Over the last few days, another plagiarism scandal has rocked the media. As Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute explained, two Arizona newspapers have apologized for publishing plagiarized articles written by a Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University student (10 September, 2012). Stories such as this one also resonate strongly with faculty who typically have deep concerns about students inappropriately integrating sources into assignments, failing to document them properly, and perhaps worst of all, utilizing these unethical approaches in the professional world after they have graduated.
And there’s good reason to worry. The National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience® and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina shared some frightening statistics in their article, “Plagiarism as a ‘Source’ of Concern,”
• 40% of a sample of 500,000 college students admitted copying information from the Internet, and 77% of the sample expressed the belief that the practice of plagiarism is not a “serious” matter.
• 77% of cited quotes came from the first three pages of the original source (regardless of the length of the source).
• 96% of the cited material came from two or fewer sentences extracted from the original source. This is indicative of a pattern where students are seeking out brief snippets that back up the contentions they are trying to support in their written assignments. This practice reflects a lower level of complexity and involvement than actually engaging with longer portions of the original text. [I suspect the search feature helps students find these brief snippets quickly.]
• 19% of the papers reviewed included copied materials that were not cited as quotations.
• 56% of the papers misused sources by either using patchwriting or failing to cite as a quotation or both (15%). (April 2012)
Although plagiarism is a complex issue, there are some steps faculty can take to decrease the incidents of plagiarism. The first one is to begin at the beginning: Design assignments and write directions that discourage plagiarism while modeling a healthy approach to information sharing in an academic and professional context. Here are four tips to help you create plagiarism free assignments.
The first tip in reducing the incidence of plagiarism in a class is to provide your students with clear definitions, which is also a way of saying set clear parameters around the assignment. Often faculty toss out terms, such as ‘plagiarism,’ ‘paraphrase,’ ‘source integration,’ and ‘documentation’ without making sure their students understand their meanings. Your school’s writing center and academic integrity policy can be helpful here.
Next, make sure you have clearly expressed your expectations in the assignment directions. If you expect at least three credible sources to be used in an assignment, state that clearly in the directions, the outcomes for the assignment, and the rubrics. The same goes for expected documentation.
Third, provide students with plenty of opportunity to see examples and to practice meeting your expectations. Jennifer L. Greer and Julia S. Austin provided some excellent low stakes practice examples in their piece, ” Assignments that Discourage Plagiarism and Encourage Learning,” (2 June, 2012). Here are two suggestions:
• Summarizing Sprint: Students summarize an original paragraph the faculty member is projecting to the entire class. Students can either see how it is properly cited by the instructor and practice including a citation in their summary.
• Citation Analysis: Students are given a scholarly article from a peer-reviewed journal and asked to analyze the use of sources. Greer and Austin suggest having students find where most of the citations are located; then they should try to figure out why. Instructors can have students study how source information is integrated, etc. (2 June, 2012)
Low-stakes writing activities such as these give students a chance to fully understand expectations and the terms provided by the instructor.
One final area where faculty need to set parameters is in the topic students will write about. Faculty should be careful not to write open-ended questions. For instance, I once heard an extreme example of this when a faculty member told her students to “write something and use sources.” Most students copied and pasted information from sources without citing them. On the other hand, don’t be so specific that students have no option for originality. Recently, I saw an assignment that asked students to give the recommended steps for a simple process in a Microsoft program. Most students copied and pasted the process from the Microsoft help page and didn’t cite it. In each of these scenarios, most students who “plagiarized” thought they had completed the assignment according to the instructor’s directions.
My frequent mantra as a Writing Across the Curriculum Director and Composition Chair is that too often not enough time is spent on invention, more simply known as ‘brainstorming’ or ‘prewriting.’ I’ve always liked the original term ‘invention’ better because it energizes students to come up with something new. This may be an original idea or topic of their own, a new way of looking at an issue, or a different audience to target. ‘Invention’ is an exploration of all possibilities with an overall goal of engaging in the academic/professional dialog, but sharing something new with readers. Giving students the time to go through this step results in more unique topics that are more personally relevant to students, thereby lessening the incidents of plagiarism that so often occur with a topic, such as “smoking is bad for you.”
As part of this, engage students in primary research. Provide guidance on how to conduct interviews, create surveys, complete observations—anything which forces them into the field to become a researcher (see my post, ”The Need to Teach Primary Research,” 12 December, 2011). As part of the invention step, students become more deeply entrenched in their assignment and its topic; therefore, reducing the temptation to mindlessly copy and paste.
As Greer and Austin suggest, following through with making the assignment a process in which smaller activities are scaffolded into larger ones can be helpful. They basically suggest expanding the traditional writing process and including those practice, low-stakes activities as steps to the larger final project.
For example, students could bring in their own article to share for the citation analysis. They could lead small discussions based on what they’ve learned so far about their topic. Students should produce academic work, such as drafts that show clear evidence of revising and editing, and they should present their final version to the class or in another venue. Students should also be given an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned, too.
Throughout the process of the assignment, the burden should be placed upon the student to keep up with each step and to demonstrate credibility. Have students run their first complete draft (note that I did not say “rough” draft) through a plagiarism checker and use the results as a teachable moment if issues with plagiarism are identified. Don’t accept a last minute change of topic from students as this often indicates a rush to copy and paste an assignment together.
The expectation that students will understand and adhere to definitions and the parameters they set, engage in invention activities, follow through on each stage in the process of creating an academic composition, and making it clear that the burden is upon them, should help reduce the incidents of plagiarism in your courses.
If you have additional suggestions, please post them in the “Comments” area below. Let’s get a good discussion going.
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