To catch a thief: What to do with plagiarists
in the language, literature, or culture classroom
In the DIT, plagiarism, along with other forms of academic cheating
and falsification, is classed as ‘unfair practice’ and,
if detected or suspected by an assessor, is to be formally reported
to the Head of School.
The Head of School is to work with the Faculty Administrator to
assemble a Panel of Enquiry, which is to be comprised of several
Institute officials and two members of academic staff. The candidate
is to be notified in writing of the precise allegations. On the
appointed day, the Panel is to consider the allegations, everyone
involved can call witnesses, and the Panel must render a verdict.
The candidate, if pronounced guilty of unfair practice, can then
face several possible fates, including failure, suspension, or expulsion.
It all sounds very intimidating and codified but, in fact, no one
I spoke to can recall a Panel of Inquiry ever having been assembled
for an instance of alleged student plagiarism.
But, nevertheless, that is the Institute’s official process
for penalising plagiarists. In all likelihood, though, most plagiarism
goes either undetected or unproven, and I would venture to say that,
in many instances, it goes more-or-less intentionally overlooked.
For far from bringing about a full ‘Panel of Inquiry’,
most lecturers, tutors, and teachers of all descriptions simply
lack the time and, for understandable reasons, even the motivation,
to hunt down the sources of stolen material. Not only do we lack
the time, but most of us probably feel utterly demoralised by the
prospect of having to accuse, try, and convict our students of a
crime against scholarship, when we recognise, as lovers of learning,
that the act of plagiarism is more a symptom of an illness than
the illness itself – the illness being any number of academic
maladies from disinterest and apathy, to fear of the subject matter,
to poor time management skills. Indeed many of us are probably a
little bit heartbroken that our students will resort to theft in
order to carry out the knowledge-enhancing and, of course, rewarding-in-themselves
assignments that we carefully craft for them. And so, when we pick
up a whiff of plagiarism from a submitted assignment, our heartbreak,
our disappointment, discourages us from serious follow-through.
Those of us who teach language, literature, culture, and other
humanities subjects are perhaps especially pained when our students
behave dishonestly for the sake of meeting our course requirements.
As we know from our more personal conversations with our colleagues,
we have been so uplifted, so gratified, so generally moved by our
subject matter that we are stunned and dismayed when our students,
with whom we share all our best insights, of course, seem to think
nothing of pirating large chunks of information from other sources
and passing them off as their own.
Can so many (or such a good few, anyway) be so lacking in integrity?
The answer to that question is, I believe, no. And I believe we
should take heart.
Certainly some students wilfully and deliberately lift material,
cut and paste, borrow and steal, download, upload, all without attribution
and in full cognisance of the dishonesty of their actions. Others,
however, are simply befuddled by their own inabilities to distinguish
their own ideas from someone else’s. As a colleague of mine
remarked recently, students have come to think of the Internet as
an extension of their brains.
And why not? We are all increasingly using the Internet to be informed
(and, of course, misinformed) about nearly everything, in a matter
of minutes. Because information on every possible subject is now
available, literally, at the touch of a button, there is no longer
any effort involved in procuring it. Whether I want information
on Romeo Montague or Romeo Beckham, I simply turn to my search engine,
and, click, there I am, the possessor of reams of information on
either. I don’t even have to walk to the library.
Indeed library oriented, book-based plagiarism might, during these
our cyber times, even seem a return to the good old days. For it
seems that in some cases students have not only not written
the material they’ve submitted, they haven’t even read
it. Last year one of the Spanish lecturers in my department received
an essay from a student that had been entirely downloaded. The student
protested that the work, in all its fluency, was entirely hers.
The Spanish lecturer was quite certain the material had been wholly
pilfered because the essay was in Catalan.
To be sure, many of our students are helpless in ways both intellectual
and mechanical: they don’t seem to realise that they are frequently
not the owners of the ideas and information they are using, and,
in my (and probably your) experience, they don’t know how
to properly attribute the material they use, even when they recognise
they have borrowed it. What is more – and perhaps this is
one of the more tenacious roots of the problem – they don’t
understand that it is, in fact, OK for them not to be the owners
of the material they’re using much of the time as long as
they a) attribute it and b) comment on it.
Point ‘b’, it seems to me, is where students most
often go astray -- yes, they sometimes yield to the temptation to
patently plagiarise but, more routinely, they fail to make the material
their own in any way. They ‘borrow’ information, they
either attribute it or not, and then they stop there. They neglect
to offer any sort of critical evaluation, or even mild appreciation,
of the material they’ve borrowed. They take, in other words,
no stance in their writing.
How to remedy this situation presents a pressing pedagogical challenge,
particularly in the language classroom where students are already
coping with fluency limitations and so may be doubly tempted to
‘lift’ material. The advanced EFL classroom, especially
if it is in a tertiary setting and especially if it is geared toward
English for academic, special, business or other professional purposes,
will typically involve learners in a good deal of writing and research.
So perhaps the nature of our assignments should involve, as often
as possible, the explicit expectation for our students to evaluate,
analyse, criticise, remark upon, make relevant, or otherwise contribute
to whatever has been gleaned from their secondary reading. Indeed
‘contribution’ itself might well serve as the declared
main requirement for some of our assignments, if we are to quell
the impulse to plagiarise.
Every September, I give a lecture on plagiarism to students embarking
on the first year of our Degree in International Business and Language.
I take them through a series of questions and answers such as, what
is plagiarism and how can you avoid it? What is the difference between
paraphrasing and quoting, and do you need to cite the source of
something you’ve paraphrased? Is it better to summarise or
to paraphrase? What kind of material requires documentation and
what qualifies as common knowledge? And so on.