Monday, October 25, 2010

Plagued by Plagiarism?

Plagiarism bugs all of us--faculty and administrators.  As a former writing instructor who was also a department chair, I dreaded the moment when I would look at a paper and swear that this kid had not written major portions of it.  The programs like SafeAssign (used at UT with Blackboard) are wonderful in terms of tracking down those "cut and paste" paragraphs that do not belong in college work.  As the OWL at Purdue states "There are few intellectual offenses more serious than plagiarism in academic and professional contexts."  Their article on plagiarism is a helpful overview that you can point out to students. 

A recent Chronicle article by Ryan Cordell on Susan Blum's book A Culture of Sharing provides a nice overview of the current conversation on plagiarism.  He covers her argument that many students are unprepared and unaware of finer points of research usage, yet Cordell says that given the rise in plagiarism incidents, this is a 'hard sell."  The comments at the end of the article point out the disagreement.  One respondent is tired of the excuses, while another commenter recounts the complex factors that result in plagiarism--and this person points out a related problem.  Students can learn to cite correctly while still not using enough of their own wording.  This is a writing problem.

I encourage everyone to use SafeAssign or a similar program and to make this program available to students.  The report is color-coded to show where material originates--and can be very helpful to students writing drafts.  Let them look at their reports and see what they are doing well and what they need to change.  With our current culture of "sharing," we need to give students multiple opportunities to learn another way.

When students view a report, they can be instructed to look for the color (blue, in this example) that corresponds to their own words.  Most students are horrified when they see how little is "theirs" when the assignment requires them to analyze and evaluate information and ideas--and when they realize that each paragraph has to have their analysis.

As I watch my son learn to write research papers in middle school, I wonder when this process will "click" for him.  I understand that the process must be broken into steps so that students learn each step.  Yet the hardest aspect to grasp seems to be citation.  Last year, he learned how to find sources (but he was still copying sources into a paper).  This year, he has research, a bibliography, and he is trying to write everything "in his own words."  He is still nowhere close to writing independently with integrated sources.  Will he learn enough in high school to handle college research?  Only if he writes more than one research paper a year will he feel at ease with the process. 

For a thorough statement on issues and best practices, read the page produced by the Council of Writing Administrators.  Best practices include:

  • Discuss plagiarism in class and providing examples of plagiarism as well as examples of successful papers
  • Design original tasks, that ask students their opinions and require new approaches to material
  • Sequence assignments so that they build into a final paper.  Make the research paper very visible by staging the assignment and guiding students through the process
  • Focus on having students read (and report on) their research
  • Ask students for documentation.  For instance, require a research log, with links to their online research and copies of any book pages cited.

For information specific to UT, visit the UT Writing Center.

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