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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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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 SchoolSee the DIT General Assessment Regulations, 29-33. 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 brainsI wish to acknowledge Mr. Noel Deeney. 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 CatalanI wish to acknowledge Dr. Carmen Oroz-de Kelly.

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.


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