Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Charleston Shuffle (or 'Sidestepping the Plagiarist')

The semester officially started again yesterday, so I have seen all of my students over the last two days.  One change I'm making this semester is the inclusion of a "Contract" on my syllabi detailing 6 reminders and expectations for my students.  This is partly an effort to minimize incidents of plagiarism throughout the semester and partly a reminder to my students that I expect them to take my courses seriously.

I'm teaching one section of Composition, two of Research & Writing, and one of World Lit. I, and all four groups of students received syllabi with the Contract front and center.  The nuts and bolts are essentially: 'I understand that by enrolling in this course, I'm agreeing to buy my text, read assignments, abide by University Academic Integrity Standards, be subject to the University's penalties if I violate those guidelines, and that I will strive to avoid any dishonest behavior in the class.'

I asked all of my students if they thought the "terms" of the agreement fair, and they all agreed.  They signed their copies (in their syllabi) and signed a copy for me to keep.  This may seem like overkill, but it frustrates and saddens me when, every semester, students try to take a shortcut and plagiarize.  Not only do I catch the students who do plagiarize, but I am not lenient on the penalties.  I never cheated or plagiarized in school and I want each student who graduates from the University where I teach to have a degree that is worth something.  If it's common knowledge that students from any institute get away with cheating and plagiarizing, everyone's degree is devalued.  This is a concept I try to explain to my students repeatedly.

The idea of a student "contract" is certainly not original and certainly not mine.  Research, in fact, has demonstrated that the more frequently students are asked to commit to a statement of honesty (or the inverse: a statement of not being dishonest), the less likely they are to cheat (or plagiarize).  Frighteningly, the more easily students can access information, it seems the higher the levels of academic dishonesty go.  From the German Education Minister who quit over the scandal of her plagiarism on in her PhD work (the second such scandal to hit during Merkel's term), to Taiwan's Chief of General Staff who resigned amid a similar revelation: plagiarism is not unique to the U.S., for certain.

The popularity of software like Blackboard's "Safe Assign" and websites like has risen dramatically as more and more professors and educators (even at the secondary level) grow concerned with the number of students turning to plagiarism, instead of their own, original work.  The question, still, is how do we best deter students from plagiarizing?  Some research would seem to indicate that simply educating students on what plagiarism is (via online tutorials, etc.) is more effective than the threat of detection, but clearly this does not stop all would-be plagiarists.  Type "plagiarism" into Google and you'll quickly realize that there are millions of websites, pages, tutorials, and videos on plagiarism.  Some of these are tutorials for educators on how to catch and deal with plagiarism, and some are "How to plagiarize and get away with it" pages for the less-than-ethical student. 

In my experience teaching, students are most likely to plagiarize (or cheat in other ways) when they feel overwhelmed, out-of-time, or under-prepared.  Some students spontaneously forget years of training in MLA format and hand in assignments that attempt to cite sources, but can only be deciphered over multiple painstaking readings.  I don't see these as equivalent to the blatant and intentional plagiarism of copying and pasting or "copy-summarizing" (wherein students essentially copy material from a source, then change words or rearrange parts so that the end result is not identical to the source), but they are still a problem.  Once upon a time, dishonesty in essay-writing meant buying an essay from another student, reusing someone else's old work, or copying material from a book off of a dusty library shelf.  Now, it's so easy to plagiarize that I fear some students may simply be overwhelmed by the temptation that dances around in front of their face every time they turn on their smart phones, tablets, or computers.

How do we help them not plagiarize so that they do learn?  This question will be a large part of my focus this semester, in addition to the usual.  All of my classes have their syllabi now, and I have promised not to talk so much in a single class again!  Best of luck to all this semester...I shall, as always, endeavor to be more faithful to my readers this semester!

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