Bad Students! No!

I just received word that a 3rd year student at a nearby university turned in significant portions of my Sea Point Contact field trip post for his/her own field trip report to the same locality. Fool! No pity for plagiarizers!

As a new grad student I once googled some suspicious-looking text strings in a student's New Idria field report and discovered that a recently graduated student had posted all of his school projects on his website for some reason. Naturally the student failed and I wrote to the blogger and asked him to take the material down or password-protect it. At the time I felt this was a fair course of action because the material he posted was an exact model of what we were asking students to do.

Now what about geoblogging? Field trip blogging? There's been a lot of buzz lately about whether it is ethical to critique or comment on peer-reviewed papers in the blogosphere, where the public often has access to the critique but not the original paper. In my opinion, anything that's published becomes public information and commentary is free. However, some discretion is advised, because these blogs are often written by people who carry some kind of official authority on the topic and there is a fine line between the "official word of the scientific community" and some casual spouting off by somebody who writes the "official word" as their day job. The discussion made me think about my flip language on this blog and my tacit assumption that if nobody comments, nobody reads it. Not true, eh? I suppose I could check my stats on blogger or something.

Anyway, I would like to think that somebody might be interested in the geologic information I post, as I am interested in others' posts, particularly field experiences, research questions, etc. but I am HORRIFIED that students might misuse this material. Almost worse is the thought that students or anybody else might inadvertently use blogs over more reputable sources. Students:

(I'll spare the rest of you for now, but any students who want to hear it, drop me an email.)

I am not going to stop blogging about field experiences and interesting problems. I can't anticipate every assignment that might be set at every university (although I could have anticipated this particular one, had I thought about it) to avoid writing something that might be utilized by an unscrupulous person. I will however, add a threatening copyright notice.

It's in the sidebar.

What else can be done? Anything?

(c) 2008 C. D. Rowe


Ron Schott said...

Hi Christie,

First off, I do read your blog (though I only discovered it recently), and though I don't think I've commented yet that's not out of lack of interest.

I've got lots of thoughts on this post and the issues you raise. They're important ones that deserve discussion. For the moment I'll just post a few immediate thoughts.

1) Here in the USA, copyright law recognizes your copyright even if you don't specifically invoke it - all you need to do is publish, and I'm pretty sure the law views a blog post as a form of publication. Thus, at least in the USA, a plagiarizer such as the one you cite has already violated your copyright (presuming his/her use failed to properly cite you and was beyond the bounds of "fair use").

2) I'm skeptical whether self-imposed censorship (not blogging about a field area that is a topic of university projects) is sustainable in the long term. It is certainly polite, but how is a visiting geologist expected to know about other schools' projects? If I had taken the time to write something up about the project area I'm not sure I'd be so willing to take it down or restrict its availability just to preserve the project. Just because someone can use the information in an unethical way is no reason not to publish it, provided there are ways that it can be used ethically. Rather, I think the responsibility rests with the person assigning the project to be aware of what's published and available to students and to be clear in making the assignment what resources are fair game and which ones are not. At the same time, students need to be well educated in the ethics of proper citation.

Anyone see a problem with that approach?

Maria said...

I'm not sure there's anything that can be done to stop plagiarizers from the blogger's side of things - at least, not without sacrificing the whole concept of public outreach on the Internet. If you know there's a problem with a particular institution, it's possible to e.g. block access to anyone from that institution's IP block, or serve them a different version of the post (at least, it is if you're running your own server, I don't know if it can be done on Blogger).

At least your blog will come up on Google as the source of the plagiarized material.

Kim said...

In a few weeks, my town will become a temporary home to a number of field camps (including, I believe, Ron's). I've wondered whether I should avoid blogging about some of the local mapping areas - I know that Ron's group uses campgrounds with wifi internet access, so even field camps might be connected to the Internet these days.

I've decided not to worry about it, though there are certain types of assignments that I won't give, because they are plagiarism magnets.

Maybe blogging style would give the plagiarism away. (I've caught a number of students plagiarizing reports on the net - something about the style sounds weird, so I copy a line into Google, and there it is.) Maybe we could insert little odd things into the middle of paragraphs to give away the game. (The students who plagiarize often don't read the entire plagiarized source.)

Thermochronic said...

Perhaps blogging makes cheating easier, but plagiarism was alive and well before the interwebs also. In my first 6 times TA-ing intro geology in graduate school I had at least one student in the course who cheated/plagiarized every quarter. Some more blatant than others, but all definite cheaters. None of them used blogs or web resources. I agree with Ron that self censorship isn't a good option. And, truthfully, cheating off the web is infinitely more easy to catch than many other forms.

I like Kim's idea to insert "tells" into posts. We could have a contest to select the term! Something archaic that would stand out in an assignment.

Ron Schott said...

You know, if the student in question had made a proper citation, I'd be rewarding him/her for his/her diligence in using the web as a resource of valuable scientific information. The real issue here ought to be whether students are learning and exercising good ethical judgment in citing their sources - not whether scientists should or should not be publishing their work in accessible ways.

Lost Geologist said...

Most of you read my blog as I think and know I am still a student in his finals.

Playing students advocate here I think anyone has a right to use any source they find whether Blog, Article, Book, etc. At my UNI we have profs who encourage to read anything we can also on the internet so we can see that many issues are still being debated upon. Naturally giving those as primary sources is not going to get you anywhere. Still, outlining the path of research a student did can get you a few points if it shows that you not just copied stuff but instead used a blog for example as the starting point to find more info or find out important key words to search for in more "accepted literature".

What I must label as really stupid though is if a student just copies it and pretends it's his own. Someome there obviously missed the point of what's going on at university and why they are there. Seriously, someone that lazy and stupid deserves to be caught!

CJR said...

Kudos to the Lost Geologist - I'm starting to get the impression that one of the problems is that there are some students who just don't seem to realise that "copying large sections word-for-word off the internet" is not a synonym for "research"; you give me hope that this problem is not as widespread as in sometimes seems.

As for the unplagiarized use of blogs as sources, I'd personally be more comfortable if people used blog entries as a starting point to find more information or assimilate a basic understanding of particular concepts, rather than (for example) exclusively relying on a blog entry to support a point in an essay.

Silver Fox said...

If not already done in undergraduate and grad courses, I think it would be a good idea to bring up in lecture the concepts considered here about plagiarism and internet use - maybe a discussion with examples. Of course students are supposed to know better - reminding them of it can't hurt.

Please don't stop blogging about your field trips!

Lost Geologist said...

Perhaps a small disclaimer directly aimed at students and other interested people stating something alike...

"reading and copying (plagiarism) a blog does not make up for consulting the appropiate literate as ideas posted herein may no represent the current state of knowledge sufficiently. If using a blog DO cite appropiately!"

... might be an easy solution to remind people of what they are doing. Just a thought...if they still do it, it is at least obvious they were "miss-using" it on purpose and not out of not knowing.

andrew said...

Christie, you've probably been plagiarized before. What's different this time is that a colleague informed you--but why did they do so? Did they ask you to change your practices? What do they do at their school? This is a separate discussion from the one you've chosen to feature. What do you expect of your peers? Can teachers be "bad teachers!"

Anonymous said...

Hi Christie,

Amazing to see that in just few days, my comment prompted a whole long reply, and many reader's comments (this might be the most comments one of your posts received...).

Sorry if my comment was not well received -- I was, at least in part, joking, or at least wanting to share a smile with you, author of the original text. I should know by now that dry humour doesn't travel well through the internet. Oh well.

Anyway, I was by no means encouraging you to stop posting geological comments. I, for one, do enjoy your field trip reports. And i also have a website containig lots of geological info (but in french, which at least does not interfere with my own teaching). So by all means, continue doing so! The problem is more on the student's side -- if (s)he (better kept the culprit as anonymous as possible, anyway the mark this specific paper got carries its own reward) did not realize the difference between copying extracts from a blog, and writing an individual text, it's not your problem, but his/her (it is maybe my problem, as it suggests that I somehow failed in my role as a teacher).

What was actually amusing in this case is that the blog was indeed cited (with the correct URL, which made my life even easier, no need to google ); but still, the paper was an obvious mix of material copied and self-written. Sometimes with quotation marks, too. This lead in a very strange effect of mixing two styles, the casual, light style of a blog, and the more clumsy style of a student honestly trying to write a scientific account. The juxtaposition of both gave really a weird mix (I must admit that, this being the n-th prac I was marking on that evening, I was not extremely impressed by the unwilling humor).

Plagiarism and bad essays were with us long before the blogs (I once returned an essay with the original text photocopied and attached to it...). It will remain with us long after.

Reading different sources of information is definitely something I do encourage my students to do... So the more, the better. The only thing we have to do is to make sure that they understand the difference between "drawing information from" and "copying" a source. But the onus lies on the teachers, not on the bloggers -- although they happen to be the same, more often than not, I presume.


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