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