Plagiarism

Academic cheating is epidemic in higher ed. Sadly, it’s no longer the domain of 18-20 year old day students; adult students are taking shortcuts as well: copying and pasting text from websites without citation; getting a bit too much “help” from friends and family members and other types of “borrowing” material without attribution to the original source.

Students associate plagiarism with the most obvious type – copying text from websites – but they sometimes don’t realize that something like submitting the same assignment to two different classes also shows a lack of academic integrity.

A new form of academic dishonesty is appearing more often in our classes. Students work hard to master citing sources, then they go a little overboard. The passage below is an excerpt from a student paper:

I read a book called Women and the National Experience. In this book, there is an entry by Clara Lanza, which speaks to that same fact. Her account dates back to 1891. In her account, she praises the increase in clerk positions given to women and chooses to accept the fact that it is “woman’s work”. She states, “Among the woman workers in New York there are none who afford a more interesting study than the vast army of clerks; the work of the clerk being admirably adapted to the sex.” (Skinner 141). She explains that though women have not been in these positions a long time, they are common in the field and preferred above men. (Skinner 142) The funny part was when she asked a bookkeeper why, he said, “Men are troublesome. They complain about trifles that a women wouldn’t notice… if they have a slight headache, they stay at home.” (Skinner 144) I just thought that was interesting.

Skinner, Ellen. Women and the National Experience, Second Edition. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003.

At first glance, this seems like a well-researched passage with proper citations. When examined more closely, though, you can see that the student has added virtually no analysis and commentary on the topic. The boldface text is the only part in the student’s own voice. The rest is context.

I read a book called Women and the National Experience. In this book, there is an entry by Clara Lanza, which speaks to that same fact. Her account dates back to 1891. In her account, she praises the increase in clerk positions given to women and chooses to accept the fact that it is “woman’s work”. She states, “Among the woman workers in New York there are none who afford a more interesting study than the vast army of clerks; the work of the clerk being admirably adapted to the sex.” (Skinner 141). She explains that though women have not been in these positions a long time, they are common in the field and preferred above men. (Skinner 142) The funny part was when she asked a bookkeeper why, he said, “Men are troublesome. They complain about trifles that a women wouldn’t notice… if they have a slight headache, they stay at home.” (Skinner 144) I just thought that was interesting.

Skinner, Ellen. Women and the National Experience, Second Edition. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003.

While this is not cheating, per se, students need to understand that taking large sections of any text and adding a short opinion “I just thought that was interesting”, is not acceptable academic writing.

Sources should support the paper – not be the paper.

Once again, this is where “They Say I Say” is valuable. In the passage above, the student gets at the “they say” portion, but lacks the “I say.” And really, that’s an important piece of their assignment. Without it, it’s just context around a topic.


Keeping them honest – helping students avoid plagiarism

There are a few things you can do to help your students show academic integrity. You should spend time in the first class discussing this issue. Consider defining and clarifying what it means to work ethically in their writing.

A great tool is the Academic Integrity Questionnaire. It’s comprehensive, so you may not have time to cover every question. Choose a variety of questions to ask the students and be prepared for some surprising results! What one student thinks is cheating will be supported by another student as acceptable practice.

Another way to help students practice academic integrity in their assignments is to have them complete a short writing diagnostic on the first night of class. You could use a current event as a topic. Students love to write about what’s happening in the world.

The purpose of a diagnostic is two-fold. It gives the students practice in impromptu writing and it gives the instructor a sample of the student’s writing and their voice. If they deviate from the tone, style, word choice, structure and organization of the diagnostic later in the term, you’ll know something is amiss.

You suspect plagiarism. What’s next?

If you find suspicious passages in a student paper, the first thing you can do is choose a phrase that’s not in the student’s usual style and search the web for it. If it’s copied and pasted from a site, it will likely turn up on the first pages of search results.

The next step could be to meet with the student and ask them to describe how they found their sources, integrated them, etc. If a student didn’t do the work, it will become clear in the discussion.

If the student admits to plagiarism, it’s your decision on how to handle it. You may allow them to rewrite the paper, or you may fail that paper. If it’s a final paper, it may mean that the student will fail the course.

Because plagiarism is serious academic misconduct, you should contact Director of Student Services Susan Calder (calders@philau.edu) and keep her informed of the actions of the students and the steps you’ve taken. Susan is also available for support and will meet with you and the student if needed.

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