More on Plagiarism

Yesterday I posted about the issue of students plagiarizing from blogs, which, judging from the response, is clearly a touchstone issue for a lot of us in the business. The comments mostly centered around discussing the criteria for appropriate use of blogs (and similar sources) for students.
Andrew has taken to the next level with his comment:

"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' "

I should clarify here that the colleague who contacted me did not ask me to take down the material, or to stop blogging about local field trip areas. His words:

"Your blog should include a warning -- "NOT TO BE USED FOR UNDERGRADS ASSIGNMENTS" !"

He's right - and so timely considering the discussions going around - rather than complaining about use/misuse I can take steps to address inadvertent cases by giving some instruction for appropriate use when I post potentially useful information. You'll see from the warning I chose to put up that I didn't follow the letter of his recommendation. I do think undergrads can use this information for assignments, according to principles of appropriate use. I don't know the details of the field assignment at Neighbor U.

In answer to Andrew, you're right, I probably have been plagiarized before. My initial response to hearing about it from a colleague was a bit embarrassed - wondered if I had done something wrong. Glad to have been reading all the recent discussion about blogging because it helped clarify my opinion that the internet really has changed everything about information and intellectual property, as well as propriety - and our societal expectations haven't adapted to address that. Asking my students not to google a topic when they have been assigned to read about it would be even more hopeless than asking them not to download Heroes from a mirror site in Thailand. But I digress.

At my institution we are able to use Turn-It-In, a service which compares submitted text to millions of print and web sources and simply highlights identical strings. I then go through and visually review each string. I did an informal experiment in which I read a paper first and circled suspicious areas. Turn-it-in identified the same trouble spots, but saved me a lot of time by identifying the source. This service has taken a lot of criticism for various reasons - one being the presumption of student guilt. Since professors have been manually comparing sources to check for plagiarism since the dawn of papers, I think the writing and the checking should move into the internet age together. I am not swayed by any of the arguments against using the service.

My undergraduate institution had a very strict honor code. I left with a very polarized view of plagiarism and people who committed it.

In my current position, I realize that plagiarism is probably much more common than I previously thought, and that there are subtleties that can cause students to cross the line without evil intent. For example, I busted a student last year for a "mash-up" essay - basically interleaving complete sentences from two or three sources into semi-coherent paragraphs. When I confronted the student about this, he/she replied that this approach was necessary because he/she didn't understand the material but was trying to patch it together to complete the assignment. He/she was genuinely horrified to be accused of plagiarism and had honestly wanted to do the right thing. The concept of synthesis - of taking information 100% from other sources but phrasing it in such a way as to make it your own - was not there.

In response, I developed a handout on writing - probably too long to be read by many students in full! But I am comforted to know that when a student is in violation, I can at least demonstrate that they were specifically given a definition of the "mash-up" and told that it was not appropriate. At a school which has no liberal arts component, sometimes students are expected to learn this by osmosis but in my opinion, it is much more effective to teach them explicitly how to write scientific papers. Subsequent results have been much better and the students are motivated to follow my guidelines. So in answer to Andrew's "Can teachers be bad teachers?" I think I would hesitate to use the word "bad", but maybe we fail our students when we assume prior knowledge that they don't have. And that includes failing to give them clear instruction on our expectations.

This situation is not really a test case for all these subtleties, because the student who plagiarized was so blatant that there is no way it could have been inadvertent, and the colleague who contacted me made a simple request that I agreed with: to suggest guidelines for appropriate use when publishing information that could be used in many ways.

(c) 2008

*Click here to download my writing handout in Word format. Anyone may use any part or the whole document for any teaching purpose, no attribution is necessary. It is somewhat poorly organized anyway so I will fix that for next year.


Andy Beak said...

I'm doing my Honours degree at the University of South Africa. It is fairly common practice for students to swap assignments as part of exam prep. I am a straight A student but got only 65% for an assignment on the frontal lobes so I agreed to swap with another student who had achieved 85%.

When I read her assignment I realized that she had copied and pasted from Wikipedia. She wasn't just copying lines, quotes, or even paragraphs but entire sections were copied verbatim. Pages and pages - including the mistakes that were in the Wiki article!

I complained to my lecturer and provided her with the url's where the student had copied from. I received a reply saying "thank-you, nothing will be done but I'm sure you'll do better in the final exam" (not an exact quote - haha!).

In my mind it is a serious offence to plagiarize because it threatens the whole point of studying - to go through a process of knowledge acquisition so as to be able to us it in the applied context.

Plagiarism annoys me because I work pretty hard to get first class passes.

I think a university that allows even its undergrads to plagiarize is running the risk of having its integrity questioned.

I checked her exam results at the end of the year. She flunked and I got 83%.

Trifarina said...

Whatever you do, don't stop blogging!

Fault Rocks said...

Andy - thanks for commenting, that's an upsetting story to read. I have seen things like that before - and lecturers often rationalize the "do nothing" approach by saying that the examination will sort everyone out. For me it doesn't matter if the paper is worth no marks at all, it's the process which is important, as you said.
Congrats on your 83! People reading might not know that that's a very high mark in the SA system, where passing is often 50%.

Chuck said...

Dude, Turnitin seems to be way worse than plagiarism. Anyone who tries to archive a copy of every paper every written and then profit off of the database makes journal publishers look angelic. I hope the students win their case.

Thermochronic said...

First off, kudos for taking the time to make an explanation for your students. It is certainly something I would have needed as an undergrad. I remember one case in particular that involved group work. Direction weren't that explicit, and in an attempt to divide the work among the group, many of the students fell into something the professor considered plagiarism. I think a document like you've produced, especially one focused on the kinds of assignments in the course, would have been excellent.

I can't think that there can be anything bad about making good information available to people. I'd hate to relegate my blog to obvious or irrelevant things. I am sure my blog has been misused, but how many times? And how does that compare to the "good" students who have found it useful? People reach my site all the time through google searches for the decay equation or closure temperature. Maybe some of them misuse the information. But, I've also received comments and emails that lead me to believe that many of the people have found my explanations helpful, sometimes even filling holes that their courses or texts missed.

I think the cases of information misuse are more glaring, but perhaps less common than the cases of proper use.

I also don't like the idea of information propriety, that we should avoid a topic because someone has an assignment they've come up with.

OK, thus ends my discombobulation. One note. Harpers magazine published a piece by Jonathan Lethem that is a great read re: plagiarism. Here is the link.

Fault Rocks said...

Chuck -
I have to admit to some discomfort about Turn-It-In. In effect I think the problem is in the profit, particularly related to archiving student papers. The core functions performed by the user, I believe, fall under fair use. If the outcome of the case is to prevent Turn-It-In from archiving student work without their permission, I will consider that a victory.

Termochronic - thanks for the link, it's a great article and I'd forgotten how much I love Harpers!

Anonymous said...

Really Christie, I'm feeling embarrassed here. My comment was more a way to share a smile ("see what the students do with your nice blog?"), more than any reproachful statement (anything serious I would surely not do through a comment on a blog !).

I certainly did not imagine you would take the whole story to that point. My idea of "putting a warning on the blog" was more a feeble attempt at a Friday's night joke and was by no mean a serious suggestion -- although I quite like the way you did it.

You write:
"You'll see from the warning I chose to put up that I didn't follow the letter of his recommendation."

(Well, I'm sure glad you did not, considering what I just said. Anyway your formulation is way better. And more funny too).

"I do think undergrads can use this information for assignments, according to principles of appropriate use."

Of course they can. Actually they should, or they must maybe even. The point in debate is not whether students should use material outside the lecture or the text book: of course they should, and the more the better. The point, rather, is "how to explain them what is the proper use of different sources".

Again, I believe that this is primarily the lecturer's job. But indeed a warning on a blog can not do any harm. Hmm, I think I will add one to mine.

" I don't know the details of the field assignment at Neighbor U."

I'll gladly email you my assigment.... It was in fact very open-ended, and certainly encouraged the students to look for additional information.

"In response, I developed a handout on writing - (...) Click here to download my writing handout in Word format."

That's something I've been willing to do for ages ! Maybe I should just plagiarize and copy yours, er, I mean, use it in my course with due credit :-) [Note to self: do not forget the smiley this time]


Fault Rocks said...

Thanks JF!
For your comment and for the impetus for starting this discussion. As you have seen it went quickly into the hypothetical/philosophical. Thanks for sending the Sea Point assignment, I hope to get out and see the other outcrop sometime soon

Elli said...

I just wanted to say that your "guidelines" document is wonderful--and though I may change a few things, I will probably use the base for my future handout. And its a great idea to hand something out! I usually put a warning on my syllabi about science being collaborative and acknowledging who you spoke to, used as a source, and got inspiration from, but this is much stronger.

As to professors having a minimal response to cheating: when I was a graduate student at two different mid-west large public universities, I saw several cases of students only being slapped on the wrist for blatant plagarism / copying. When I challenged the professor (I was the teaching assistant), I was told that the university policy was so cumbersome and that it could drag on for years with appeals that it wasn't worth it. Causing trouble with the administration was never good. So, the students got a slap, and I started semesters with very menacing comments on what would happen to student's grades who cheated (the max I could do was say "you cheat = you fail that assignment").