May 11, 2003

Why Plagiarism Matters

In the light of a recent discussion of plagiarism initiated by Kieran Healy's Copycats and picked up by Calpundit for its entertainment value (while Kevin Drum accused himself of plagiarising comments from Healy's blog, Kieran allowed that this was "research"), the recent revelations about NYTimes reporter Jayson Blair provide an excellent real-life example of why plagiarism matters. I can't help wondering whether Blair ever committed plagiarism as a college student? and if so, whether he got away with it?

In this regard, Angry Bear made a couple of interesting points when he (or she?) tossed in two cents:

"Cent one: there are a lot of genuinely funny stories going around about students suddenly elevating their prose to Dostoyevskian levels, or their mathematical analysis to the level of Nash. The implication is that plagiarizers are all stupid and sure to get caught by clever professors."

"Cent two: It's always important to think about sample selection. As professors, we only observe the bad plagiarizers. There are likely rather clever (but presumably lazy) students who are skilled plagiarizers. When plagiarism is done well, professors don't know that it's occuring. So the various amusing stories are not representative of the average instance of plagiarism, but simply a random sampling from poorly executed plagiarism."

I actually don't think plagiarizers are all stupid, and I certainly don't believe I'm clever enough to catch them all. The Googlers are a breeze to catch, obviously. And the paper mill papers are also pretty easy to spot. But what about smarter versions? I've definitely received papers about which I've had suspicions, though without being able to confirm my suspicions using the usual methods. And then, too, there might be papers about which I entertain no suspicions whatsoever because the plagiarism is so cleverly done.

I sometimes suspect that student plagiarism is much more widespread than many faculty are prepared to acknowledge. So I was interested to read the following comment that Alex Halavais made at Kieran' Healy's blog:

"Last year, I asked a class of about 150 students how many had intentionally plagiarized during their time in the university, and nearly half raised their hands."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 11, 2003 06:06 PM

One tried and true method of making plagiarism more difficult is to rigorously specify the format and/or approach of the project. That makes it virtually impossible to simply substitute a paper one bought off the internet or a frat buddy. This limits students to trying to get away with Doris Kearns Goodwin-style plagiarism, which is at least more difficult and requires some research and organizational skill.

Posted by: James Joyner at May 11, 2003 06:48 PM

Since I'm *not* anonymous, I won't post this on my own blog...

Last week, in a faculty meeting, I brought up the issue and suggested that we both (a) adopt a standard blurb for all the department's syllabi that outlines what plagiarism is and lets students know we are going to go after it and (b) even when we don't impose the most extreme sanctions, send an email off to a department advisor so that we make sure we catch second-time offenders. Note that this was a softer approach than I would have liked, but it's all about compromise, yes?

I sent a copy of the blurb over our listserve, and one (tenured, full) prof said, to paraphrase, that student dishonesty wasn't any of our concern, that he didn't want to be a policeman, and that he wouldn't go along with a department-wide crackdown on plagiarists. This prof has shown up to maybe 2 or 3 faculty meetings in the two years I've been here, and his undergraduate class has the reputation of being among the easiest As on campus. He offers it as a special topics, changing the name slightly each semester so that students can take it over and over again.

Then my chair says he is sure he has inadvertently plagiarized more than once, and he doesn't see a need to take a hard line.

Mind you, that before I proposed a solution--and this is a very *minimal* measure--everyone posted emails to the faculty list pushing for "zero tolerance." But when it came right down to it, "zero effort" won out. It's no wonder students are confused.

Posted by: Alex at May 11, 2003 09:15 PM

Yes, there is a real reluctance to deal with the issue on the part of many faculty and administrators. Not that there was ever a golden age of academia and etc, etc, but I do think plagiarism was once taken much more seriously than is now the case.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 11, 2003 10:13 PM

I wonder if it's related to the overall decline in status for academia; not only do students not see the point of behaving according to the rules, but the professors themselves lack the self-assurance to defend them. The students don't value their education because it's simply a step on the way to something else -- but what's the explanation for why someone who has presumably devoted their life to a profession based around a certain set of values thinks they're not worth defending? Are these professors in a sense agreeing that education is little more than something you do because society expects it of you, rather than something valuable to be proud of and love? In some ways it seems akin to the person refusing to go to marriage counseling or similar on the grounds that it takes too much time/money/effort/(fill in the blank)...

From the perspective of someone who's been struggling and paying various personal costs to enter a realm in which such work is (theoretically) valued, it's not only frustrating, but insulting.

Posted by: Rana at May 11, 2003 10:45 PM

reeks of system failure, credentialism wins

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at May 11, 2003 11:09 PM

It's definitely related to the decline in status: the goal of consumer satisfaction (as measured by teaching evaluations) means faculty lose the authority to defend and enforce these rules.

But in my most recent post -- on the AHA/OAH statement on adjunct employment -- I endorse the consumer model as a way of pressuring admins. to stop converting tenure-track into part-time positions. There's no way out of this, I'm afraid.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 11, 2003 11:36 PM

I have (semi)intentionally plagiarised once. I was taking an intermediate Spanish class, and we were assigned to do some presentation on a book. I was in my last semester, and doing some research, and far too busy to care. I needed a 55 to get a pass, which would be all that showed up, and I was aiming for that (figuring, accurately, that my French would pull me through enough).
I was working with two freshmen, who found all the responses to the book online, sent them through online translation sites, then gave me the part I was to have written. I just couldn't face rewriting it. (We got mid C+s, if you wondered.)
I sat there, amazed, as they discussed all the times they'd plagiarised in high school, and this one time half the class had copied from the same source, and how they had to promise not to do it again the next time. I remember working in a computer lab where people showed their assignments to me -- find a source on the internet and print it out. These are the research projects. No *wonder* people now don't know how to do anything but plagiarise.
(I wonder about sites like I sent in one of my papers -- entirely original -- and it returned to me that there were a few 100% copied parts off multiple sites and there was suspected plagiarism. Until I noticed it was that I wrote up my references the exact same way other people who had the same references did.)

Posted by: whatish at May 12, 2003 09:41 PM

Could you send me some advance information about plagiarism please we are doing a class researh paper on this subject so help me out with some info and sources

Posted by: Terell Saunders at March 3, 2004 09:04 AM