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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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The part of this lecture that I try to deliver most forcefully is a show-and-tell segment using an overhead projector. I begin by explaining that any written assignment submitted should be comprised of material that is based upon the writer’s own thinking, but that it is natural at this early stage in their academic careers to feel they have very little of their own to say. I impress upon them that it is in fact OK to have little knowledge of their subject matter right now, that that’s the whole point of their being here and the whole point of doing research. What’s not OK, I tell them, is to let someone else’s thinking replace their own. Then I ask them to imagine they’ve been given an assignment in their Major Language (French, German, Spanish, or English) requiring them to write a researched, 3,000 word essay on the influence of Internet advertising on consumer behaviour in Europe. I suggest to them that, unless they have an abundance of pre-existing knowledge on this topic, a good deal of what they include in their essays will of necessity be derived from secondary sources. And, I tell them emphatically, THAT’S FINE. What you must do, I stress, is build upon whatever information or ideas you’ve gathered: comment on it; react to it; respond to it; make a comparison between the fact you’ve just gathered and one you already knew. In other words, elaborate on your newly acquired knowledge. And I throw up the following overhead transparency bearing a quote from an Irish magazine called dot.ie. It says:

With a host of e-commerce retails solutions on the market, the last obstacles to selling goods and services on-line are quickly disappearing. For many companies the problem isn’t getting on-line, but getting their clients and customers to join them.

Then I throw up another transparency and suggest that, as a way of contributing to this gathered information, they might write something like the following:

The Internet is making it possible for more and more companies to do business abroad. A company can manufacture products in one country and sell them in another, without having to employ agents or rent floor space abroad. Thus, the number of small start-up companies is increasing daily. One source reports that, in France alone, they have increased by 58% just since January of this year (Lambert: 2001: 23). But, as Chris Barling points out in dot.ie, “[f]or many companies the problem isn’t getting on-line, but getting their clients and customers to join them” (Barling: 2001: 51). In other words, while a great many businesses are ready and waiting on the Web, a great many potential customers are not. Until more people start logging on from home, thousands of entrepreneurs are likely to be disappointed.

I ask them to notice the combination of borrowed material with original thought (in this case, mine). I ask them to notice how I began with a generalisation or two, then moved to a paraphrased fact that I swiftly documented in a (fictitious) parenthetical citation. Then a line is directly quoted and documented. But the surrounding sentences are very much the words and ideas of the writer, myself. And, I say, notice my transitional words and phrases, the way they neatly link ideas. Notice how I introduce the originators of the quotes with, “[o]ne source reports…” and “…as Chris Barling points out…”, rather than simply inserting them from on high as though their originators were self-evident, and so on and so forth.
I don’t, during this once-off lecture, take the students through the precisions and rigours of well known style sheets, such as the punctuation requirements of the Modern Language Association, or the dating requirements of the Harvard Business System, because I am more interested in impressing upon them the spirit of academic integrity than its picayune details. My hope is that they will gain an appreciation for the general and perfectly reasonable requirements of academic integrity, as well as some of the skills and confidence to meet them.

Despite our best efforts as practitioners, I don’t believe we can ‘solve’ the problem of student plagiarism so much as we can militate against it. We can work to create assignments that diminish its likelihood: certain types of portfolios, process based learning, student debates, oral presentations that are more Q & A than the uninterrupted delivery of material, essays and other written assignments that take as their expressed main requirement some evaluative or comparative, rather than informative, component. We should always be looking in student submissions for the commentary bits, the evaluative bits, the opinionated bits. Perhaps we should even mentally cross out all of the informative portions of the paper and look for the more critical, connective, or transitional portions of the paper. We should reward these portions. A friend of mine who teaches dance once told me that when one of his students falls down in class, the rest of the group is to respond by applauding. Why? Because the dancer wouldn’t have fallen if she hadn’t been taking a risk.

Further ways to combat plagiarism can be found on some worthwhile Internet sitesThere are also several websites that market software to detect plagiarism.  See www.plagiarism.org, which claims to be able to trace submissions through many of the web's largest search engines. One article I came across, “How Teachers Can Reduce Cheating’s Lure”, offers some helpful points by Thomas Rocklin, Director of the University Iowa Center for Teaching. He suggests, for instance, that we give assignments that are closely connected to our individual course goals, assignments that make downloading less feasible. We can also work seriously with the stages of writing by requiring a thesis statement, an opening paragraph, an outline, and a first draft. Rocklin has in mind native speakers, but surely working through the stages of writing is even more pedagogically crucial to non-native learners. Finally, we should be open about the existence of pre-fabricated papers and other Internet sources. Rocklin suggests that we “download a few papers, discuss their strengths and weaknesses. Let students know that you know what’s out there – and that most of it is not very good.”Clayton, Mark.  "How Teachers Can Reduce Cheating's Lure."  The Christian Science Monitor:  Features, Oct. 27, 1994 Edition, www.csmonitor.com/durable/1997/10/27/feat/learning.3.html

To these suggestions I would to add that wherever and whenever feasible, we should reduce the number of assignments so that we, both our students and ourselves, can actually concentrate on the quality of the few, rather than the quantity of the many. We might, for instance, give marks of increasing weight to the several drafts or stages of a single assignment, rather than assign multiple, disparate assignments.

Our aim, in other words, should probably be to diminish the likelihood of students pilfering material, rather than to catch them in the act. None of us wants to resort to judicial type practice, to Panels of Enquiry. We will serve our students so much better by recognising that plagiarism is a common recourse of those who have not developed learning strategies adequate to the tasks before them. And we will derive so much more professional satisfaction from reforming our ‘thieves’ than we will from convicting them.



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