May 08, 2003

Plagiarism dot com

With this post, Kieran Healy has achieved the impossible: he's made plagiarism funny.

I spent two semesters (never again!) teaching at a place where plagiarism was rampant. At the end of each paper grading session, I would have a small pile of papers to be "googled." I began to take a rather perverse pleasure in catching out plagiarists: finding the online source (aha!), printing up the relevant pages, then stapling this incontrovertible evidence to the student's paper with a brief explanation of why he or she was receiving the grade of F for the assignment (forget expulsion from the course: nobody in a position of authority would have backed me up on this). Amazingly enough, even in the face of undeniable proof of wrongdoing, some students would protest that they had done nothing wrong. So overall, this wasn't much fun, and really rather depressing.

I know I sound cranky when I talk about plagiarism. And god knows! I don't have the rank and status to be a curmudgeon. But it's the one thing that truly irks me. I can be a soft touch in other areas, but on plagiarism I take a hard line. It's cheating, and it's wrong.

That said, I wonder if part of the problem has to do with the sheer number of courses that students have to take at any given time? I sometimes wonder whether we don't expect both too much and too little of students? they have to juggle so many things at once, and how can they do justice to all that is required of them? In my ideal world, students would take fewer courses but would take them more intensively. This will happen when pigs fly. In any case, I say this not as an excuse for plagiarism but by way of a possible explanation.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 8, 2003 02:18 PM

Yup--there is something perversely satisfying in entering in a string of words in Google and knowing that you've "got'em!"

As I tell my students: "if you can find it on the internet, I can find it on the internet>"

Posted by: Steven at May 8, 2003 02:32 PM

Just got out of a faculty meeting where this was a major topic of discussion. One of my graduate students caught a plagiarized paragraph in one of her students' papers. She failed the student on the assignment, made them rewrite the assignment and a paper on plagiarism (while still getting the F), and put a letter in her file. Then the student asked her for a letter of recommendation for one of our graduate programs. Heh.

We are seriously thinking about using to save us from the constant Googling, though I don't know if we are there yet.

Posted by: Alex Halavais at May 8, 2003 03:42 PM

As I explained over at Kieran Healy's blog, we're not allowed to use turnitin, for fear of lawsuits.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 8, 2003 04:03 PM

I had the same experience quite often. I had numerous junior-league Doris Kearns Goodwins and Stephen Ambroses who could see nothing wrong with doing their "research" in that manner.

Posted by: James Joyner at May 8, 2003 04:11 PM

Plagiarism is one of the most emotionally wrenching things for me as a teacher. . .with the bottom of the cycle being, "why am I so broken up over someone else's wrongdoing?" And the penultimate stop is, "why do I have to spend more time detecting and documenting the plagiarism than the student spent committing it?"

I think that it's an even tougher issue for part-time and temporary teachers who are not integrated into the culture of their department and who don't necessarily know how much support they'll get in controversial cases.

Plagiarism is where (Peter Elbow's) coach gets the gate slammed on him by the gatekeeper. What a crappy feeling. I think students don't realize this, and wouldn't necessarily care if they knew (at least the ones who plagiarize).

Posted by: Brett at May 8, 2003 04:52 PM

I find it to be primarily motivated by laziness and lack of seriousness about their studies, not the amount of work they have to do or not do.

And I consider it theft, lying, as well as not actually doing their assignment--a trifecta that really hacks me off. I further get annoyed that I have to waste my time figuring out where they stole the material from.

Posted by: Steven at May 8, 2003 05:34 PM

Good points, Brett. At the risk of sounding cynical, I have to say that at some places (and they're the type of places that rely heavily on adjunct teaching labour) the problem is so widespread that those in a position to do something about it simply do not want to hear about it. It would involve too many students, too many headaches, too many potential lawsuits. And it would raise too many other issues that they don't want to address, either: the heavy reliance on adjuncts; the disintegration of the departmental culture; the lack of clear and coherent policies in any number of areas, from grading standards to curriculum development; grade inflation; and the like.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 8, 2003 05:39 PM

Steven -- I don't discount laziness and lack of motivation as relevant factors.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 8, 2003 05:42 PM

I ran into something of the opposite problem when I took a history class last quarter - the natural thing for me to do would have been to post the text of my research paper on my website, and I had to consciously force myself not to do it until after I'd gotten it back, graded, out of fear that the professor would conclude that i'd plagiarized it (as the website didn't include my name at the time).

Posted by: aphrael at May 8, 2003 06:07 PM

I hate plagiarism most because I hate confronting students, and because it can often be prevented -- if there are good lines of communication between student and teacher. It is a problem with complex roots. There is definitely the laziness factor mentioned by Steven, or simple dishonesty. But I've also found students who plagiarized because they were feeling desperately overwhelmed by the material and too embarassed to seek help. (One such student actually plagiarized part of a bad paper her friend had turned in to me the previous year (which is why I recognized it) -- she thought that this was what "why don't you talk with a friend who has taken the class before for some help" meant.) Others don't necessarily know what forms plagiarism can take -- those who lift an entire argument and claim it as their own are pretty clear about what they're doing, but I've had some students who were genuinely shocked to learn that paraphrasing without attribution is also ethically dubious. I've also had students who were friends turn in questionably similar papers -- but they weren't copying each other; they had just spent so much time discussing the material that they had trouble differentiating their own ideas. I didn't fail any of these students or their papers, but I refused to accept those papers until they had been rewritten to correct the problem.

The key factor, I believe, is class size. I only know these things because my classes have been small enough for me to form individual relationships with the students and for it to matter when I explain to them that they have done something wrong -- it's not some arbitrary rule, it's a personal disappointment. I cannot imagine how I could do the same level of intervention in a lecture class; it was hard enough when I taught such just getting the students to write coherently.

Posted by: Rana at May 8, 2003 07:31 PM

"That said, I wonder if part of the problem has to do with the sheer number of courses that students have to take at any given time? I sometimes wonder whether we don't expect both too much and too little of students? they have to juggle so many things at once, and how can they do justice to all that is required of them? "

From 1996-1998, I attended two courses per week (12-13 weeks, at night) and three semesters per year while working full time and doing about a 25% share of housework, childcare, etc for two girls aged 10 and 5 (in 1996), in addition to 4 cats, two dogs and two horses. At the end I had earned an MBA. While some courses were mainly numbers-oriented, there were some that required much original thinking, writing and research. My final GPA was 3.91, with zero plagirism. I think too many students are simply lazy.

Your idea that students should take fewer, but more intensive courses has merit, and deserves discussion.


Posted by: Phil Winsor at May 8, 2003 09:48 PM

To all of you adjuncts taking a hard line on student plagiarism: Good luck on your student evaluations! And good luck getting "renewed" next semester.

Posted by: Thomas Hart Benton at May 8, 2003 10:06 PM

"To all of you adjuncts taking a hard line on student plagiarism: Good luck on your student evaluations! And good luck getting "renewed" next semester."

Right. And this is one reason why plagiarism is so rampant at places that rely heavily on adjunct teaching labour.

In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that this is the fault of the adjunct instructors. Too often, they know that they cannot expect departmental/institutional support in any confrontation with a student. This is symptomatic of something larger: any place that relies heavily on adjuncts simply does not care about the quality of education that it offers.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 8, 2003 10:43 PM

I agree with much of what Rana's said. I wonder also whether (and relatedly) students are in part overwhelmed because they, at some unarticulated level, just don't feel like they've anything to contribute. They've been told again and again in school that the trick is to mimic and regurgitate, and when you ask them to actually do any thinking, they're unprepared to do so, and too afraid/lazy to try.

Posted by: Chris at May 8, 2003 11:24 PM

My syllabus warns students that once an assignment is turned in, I accept no excuses for plagiarism; if they are not sure whether something they write would be plagiarism, they must check with me beforehand. That makes confronting students a lot more straightforward.

I also announce in advance that anyone engaging in academic dishonesty will fail the course. My schools have backed me up, even when I was an adjunct. (But they are Christian schools with 'an even higher authority', as the folks at Hebrew National put it.)

I craft unusual assignments that draw heavily on the course readings and lectures (which change at least a little every semester) rather than assigning open-ended 'research papers' that are invitations to plagiarize. These also demand profuse citations, or else grades suffer. Giving credit for appropriate citations both trains students to cite whenever possible and reduces the naive variety of plagiarism.

Finally, I announce at the beginning of the semester that I have failed students before and will readily do it again.

So far, I have only failed a few.

Posted by: Telford Work at May 8, 2003 11:31 PM

I suppose I have been lucky in that my schools have backed me up when it came to plagarism. I have a very adjunct-friendly chair, I suppose.

What I tended to do was to rack my brains to construct rather unusual sounding assignments.

I have actually considered answering my own questions and putting them up on the web as bait, assuming that this would be the best answer the students could find, and they would use it, and I would easily recognize it. But it sounded too much like entrapment, and I felt a little dishonest myself doing it.

Googling is OK, but there are always some that I know are not my students' that I cannot find. Arrrrgh.

There ought to be a forum for people, like us who find it as annoying as we do.

What do you all think?

Posted by: Karl Czemer at May 9, 2003 12:37 AM

A forum for adjuncts? or a forum for instructors dealing with plagiarism?
Either or both would be nice.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 9, 2003 01:36 AM

That comment that "nobody in a position of authority wouuld have backed me up on this" sure sounds familiar.

I sometimes fantasize that if I were a deadwood administrator, I would back up Professors who flunked plagiarizers. Little asses would be flying away from collegeland in tears, or they would straighten up. And football players would not be allowed to take classes together.

Then again, I'd like to tar and feather the bio guy who asked me "did you actually write this?" and then had the Ceaucescus to give me a "B."

Zoot Organizing Kit
stunt double,

Posted by: Zoot Organizing Kit at May 9, 2003 03:52 AM

I once had a student turn in a paper that was a cut-and-paste job from my website. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: dan at May 9, 2003 07:07 PM

Apparently my english-language skills are being destroyed by reading exams... that should have been "I once had a studen WHO turned in a paper..."


Posted by: dan at May 9, 2003 07:08 PM

Dan, I'm thinking of sponsoring a plagiarism horror story contest. This one makes you a real contender.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 9, 2003 08:32 PM

With regards to the "sheer number of courses" that students have to take, I think that's a load of bull.

The base requirements for my major aren't that onerous, they're too easy IMO. To successfully complete a History major, that's 36 credits. 12 courses. A year and a summer, really.

There's another 30-36 credits of "general education" required for all students at the university (depending on their major), so that's up to 72 credits total.

The BA degree requires 120 credits, so an average student will have 48 credits worth of electives, which can be filled with the easiest 100 and 200-level courses you can find.

That's not too much, in my opinion.

A few disclaimers, though. I'm a history major (obviously) and I like to think I'm pretty good at it, so some things that seem easy to me will be pretty hard for others. I'm also a transfer student, so I have slightly fewer gen ed requirements; I also knew how to massage the system so that a couple of my history courses also counted towards Gen Eds. On the flip side of that, however, I'm doing a minor in Anthropology and the Honors program in my department, so I'm creating slightly more work for myself.

Just a view from a student.

Posted by: David at May 10, 2003 02:10 AM

A plagiarism horror story contest. Oh my. Too bad the publishing industry has been flagging. That's got "kickass anthology" written all over it.

First of course there are the real plagiarism horror stories (reality trumps imagination hands down); but a Stephen King sort of plagiarism horror story could be interesting. There are enough ironies in academia that it would add little to have one's plagiarized writing become evidence in a crime-- by, let's say, a student who has given you hell in class with the encouragement of his/her affiliates-- for which you are then charged and convicted. Uncannily (fire, theft, hard drive crash), you can't find your original.

Anyone who has read Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence will recognize the theme of the writer in "Apophrades," coming into maturity and seeming to be his/her predecessor and erstwhile better in the poetic tradition.

(Yeah, a lot of folks have this or that dislike for Bloom's work, and I don't have any particular allegiance for or against the guy-- though I will note the dark irony in some folks criticism that Bloom's discussion of "anxiety of influence" is simplistically Oedipal; some of these people have acted like they wanted to slay me in his stead for just mentioning him (sorry, he was assigned for a term paper), and I'll be damned if that isn't itself very stunningly Oedipal, giving itself its own lie)

So if you took this Apophrades thing and ran with it, you could do a little Golyadkin Jr. / Golyadkin Sr. switch, and the student could then (while you are in prison) marry your spouse / partner / significant other, and using stolen materials from your working notes, become a celebrated author.

I'm forgetting the blood and guts parts. This is a horror story, right?

Well, I don't have any real plagiarism stories to tell, so that'll have to do. My girlfriend has some doozies, though. With her permission, I could lay down some real dark funk for ya.

But it's late, and it's time to return to my misgivings about blogging, and stuff.

Zoot Organizing Kit
sorcerer's apprentice (sans palantir),

Posted by: Zoot Organizing Kit at May 10, 2003 05:19 AM

Wow. This not the kind of plagiarism horror story I had in mind. But this is much better than the kind I was thinking about. Yes, it's too bad about the publishing business: an anthology is a tough sell these days.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 10, 2003 12:02 PM

I was just rejoicing that I don't seem to have acquired any plagiarism cases in this semester's crop of student papers -- last fall I had a three-day headache (literally as well as figuratively) thanks to having to fail people for easily spottable (these are fairly unique assignments) and Googlable plagiarism. This semester, I handed out a two-page summary of What Constitutes Plagiarism, stressed repeatedly that the (short) final papers for my intro class should avoid using outside sources, and described in detail my awareness of which book option has the most online papers associated with it. Oh, and I only taught one instead of two sections of the intro class. ;) Some of my students all too clearly wouldn't recognize proper citation procedure if it came up and stuck its tongue in their ear, but that'll be the handout I add next semester.

Of course, I still have two severely late papers outstanding. Probably shouldn't count unhatched chickens.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at May 10, 2003 06:11 PM

Another thing that I've found useful -- but more work for me -- is to require the students to go through a multi-stage process in the writing of their papers -- proposal, bibliography, overview of the argument, rough draft... I can't imagine sustaining successful plagiarism -- even of the "I forgot to cite" sort -- over this process.

On the academic horror story... A good book -- by turns funny and chilling, is Publish and Perish by James Hynes.

Posted by: Rana at May 10, 2003 06:48 PM