Thursday, April 30, 2009

[Citation Needed]...

It is that time of year again. Papers and projects, essays and exams. I am finishing up a collection of twenty or so essays and projects for my HONORS Ethics class. HONORS in this case refers to the students' GPAs, not moral character.
Nearly every paper had at least a handful of improperly cited quotations. Some of them were mild (missing quotations marks, improper form) but a large number of them were egregious. I am talking a page and half of direct cut and paste quotation without any citation (unless a citation was already on the website). I am not naive, I know there are numerous resources out there, and that it is very tempting to plagiarize. But I thought I had this one beat. I included some fairly specific recommendations for the paper format:
By the end of the semester you will have a written paper, at least 6 pages long. It will explain the moral issue, and develop the arguments you will present. It will be in proper English and use the proper citations. The format of the written part will be as follows:

1. Introduce the Moral Issue (1 page)
2. Explain your personal intuition about the issue. (½ page)
3. Explain the prima-facie argument for the position you will develop. (½ page)
4. Explain in detail the arguments, using where possible their own words, of proponents of the position. You will use at least two quotations from two sources. (2 pages)
5. You will present objections to those arguments. (1 page)
6. You will respond to those objections with the best counter-arguments. (1 page)
7. You will reflect on the issue with you new found understanding. (1 page)

And I spend some time going over my concerns about plagiarism and proper research, I even scheduled class time to go over outlines, and the like. So, I had high hopes. They've be thoroughly dashed by this year's crop or crap.

There seem to be a number of varieties of this kind of plagiarism.
1. "Dumbass Roulette". This used to be the most common form. It is an entire paper, cut whole from a website, and presented by a student who was already failing, or in danger of failing the class. I imagine, that faced with the inevitable prospect of failing due to lack of work or what have you, they decide to try their luck and just submit something. Maybe they'll get lucky, the instructor might be tired and overworked and not notice anything.
2. The "Filler". Here is a person who may have approached the assignment with some sincere attempt. They thought about it, wrote a handful of sentences, and discovered that the six page paper (or two page essay) was just going to require way more work than they imagined. I am guessing, this is a person who tends to do work at the last
minute. They might check the assignment for any unusual requirements, and include all that (as well as a rewording of the assignment). Then insert page after page of plagiarized material until the required size is met.
3. The "touch up artist". Here we have someone who has learned to download essays in whole, but then fine tune them a little, changing tense, pronouns, cutting sentences in half, maybe even adding some original work. They will likely even cite a source (maybe even the real one, typically wikipedia) in the endnotes, so you know they can't be accused of plagiarizing. At worst case, this can usually buy them an extra week to write a real paper if they are caught.
4. The innocent "touch up artist." Maybe I am a sucker, but I do think that some of my students do the latter bit of plagiarism and honestly think this is what is expected of them. In other words, that"putting it in your words" means something like saying the exact same thing except changing a few letters here or there. I blame their other teachers, peers, and parents for this. I've had plenty of teachers who never read a word I wrote but assigned a grade anyway, I certainly expect some lowerclassmen are schooled in this art by upperclassmen, as well.
5. The "reporters". I am convinced, though I can't prove it, that a style of research in some discipline is literally a string of long quotations from other papers, possibly with some original material scattered here and there. I liken this to the current state of journanimalism where a so called reporter, "reports" exactly what someone tells them (a politician, army officer, corporate executive, etc) as though that was research. I am guessing, that the actual assignments in these disciplines are more rigorous than that, but like me (and everyone I know who teaches) our expectations have dropped to a point that we expect much less. So once students know what little is expected they aim for that, and the bar gets constantly lowered.

I've toyed with the idea of encouraging plagiarism as a part of research, then require the students to fact check their own plagiarized works, and improve them, but the real menace of plagiarism is not that it is stealing, dishonest, and such. For me the problem is that it is a symptom of laziness, and that is really hard to combat with more work.

I am open to suggestions on how to fix this.


At 4:25 PM, Blogger Amy said...

Do you already use

At 5:12 PM, Blogger Scholz said...

I haven't been. Should I?

At 5:53 PM, Blogger Amanda said...

You could have the students check each other's work for plagiarism. On 2nd thought that's a really bad idea.
I vote to fail everyone in the first 2 categories. Maybe the ones in the other categories could make up for it by writing a commentary on their own paper showing that they have some idea of the definition of "plagiarism" in the first place.
I'm assuming that either you, specifically, or the school have written rules against plagiarism?
Honestly, if you can see an entire paper was lifted, they should not only fail that course but be under some sort of academic probation.
Of course, that sort of idealism is why I'm not a professor in the first place..

At 5:54 PM, Blogger Amy said...

It would immediately identify all of these cases, and the paper would come up as "hot" when they originally submit it, so they will already know they messed up. I could never grade 500 papers a term without it. Consider me a fan-boy for turnitin.

At 12:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i make the policy painfully explicit (with examples) at the start of the term. if a student plagiarizes, i fail them, and file an academic misconduct report. at cal state, if they get two of these they are expelled. i also tell students that I WILL fail them and files the a.m.r.. i had zero plagiarism last term. who knows about the future though. perhaps you can spend some time reflecting on kinds of assignments that bring application of your course material to bear, but in a format or medium that isn't an essay/term paper format? (e.g. write an op-ed on a very current topic, no 'a' grade unless it is specifically formatted for submission to a specific newspaper, blog or magazine; prepare an argument about blah blah blah, for discussion in an online forum agreed upon by teacher and student, and defend argument in the comments, etc.?)


At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mentioned it to Chris-who-is-married-to-Gen and he says he makes the students turn in a rough draft or work-in-progress and checks it, & if there's plagiarism he tells the student that if that exists in the finished paper he'll fail them. It lets them know that you recognize it (if they're being deceptive on purpose) or helps them see *what it is*, if they're just clueless. It seems a good way to go, but is, of course, more work for you.

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Randi said...

turnitin is awesome. I used it at several secondary institutions. I don't think it's free, but it's certainly worth the price.

My professors required us to run our by paper through turnitin and then attach the resulting score with the paper. If I remember correctly, turnitin will keep track of how many versions of the paper were submitted, as well as each score.

At 6:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

just fail them all, that'll solve the problem. these people don't want to be in college, they want to get drunk for a few years on their parents dime. fuck 'em all.

At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at college with a guy who was really, really straight. Then, one day he was bust plagiarizing an essay - he had lifted an entire chapter from a book. None of us, even the staff, could believe he had done this.

The Prof took him to task, And the conversation went something like this:
- "You stole this material from this text.'
- "No, I didn't"
- "But large chunks of your essay are directly from this chapter."
- "Of course. You set a question, I looked in the library, found this book, it had a chapter heading almost identical to your question, so I figured, hey, question answered, so I wrote it out."
- "That's theft"
- "No, it's not. In fact, in other subjects, I have to do it."
- "What do you mean?"
- "In maths, if I get asked to write out the proof of a theorem, I'm not expected to design my own proof. I check the books, find the proof, write it out. In most cases, I learn it by heart, and reproduce it when asked in exams. This was the same. You asked a question, I found the answer in a text, and I wrote it out. I’ll learn it by heart. If you ask me that question in the exam, I’ll reproduce it. What’s the problem?

He just had to be given a second chance. He had to learn from scratch how to write essays, and he battled through college, but eventually made it.


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