to choose their own topics, but they must do so within the assignment parameters. So, for instance, I have some students writing about gay marriage this semester, but the assignment forces them to do so in such a way that finding info to plagiarize is practically impossible.

At 2:27 PM, Anonymous Jeff N. said...

I want to ask here, just so another voice will be heard. Is the "research paper" necessarily a *bad assignment?* I do a research assignment, but I call it a "social awareness" assignment, in which students have to choose a social issue that they want to learn more about and then over the course of the semester, their job is to develop an opinion about the topic.

They *do* write an argument and it is sourced, but I don't know that I'd call this a "research paper," not in the traditional sense of the word--whatever that may be.

I suppose I do this assignment for a couple of reasons: one, I want my students to be more culturally aware. Their worlds often end at the tips of their noses. Secondly, I want my students to understand that researching a topic isn't about "proving a point" as much as it is about inquiry and learning more about a topic.

Maybe I am being old fashioned here.


At 11:57 AM, Blogger Katherine said...

Jeff, I do think the traditional "research paper" assignment is a bad assignment for several reasons. I would argue, for instance, that students need to do research for all the papers they write unless the assignment calls for a personal narrative, and the assignment, by virtue of making it a RESEARCH PAPER, suggests research is something one does separately from writing. Also, the traditional "research paper" assignment tends to ask students to either repackage information about a topic, or to present "both sides" and argue which is best. I don't see what's useful about the first version, and I see the second version as perpetuating the reductive notion that there "are two sides to every issue." (I've recently written about my struggle to get students out of this binary thinking in my blog).

So, I wouldn’t characterize the assignment you describe as being a “research paper.” Your assignments asks much more of students than repackage information; it asks them to explore a problem in order to understand the various arguments about the issue so that they can then develop and articulate an informed position. You’re asking them to engage in rhetoric, and that’s not at all what the traditional research assignment does. So, I guess some might say you’re being “old fashioned” because you’re teaching your students what the ancients taught theirs. But I’d much rather be in the company of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintillian, et al than to be associated with Macrorie and his ilk.;-)

At 12:33 PM, Blogger Rosa G. said...

I find that not delineating the boundaries for "research papers" leads to papers that are far too general and far too long--and the worst ones are about current issues, like abortion or gun control. And they lend themselves to plagiarism, which, along with being unethical, is also a means of avoiding original thinking on the part of the student.
And as many of you have already said, much writing involves research and using other sources, so packaging it into one assignment seems to defeat the purpose of the course and lend itself to "canned thinking," which I define as stale writing, including the binary thinking that Katherine writes about. Shaking students loose from the binary tree can be hard work--as is shaking them loose from canned thinking, and I have always wondered what students have thought about the course a few years after taking it. In other words, do they begin to see all shades of an argument? Can they examine critically other writers' perspectives? Did they feel that they were humoring us by writing differently than they were used to?

Teaching at a two-year college leaves me with these questions without answers. My students have already transferred by the time (2+)I would want to hear from them.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger clc said...

Though I run the risk of merely doing a "me, too!" here, here goes:

Jeff, I agree with Katherine that your assignment isn't the kind of open, traditional research paper I was talking about in my post. You are asking for something more guided and structured, which it seems causes students to enter a conversation. I was thinking of the "choose somethng you are interested in and find a certain number of certain kinds of sources and write a paper" assignment which I know many composition teachers still swear by. So the student who loves soccer gets to read some articles on soccer and write about why soccer is such a great sport. Or the student who wants to make his/her argument about gun control simply rehashes the same old crap we've all heard before. These not only invite plagiarism, I think, they are also deadly boring to read, and I bet, even though the student thinks s/he is interested, ultimately deadly boring to write.

I, too, resist the idea, though, of having one paper designated as "the research assignment." I like to treat research as a possibility, an avenue to pursue, in everything students write. So I don't tell them in assignments that they have to research; I prefer to let them discover as they begin thinking about what they are writing that they need to know what other people have said in order to more successfully participate in the dialogue. They won't always figure this out and will need to be guided that way, but that's where I come in as the reader of drafts.

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