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To catch a thief: What to do with plagiarists in the language, literature, or culture classroom

Author - Dr. Sue Norton


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Presented at the Perspectives on Assessment Practices seminar organised by the Faculty of Applied Arts Learning and Teaching Subcommittee on May 24th, 2002

This paper conjectured why students in higher education, particularly in language, literature, and culture courses, plagiarise. It considered some of the ways assessors respond to plagiarism and suggested how we might reduce its occurrence.

It argued that most lecturers and tutors simply lack the time and, for sensible and practical reasons, even the motivation to track down the sources of suspect material in order to prove a charge of plagiarism. And anyway, the levelling of formal charges not only demoralises all concerned, but fails to respond to the conditions that give rise to plagiarism in the first place.

Rather than resort to judicial type practice, we might better serve our students and ourselves by recognising that plagiarism is a common recourse of those who have not developed learning strategies adequate to the tasks before them. While some students do wilfully and deliberately ‘steal’ material, others are ignorant of the academic conventions that would allow them to appropriately and legitimately incorporate borrowed material, and still others are simply at a loss for how to distinguish their own ideas from someone else’s. The problem is as intellectual as it is mechanical.

Many of our students are badly in need of skill-building sessions that would help them to develop their own ideas, to incorporate the ideas of others, and to mediate between the original and the borrowed. They would also benefit from receiving assignments that, as their primary function, require them to evaluate, analyse, make relevant, or otherwise meaningfully contribute to the ideas and information they adopt from other sources.

By cultivating our students’ critical thinking skills, and by creating assignments that strongly militate against their impulse to lift material, we will diminish the likelihood of plagiarism, thereby deriving greater professional satisfaction than we would by proving its occurrence.