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The Semiannual Plagiarism Outbreak

posted: 6.3.11 by archived

I’d estimate that at least 90 percent of the incidents of plagiarism I’ve found have occurred in the last few weeks of the semester, when more involved assignments (in some incarnation, the universally dreaded Research Paper), increased student stress, and time pressures seem to make conditions ripe for copying others’ work. (I wrote about this issue several years ago, but each new case makes me revisit my approach.) At an instructional technology meeting this week one of my colleagues said that what we need is some form of plagiarism detection software.  I’ve resisted that, preferring instead to focus on trying to plagiarism-proof assignments (as much as I can).

I teach both first- and second-semester composition at a college where the first semester = research paper and the second semester = writing about literature. The two differ when it comes to plagiarism-related issues, both in the students’ levels of intention and the methods they use. (I’ll set aside cases of blatant use of essay mills and other wholesale appropriation of complete texts, which are relatively simpler to handle). The research writing cases often involve copying paragraph-sized chunks of expository material from sources (something more egregious than the patch-writing the Citation Project identifies), while in my experience, plagiarism for lit-comp writing often involves weaving together reader feedback from various book-related social networking sites (e.g., reviews or

Here are some of the approaches I’ve tried:

  • To introduce the research process, I’ve started with a short assignment, a paragraph that requires two or three sources. I ask students to post links to online articles (or provide photocopies of database articles) with material highlighted so that I can easily check their skills at paraphrase, summary, and quotation. This exercise helps to identify students who, despite my endless harping on the use of sources, still have real misunderstandings about what constitutes an acceptable paraphrase. (Exercises on paraphrasing are helpful as well.)
  • I often use some form of summary-response assignment, where I provide a limited number of articles from which students can choose. This helps me to control the length and difficulty level of the article, as well make it possible for me to be sufficiently familiar with the article so I can more easily pick up cases of inaccurate summary or too-close-to-the-original paraphrase.
  • Other strategies involve the stages of the research process: assigning staged deadlines where students submit an annotated bibliography, tentative thesis or plan, notes, and rough drafts of their lead or other segments of the essay (or requiring students to turn in a research portfolio that includes evidence of these stages). Instructors may also require students to turn in photocopies or links of sources used; it’s usually not practical, of course, for instructors to check everything, but this approach may serve as a deterrent for students as well as a convenient way for instructors to check if plagiarism (or patch-writing) is suspected.
  • Control of sources is another option. In a research assignment this may mean a common topic for all students (or several available topics, either assigned by the instructor or chosen by groups of students), with one, two, or several sources required for use in the research essay. (A colleague of mine, for example, requires that students propose a solution to the problem of plagiarism on college campuses, using several of the sources he provides.) In a lit-comp class this may involve assigning combinations of texts to be discussed, reducing the possibility of students’ being able to find similar online essays. (I had thought until recently that using noncanonical texts would help, but with the proliferation of online reader-review sites makes this strategy less effective.)

An aside. It would be interesting to look at how instructors detect plagiarism cases. Beyond familiarity with a student’s style and writing abilities or spot-checking sources (which usually comes after my suspicions are aroused), I’d say that an unusually advanced vocabulary is often my first tip-off. In some cases, a particularly assured syntax can also be a clue.

Questions. As I think through what I’ve tried and how I can classify these strategies, I wonder about which of them allow for instruction, which work (if they do work) through deterrence, and which are designed really to make detection either possible or easier. What should be my ethical concerns in adopting a given strategy or combination of strategies? How do you see the ethnical choices for you as an instructor? Do you support the use of plagiarism-detection software, and/or what pre-emptive approaches have you used or considered?

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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2 Responses to “The Semiannual Plagiarism Outbreak”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    First, I want to acknowledge that I am writing this on a public access site on the world wide web and that my own students can be among my readers. Thus, everything I am about to say is precisely what I tell my own students when I explain the plagiarism penalties and prevention procedures in my classes and at my university.

    For many years I tried to construct “plagiarism proof” assignments. While I was not entirely unsuccessful in this, such assignments severely restricted the options for my students and limited their creativity. I never liked that.

    When my university subscribed to, a very well known plagiarism detection site, I decided to try that out. It has been a great blessing. I can now give more open-ended assignments that allow my students to choose topics of their own to research and interpret (this is especially important in my popular culture classes). I do give careful instructions on what the writing assignments must do (which also obviates plagiarism and paper-mill appropriation).

    I also carefully explain, on the syllabus, on the assignment sheets, and verbally in class over and over again, what constitutes plagiarism, why plagiarism matters (I acknowledge that current citation conventions are indeed conventions and that the rules have differed in the past and may differ in the future, but that these are the conventions that govern writing at our university and in our society and that if one doesn’t learn them one is likely to get into trouble).

    And I emphasize the positive value of using turnitin, telling my students not only that this choice enables me to give them much freer and open assignments but that it can also reassure them that no one in the class is going to capture some sort of advantage by not playing by the rules. Most of our students are NOT plagiarists, but they certainly know students who are and who may even have thrived in school by plagiarizing, and it is reassuring to them to be assured that their own honest work is not going to be undermined by others.

    Turnitin works. I haven’t had a significant plagiarism problem for quite some time and I used to have problems every single semester.

    I want to repeat, and I truly believe this, that using turnitin is to the advantage of my students, who get better, more interesting assignments because of it, and who can also not worry about anyone else getting away with what they themselves would not do. I see it as a win-win for my students and for me.

  2. Brad Zakarin, Northwestern University Says:

    In my experience, terms like “plagiarism detection software” and “plagiarism proof assignment” are misleading. At best, well-designed computer programs and writing assignments can mitigate the phenomenon of plagiarism. At worst, they can warp the expectations of instructors and students.

    I haven’t used plagiarism detection software in my own teaching, but I have used it as an academic integrity officer–that is, faculty referring cases to me enclosed software reports as evidence for their plagiarism allegations. Some seemed to make referrals based on quick glances at overlapping text and the overall “match” percentage. I worry that the convenience of the software actually dulls the curiosity and close reading skills that faculty bring to undergraduate writing. On the other side of the desk, students may get the wrong impression about responsible writing as software puts the emphasis on words over ideas. If students learn to smooth out paraphrases until software passes over them, then they will fail to grasp that borrowing ideas without attribution violates standards of academic integrity.

    If I’m right about these trends, then the number of plagiarism cases on campuses will eventually go down, but for all the wrong reasons. Over time, I’ve become less opposed to the use of plagiarism “detection” software; it certainly has some value for administrative and educational matters. Still, composition instructors–and software developers/marketers–have a lot of work to do in terms of reconciling pedagogy with this new tool.