Facing Plagiarism with a Positive Attitude?

I don’t know about all of you, but I have found some plagiarism over the past week or so.  Last night, particularly, an essay came back from Safe Assign with a 70% rate of plagiarism. It was a documented essay that was two pages short of the minimum length requirement with no citations or sources.  The essay was almost completely taken from two blog posts.  Disheartening doesn’t begin to describe it and in about an hour, I will meet with this student to discuss this absolute blatant abuse of the internet as information provider.
I know that this is a discussion that we have frequently and I appreciate that many of you are probably tired of discussing it.  However, in my absolute desperation, I have been reading articles online that address the issue, and I found one in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, although from September of 2012, addresses plagiarism as something that requires that “the solution should be positive; that is, show students how to act as responsible scholars and writers. The same tone should be reflected in the syllabus. [The author says he has] seen many syllabi in which the penalties for plagiarism are laid out in excruciating detail, with no positive models or behavior mentioned. Surely by now we know that positive motivation trumps the negative variety” (Karon).  Of course, many of us find this difficult, as the absolute frustration takes over and we feel like our students will never care about the ethical implications of “borrowing” work from other writers, scholars or random yahoos online who write blog posts and therefore, must be credible.
I guess I am writing for two reasons.  First, I would like to hear how all of you have dealt with this over the course of our current academic year.  How do you judge intentional from accidental?  Second, I would love to hear solutions for prevention.  Should we not allow any sources that do not come from the University Library?  Will it make a difference, when students don’t cite many of these sources anyway?  Finally, how do you stick to your guns?  I find that when faced with a crying student, I have to steel myself to the tears and really make myself stay strong in order to make sure that the student learns from the experience and grows into a ethical adult and writer in the future.
I know we’re all busy and you probably don’t want to discuss that which upsets us so much, but your insights are invaluable.  Plus, it will be nice to get emails that are not grade complaints or appeals for leniency.  🙂
Here is the link to the article and, in the interest of academic honesty, the MLA citation.
Karon, Jeff.  “A Positive Solution for Plagiarism.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 Sept. 2012.  Web.  2 May 2013.

4 thoughts on “Facing Plagiarism with a Positive Attitude?

  1. Good article/questions. Personally, I tend not to lose any sleep over plagiarism, in large part because I do agree with the caveats that Karon lists in his second paragraph. I do think that, as he says, “cheating just is easier than it used to be (most honors students who are caught plagiarizing say they did so because it was “easy”),'” that we are much “better at detecting plagiarism because of software such as Google and Turnitin,” and, especially, that “every generation, at least since the ancient Romans and Greeks, complains that the next one is composed of lazy, possibly illiterate, youngsters willing to cut ethical corners.”

    In addition, I don’t take plagiarism personally. As I tell students when I bring up the issue the first time, I don’t think (as I believe is fairly common for many instructors) that a student plagiarizing in my class is a personal slam or that the student is treating me as an idiot. I think that the student is treating him/herself as an idiot. So I don’t get mad, I don’t get unhappy, and I just deal with it as one among all the other issues we deal with in our classes.

    To get to your questions, when it comes to differentiating intentional and accidental plagiarism, I must say it’s mostly a case of feel. I’m also not very concerned about the distinction, since I usually penalize both equally. The usual penalty I have for an initial case of plagiarism is that the student automatically fails the paper (or, if it’s very minor plagiarism which I’m confident was an error, has to rewrite it with a substantial penalty). Since this doesn’t mean the student fails the class for a first offense, plus I want students to know that unintentional plagiarism is still an issue, I think this approach works fairly well–for me.

    On the subject of prevention, I use a combination of methods, as I’m guessing most of us do. I cover it in detail at the start of the semester, explain how seriously the university takes it, and explain my policies. I sometimes use tiered activities which make plagiarism harder. I point out how it’s a high-risk low-reward strategy. I relate stories about the amusing ways students have plagiarized and been caught, and tell my students I really hope they won’t be that silly. Without quite doing the example assignment that Karon describes as a workable solution, I’ve sometimes taken texts with students, shown them how they could plagiarize from the texts and how they could use them acceptably, and emphasized how much easier the latter is. After I’ve done all the above, I accept that some students will plagiarize anyway. It’s unfortunate, but a reality.

    As for tears, they really don’t bother me. If a student plagiarizes, s/he’s getting a penalty that s/he knew would occur. It’s hardly the most onerous penalty (as noted above), so it’s not really worth getting that excited over. As I usually explain to students at that point (while handing over a tissue), they’re better off that they got caught by me than by a lot of other people. I also find that students respond well to me being matter of fact about what occurred and making it clear that this isn’t personal any more than me pointing out bad argumentation in a paper is. They cry less, complain less, and argue less than they could have.

    All in all, I think plagiarism’s an issue and I have systems in place to deal with it, and that’s about it. I don’t get upset about it and, I think, that helps me deal with it in a way that works for my class (though I’m always looking for ways to refine it, like everything else) without causing me undue angst.

  2. I think that plagiarism is best headed off at the pass by tailoring the original assignment so that plagiarism is very difficult. If the essay is to be a certain issue filtered through one person’s brain (which is pretty much the definition of an essay in my view), instead of writing about what somebody else thinks, then it is much more difficult to plagiarize. We just read “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, for example. I didn’t use this assignment, but if the core of the essay were the student’s own home town, using Wilder for enrichment, then plagiarism is much more difficult.

  3. I have a customized documented essay assignment; over the years I have honed it to make it harder and harder finding ways to tweak it so that students learn how to do the research and the citations. I’ve made it a less “cheatable” essay. And it seems to work – I don’t often find of plagiarism. Sometimes the essays are deeply moving, other times the essays are just ok. But, mostly there is an absence of cheating going on. Nevertheless, I just found a student who blatantly pursued her own course of action. When confronted with the SafeAssign report and the websites, she blatantly admitted it to having done it, could have cared less about having done it and wondered how quickly it would take for me to give her the F and have the whole overwith. She was neither apologetic,nor argumentative, nor ashamed. I sensed relief. Sometimes students take action knowing what they have done, but not knowing why. Although she missed the lesson in the documented essay there might still be a lesson somewhere in there for her still, it just won’t come during my timetable.

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