Coping With Plagiarism

Wayne Stauffer offers a few strategies for minimizing it.

November 30, 2017
 
 
iStock/Dane_mark

As long as students put off doing writing assignments until almost too late, do not study the course material as well as they should, have low confidence in their academic abilities, settle for doing less than their best in their schoolwork and just don’t feel like putting out the effort and instead grub for grades, there will be plagiarism.

In other words, we professors cannot eliminate it entirely, no matter how hard we try to design the perfect assignment or develop/find the ultimate originality-checking software or online testing environment. Students’ desire to cheat cannot be planned out of our assignments, because it is outside the curriculum. We design our course work under a basic assumption: people who want to learn will be willing to do what we ask them to do to learn it. When that cooperation is not present, learning breaks down.

We can only take several steps to minimize plagiarism. We can make cheating more labor-intensive or costly than the effort involved. We can also try to make the assignments so interesting that students want to explore the subject as deeply as we want them to or so unusual that a response doesn’t already exist out there. Yet hard as we work to make the assignment one on which students don’t want to bother plagiarizing, someone will always try to take the shortcut.

An analogy occurred to me: speeding. We have traffic speed limits to regulate automobile traffic flow, mainly for safety reasons, and we have penalties for ignoring those limits. We all understand why the limits are there, and most of us agree to them, but some people still exceed the limits anyway. Fortunately, the bad consequences for others (accidents and deaths) are a comparatively small percentage when we ignore the limits. But when we know the police are there, most of us follow the law most of the time. It seems to me that students also know that we want them to do their own work and understand our rationale for why we do not want them to plagiarize. But if they think they can get away with it, some try.

Discussions of the different software solutions often go into the details of how they work and how effective they are at detecting, but such discussions seem off the mark -- they are the mechanism by which the cheating happens, not its motivation. We have to explain the value of doing one's own work and that one must actually absorb the information for any real learning to occur.

Tactics we can take to reduce plagiarism include:

  • Discussing forms of plagiarism and examples from outside academe -- and the penalties that violators paid.
  • Talking with students about the intellectual laziness inherent in plagiarism and how true learning takes work. Part of this can include how we develop thinking and work habits that do not include cheating.
  • Setting up assignments so that no one assignment will fail a student for the course. That can take off some of the pressure to get a really high score on that one assignment that assures a passing grade.
  • Developing the kind of assignment that makes it more time-consuming to try to find an answer online than to just write it oneself.
  • Designating specific points to cover. We can spend time working out the instructions for the assignment to get what we want from students. We can ask specific questions to get students to provide proof that they read our course materials.
  • Changing up the assignments every few semesters. This can make previous “banks” of assignments irrelevant.
  • Limiting students to only certain sources or give them only specific sources to use.
  • Making students do the assignment in person -- and requiring that it be handwritten, no devices needed.
  • Assigning a heavier weight on process over product by checking drafts and work along the way to the final product.
  • Getting to know students' ways of expressing themselves. Collecting short samples of their writing in person to compare with writing in the longer pieces can give an idea of their writing style. It can also reassure students that we know their ideas and understand their perspective on the subject.
  • Modeling proper research and citation form for students. Sharing with students some of our efforts at writing for publication and how we go about exploring the field of study.

Not all of these are needed, but using several of them in combination can keep students guessing as to whether it is worth their effort to cheat.

We also have to clearly indicate the penalty for plagiarizing and enforce it. After a few instances of catching and penalizing students, the word will get out that we mean it, and over time, fewer instances will occur. (Just like those pesky speeding tickets.)

I use an originality checker. I do not make plagiarism accusations on the basis of a hunch or a gut feeling. When it gives a positive result for plagiarism, I send that report back to the student as my proof with the failing grade on it. My institution gives professors latitude to handle incidents. As long as it is in the syllabus and clearly communicated, the professor is in the right. Of course, the other half of this is whether the students have read the policy in its numerous locations. As long as the professor has provided ample warning, the student is responsible.

Besides changing our tactics, we need to adjust our emotional response. As I read articles in Inside Higher Ed and other publications and interact with colleagues who have caught students, the emotional timbre of the conversation is growing more intense. With millennials not identifying as “adult” until their 30s, sometimes part of it is that adolescent defiance that teenagers have: "I'll show you." Colleagues have told me of extensive email exchanges and in-person confrontations with students about what are or are not plagiarized passages. We, the professionals in the room, have to defuse that. Sometimes the more we make of it, the more we inadvertently throw down the gauntlet as a challenge to students.

We have to set the tone for the interaction a good deal lower. I understand the frustration: after umpteen different disclaimers on the penalty from us, students still cheat. We also have dealt with it over the many years of our careers, and students still cheat. But we have to control that frustration and go for the teachable moment: no, the student is not a bad person; yes, the student believes they have a good reason for the action; no, I will not allow a second try; no, I will not “make an exception this time”; yes, the penalty stands. Almost every time, the student does not plagiarize for me after that. But I also understand that is no guarantee that they won’t try again in a subsequent class for another professor.

I do not advocate simply shrugging our shoulders, acquiescing to the inevitable and dropping the whole activity. Students need to learn solid research processes, valid sources and proper documentation formatting. They only learn so much in a multiple-choice quiz. Doing the project is the way to learn.

All of what I’ve said is relative, not absolute. Notice my use of qualifiers: “reduce,” “fewer” and “minimize.” The technology makes plagiarism faster and sometimes harder to detect. A recent article described a paraphrasing software that, ahem, “adjusts” the phrasing into a more student-sounding expression. I understand that the originality checkers are not perfect, but they signal students that I am paying attention.

Sometimes a student will pull one over on the old professor. This does not mean I have failed and the student won. It means the student was exceptionally clever. You win most and lose some, but eventually the cheaters who get one past me will get what is coming to them when they get caught by another professor. The penalty for that instance might be more severe than mine was. What goes around, comes around. And the remainder who have not plagiarized often find that they have actually learned something by doing their own work.

Bio

Wayne Stauffer is an English professor at Houston Community College. He teaches zombie essay hunting skills to his composition students.

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