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Dealing with the Plagiarism Plague

shutterstock_369012155Something I often do as a fantasy writer is research mythology and folklore that might be relevant to the story I want to write. I haven’t done any straight retelling of myths, but I have made use of a wide variety of different characters from Arthurian tradition, Welsh mythology, Greek mythology, and others. Looking at what was available online, I discovered something so shocking that it deserves a paragraph of its own.

Particularly for some of the more obscure characters, almost all the articles I found were word-for-word copies of the related Wikipedia article, often with no additional information, and almost never with any kind of attribution.

Had I seen this once or twice, I might not have been as worried, but I kept seeing it, over and over again. Some sites appeared to be little more than rebranded collections of Wikipedia articles. We are all aware of how much easier the Internet makes plagiarism, but we may not always think about how much the Internet models plagiarism as acceptable behavior. If students notice how many websites freely use content from others without attribution, and they certainly will notice if they are researching a topic online, that realization could easily influence them.


shutterstock_239400094Nor is the Internet the only place where students can see bad behavior modeled. Both Joe Biden way back in 1987 and Melania Trump just recently delivered speeches with substantial amounts of plagiarism. Students won’t remember the former example, but the latter is going to be very fresh in their minds, especially since the Republican National Committee and Donald Trump both defended Melania. After his plagiarism had been revealed, Biden withdrew from the presidential campaign and didn’t get another shot at a national ticket for twenty years, so at least that incident could be used to show that plagiarism doesn’t pay off. Of course, Melania Trump is not the candidate, but in an ideal world, she would have conceded the resemblances and apologized, and, if a speechwriter was involved, that speechwriter would have been dealt with appropriately. That would have a good example of modeling correct behavior for our students. Instead, political leaders gave the same lame excuses I’ve heard from parents so many times or just resorted to complete denial, a strategy commonly used by high school students. For example, check out this article about the reactions. (By the way, the evidence is statistically unmistakable, as verified here. One could argue about whose fault the plagiarism is, but not that it wasn’t plagiarism in the first place.)

Just in case you think this might be an isolated incident, here are ten other times when political figures plagiarized. In some–but sadly not all–cases, the leaders in question paid some kind of price, from loss of a college degree to loss of reelection chances.

I tried to find a source for another example of plagiarism I’d heard about in the past, but I can’t locate one. However, I do remember reading at some point that a college had copied the plagiarism policy of another college, word-for-word and without attribution. You’d think people in academic circles would always remember to cite sources, but ask yourself this: if you happened to use something like a fact that wasn’t common knowledge in one of your student handouts, did you cite it? If you borrowed a handout from a colleague, which we often do, did you attribute it to that colleague?

shutterstock_305384291I’m sorry to say I was occasionally guilty forgetting to cite sources in the first situation before I realized the impression that could make on my students. As for the second, I more than once noticed a handout I had shared floating around with another teacher’s name on it and no reference to me at all. Actually, that’s common practice; teachers share and don’t usually expect to be credited. The problem with that practice, however, is obvious. Students compare their classes with each other all the time, usually to see whose teacher is the hardest, but sometimes those comparisons are extensive. It’s probable that students will see the same handout in use by various teachers without attribution. I can see some confusion in the adolescent mind at that point. It’s all right for teachers to all use the same handout without attribution, but not all right for students to turn in the same homework? A common excuse for that copying homework is, “I thought we could work on it together.” My stock rejoinder was, “Collaborations require the listing of all collaborators. If you thought the assignment was collaborative, why is your name the only one on it?” (That practice is required by MLA Handbook, Seventh Edition.) Luckily for me, a student never hit me with the example of recycled handouts with no one’s name on them. Either they were written by one teacher and used by others without attribution, or they were created by a group of teachers with no acknowledgement of the collaboration. Either way, if the students do it, it’s plagiarism, but if teachers do it, it isn’t? Once could argue there isn’t an expectation of originality in teacher handouts, but that sounds pretty “excusey,” doesn’t it?

What can we do to help students avoid plagiarism? Here are a few simple suggestions.

Model correct behavior.

shutterstock_141106999Acknowledging sources can be time-consuming–which is sometimes why students don’t do it–but if we aren’t willing to do it, what kind of message are we sending to them? Citations in a handout need not be formal, but during my last few years of teaching, I used parenthetical notes and a works cited page. (If I’d been forced to print handouts for everyone, I would not have consumed an extra piece of paper for a works cited page, but by that time I was disseminating most handouts digitally.)

Take the time to explain plagiarism.

If you teach in a discipline that requires any kind of research or has any other opportunity to plagiarize, including by copying homework, take the time to make clear to students exactly what plagiarism is. Obviously, elementary students aren’t ready for a really involved discussion of all the intricacies, but the basic idea can be taught early. At the middle school and high school levels, every teacher doesn’t have to spend a huge amount of time on the subject, but one teacher should spend at least a full class session on it. My former colleagues will kill me for saying this, but English is a logical choice.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Surely by sophomore year of high school, a student knows what plagiarism is.” You could be right, but part of the reason for explaining it each year is to eliminate the possibility of a student claiming he or she didn’t know that a particular behavior was plagiarism. If a student claimed that, I could point to the full class session we’d spent on it, the handout (physical or digital) that the student received, the website and/or textbook I’d pointed the student to for more information, and the instructional video I’d made on the subject and shown to the class (or at least made available online). Even if a parent was determined to be an enabler and an administrator really wanted not to do anything, for whatever reason, the sheer volume of evidence that the student knew what was going on would be overwhelming.

Make sure parents also know what plagiarism is.

shutterstock_133681790Not only will this step minimize arguments later on, but we all know how powerful parent involvement can be. If parents see something that looks fishy, they may be able to remind students that a particular behavior is not a appropriate and stop the problem before it even begins.

At least at the high school level, it can be hard to talk to every parent individually, and they’re certainly not all going to come to Back-to-School Night. This is a good time to make use of email if your school has a system that enables you to send email to all the parents of students in your classes. (If your school has no such system, and you work in a community in which most parents have email addresses, start lobbying for the implementation of such a system. Many student information systems, learning management systems, and even stand-alone grade books have such a capability.)

Make sure your school has a clear academic integrity policy.

I’m a big believer in having as much teacher autonomy as possible, but this is one subject in which uniformity really helps. If every teacher has the same expectations and imposes the same penalties, students are much more likely to learn what the boundaries of plagiarism are, rather than thinking of them as flexible, possibly even subjective.

One of the things I learned while dealing with a particularly tough case was that, while penalties vary, college policies have a remarkable degree of agreement about what constitutes plagiarism. Aligning your school policy with college definitions helps to give to more credibility and relevance, at least to college-bound students.

Make sure that policy involves reasonable, age-appropriate consequences.

shutterstock_83265589Sadly, a slap on the wrist in not enough, even for the first offense, at least beyond the elementary school level. On the other hand, if the penalty is too draconian, it can encourage students and parents to argue more and may also lead to inconsistent enforcement by teachers and administrators.

My former school provides a good example of what not to do. For a variety of reasons, the board of education forced a policy on the high school that was harsher than many of the teachers and all of the administrators would have liked. Under the prior policy, the first offense had resulted in a zero on the assignment in question, which should probably be the minimum penalty at that level; there’s really no logical way to give a student credit for plagiarized work by the time they reach that age. Under the new policy, the assignment still received a zero, but in addition the student’s grade in the class was automatically lowered by one, with no possibility of a student redeeming himself or herself.

Particularly in a school in which many students applied to selective colleges, you can imagine that a policy with that kind of automatic penalty would lead to problems, and it did–everything from large numbers of parents crying for a teacher’s head to teachers massively under-reporting cheating in order to deal with the infraction as they saw fit. Board members ended up divided as well, though I think the majority continued to support the policy.

Later on, the principal suggested the policy might be in conflict with grading language in the California Education Code. The argument was that, since a teacher had the final authority over a grade in most cases, a policy could lay down the factors to be considered but not mandate exactly how those factors would apply in a specific case. While some board members agreed with that legal theory, the majority refused to allow the policy to be changed. The best the principal could get was the acknowledgment that a teacher who chose not to follow the penalty structure could do so.

Naturally, that resolution was the worst of all possible worlds: an unreasonably strict policy with nothing like consistent enforcement. It’s common sense not to have a policy if you can’t enforce it.

Having reasonable consequences, particularly for a first offense, helps increase the probability that dealing with the offense can become a teachable moment rather than a knock-down-drag-out fight.

Make sure all teachers have access to a good plagiarism-checking program and encourage your colleagues to use it.

Many instances of plagiarism will pass undetected if you don’t have a reasonable way of checking student work. I was sometimes able to catch students who plagiarized from the Internet by doing Internet searches, but that is cumbersome at best. Also, most of the plagiarism cases I had involved students copying from each other (usually friends or siblings), rather than from the Internet.

The prevalence of student-to-student copying is one reason for getting as many of your colleagues as possible on board, particularly if some or all of them use similar assignments. After all, your student may be plagiarizing from material submitted to another teacher’s class, and if that teacher isn’t running the essays through a plagiarism checker with some kind of database, that plagiarism will never be detected.

Don’t accuse a student of plagiarism without rock-solid evidence.

shutterstock_260067182A good plagiarism checker can provide this. I also made it clear at the beginning of each year that if a student could not explain his or her work to me, I would take that as prima facie evidence of plagiarism. (It’s hard for a student to argue that he or she wrote an essay if he or she doesn’t the essay.)

In order to avoid problems, it’s also wise to distinguish between plagiarism and faulty citation. A student who is trying to cite sources but doesn’t know how is not really a plagiarist. That kind of situation should probably result in a lower essay grade, but not a zero. Similarly, a student who is generally meticulous but makes one or two mistakes is not really a plagiarist.


Below you can find a link to turnitin.com, which is a reliable plagiarism checking service and has some nice online essay feedback features as well; a download for my plagiarism policy, which you are free to adapt as you see fit (with attribution, naturally); a link to my video on plagiarism. The technique in the video could have been better–it was my first effort–but it did seem to work in the classroom.

Subsequent to the original publication of this article, I also added a link to the excellent collection of resources by OpenColleges: links to numerous articles of interest, links to a wide variety of other plagiarism checkers, and a very clear and thorough description of plagiarism.

http://turnitin.com/     Download       http://www.billhiatt.education/?page_id=361 


1 Comment

  1. This is so important. It is important that we are careful and make sure our children understand all of this. Thank you so much for sharing

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