Plagiarism.org defines plagiarism as an act of fraud. “It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward.” As we read what is contained in this definition, it is evident why plagiarism is such a very huge issue. Acts of plagiarism can lead to expulsion, suspension and even job termination for some. These are very strong outcomes for something that can be committed by accident.
What else can be offered about plagiarism that has not already been said? How much more can instructors and administrators hold student’s feet to the fire of academic mandates that suggests, “Here are the rules, you must play by them lest we hammer thou into the ground.” This was the tone of my graduate school “writing workshop orientation;” a mandatory session that left me with the sense that I could potentially find myself in serious trouble for my writing without even knowing what I did wrong.
As I progressed through the ranks of student to higher education instructor (now since 2004) it became crystal clear that institutions come by their rigid posture against plagiarism honestly. From having to contend with the likes of paper millers such as Ed Dante (a pseudo name for The Shadow Scholar), to the department chair who orders faculty to leave their students alone when they are caught in the web of plagiarism and should rightfully be held to the school and department standards of conduct. Perhaps more can be done to actively assist students how not to plagiarize, innocently or otherwise.
At Pearson’s eTeaching Institute, we often hear faculty who take our Web-based courses on special topics related to designing and teaching online, express concerns about preventing cheating. In such cases, we advise a more proactive approach by asking future online instructors to consider, “how they can encourage honesty in coursework,” as a way to preempt academic dishonesty. We believe this and more is a good position to take. In addition, I propose that a shared sense of partnership between students, faculty and administration is a proactive step in the right direction to prevent plagiarism. After all, if we are going to maintain tight control with rigid anti-plagiarism mandates in place then, the least we can do is to move a bit closer in the direction of, “here are the rules, you must play by them AND I am going to help you.”
Plagiarism.org goes on to suggest that by giving proper authorship credit, we can avoid plagiarism. However, writing a good paper which avoids plagiarism involves much more than citing. If citing sources is all that is needed then why is the practice of plagiarism such a huge issue demanding large expenditures of academic energy and resources to prevent and detect and punish students for committing the act? Are students receiving enough “hands-on” resources and training to assist them with preventing plagiarism outside of doling out the building number, address or web site to the writing lab? Perhaps more of a sense of partnership with students is one way to help accomplish the goal.
Having evaluated many papers from undergraduate and graduate students over the past eight years; some replete with word-for-word transcripts from Wikipedia including links to the plagiarized content listed as the source, I decided to try tactics different from the usual, “don’t you dare.” The first task in all of this was to focus on that sense of partnership with my students, which I have hawked about previously. I decided to view plagiarism prevention as a shared responsibility that included some very positive and attainable steps students could take to prevent these acts. After all, if we are to hold them to the standards of our plagiarism deterrence tactics then, the least we can do is show them how not to plagiarize; and not necessarily in a one-time event or a syllabus policy or student handbook they may never read in the first place.
Could a more direct approach and (repeated) conversation be appropriate, followed by some very non-threatening steps on how to avoid plagiarism? Should we institutionalize methodologies that suggest to our charges that we recognize the temptation to take dishonest shortcuts then demonstrate that it is possible and relatively easy to avoid acts of plagiarism? After arriving at, “I need to do this without making a part-time job out of it,” I developed my mini-lecture, a cliff note of sorts, which included some very critical but important steps to avoiding plagiarism.
The first step in my brief tutorial to students is to make sure they understand what plagiarism is and its consequences. In our August 2010 Online Blogucation entry, my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Golightly noted that instructors should present clear and understandable statements about, “what plagiarism is, how it’s defined, and what the consequences for committing it are.” This is a first and critical step in the process of deterring plagiarism. I also believe that when delivered with a message of partnership, assistance and other measures that Jennifer discussed, we would likely assist more students from committing plagiarism. Next, I encourage students to:
• Decide what their argument or premise of the paper will be. This may be assigned but sometimes not.
• Find time to read journal articles or other sources which supports the work. This is a requirement.
• Properly summarize and paraphrase sources. This does not mean changing a word here or there.
• Quote sources sparingly using proper punctuation; another mandate.
• Deliberately cite sources within the body of the offering. This will give credibility to the work.
• Reference sources by using a properly formatted works cited or reference page.
• Rinse then repeat. Perform these steps throughout the entire paper.
The session takes about fifteen minutes depending on Q & A and I wrap things up by reiterating my commitment to their academic success (as they should too) and that they should ask me for assistance when needed. Again, it takes much more than the steps above to write a good paper but it’s a start.
Practices to prevent plagiarism may seem harsh to students who find themselves caught in the snare of the deed. However, they are necessary and should be refined based on our experiences with the problem. Many institutions see the wisdom of ranking punishment based on the severity and number of offenses. Some schools employ student tutorials as a proactive measure. Others, keep a pile of lopped off heads in the back of the school. Not a first choice in my book.
Where needed, faculty and administrators should ramp-up their efforts to be partners in their students’ academic success to the extent that we present regular reminders and brief ‘how to sessions’ on avoiding plagiarism. Additionally, we should find creative and cost effective ways to assist students to make better decisions such as instilling a sense of partnership, more orientation and training aimed at preventing plagiarism before our students find themselves in really big trouble. The result could save valuable time for faculty and administrators then, schools can plant a nice flower bed where those heads are kept.
Do you have creative ideas about assisting students with preventing plagiarism? What do you think about an online student discussion forum with assignment endpoints addressing how not to plagiarize? What would be the benefit? Post your comments and suggestions in the space below.
Best Practices to Promote Academic Integrity in Online Learning
Ralph Kennedy, MSW
Academic Trainer & Consultant