Friday, March 07, 2008

What's the Big Deal?

In a recent blog, I wrote about the uncovering of plagiarism committed by Tim Goeglein, a White House aid. Before I continue this discussion, just thought you might like to learn the latest, via Nancy Nall's blog. . .All is forgiven. So Tim Goeglein lands on his feet. So much for my trying to impress on my students that plagiarism doesn't pay. Actually, the strongest argument I have to use for them is--don't cheat, you are stealing from others when you do AND from yourself. {Yawn} As if they care about either of those arguments.

Several of the comments on the first airing of the plagiarism topic , all thoughtful, hinted at the possibility of a continuing discussion on the topic--so, here goes.

There are several themes on plagiarism:

Among students, the theme sometimes is "what's the big deal." When I have discovered plagiarism in student papers, almost always the response has been one of surprise. I had one student who had used large portions of a text, copying word for word, but using no quotation marks. She was genuinely surprised that that was plagiarism. You see, she had cited the source at one point, as if that were enough. I have occasionally had students who were amazed that I found their plagiarized sources, as if using the Internet were some trade secret. I have, however, never had a student who was chagrined. They almost always act as though--what's the big deal.

Climenheise (aka Daryl) commented that some great authors have plagiarized (e.g. Shakespeare). Of course, our concept of what constitutes unlawful appropriation of text is evolving. In an era where print was scarce, using another's idea might seem like inspiration--not plagiarism. My defense of Shakespeare would be that while he used plot ideas, the words were his own. Some of the modern day examples are not so charitably dismissed--the recent example of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan who used a previously published book to write her successful published novel comes to mind. When such stories are uncovered, the perpetrators are rightly castigated for their actions.

Daryl also raised the question of where to draw the line between scrupulously avoiding infringement on intellectual property, for example through paying royalties, and common sense. It's absurd to have to pay royalties for things like singing Happy Birthday. Yet failure to pay royalties is a close cousin to plagiarism. It's all about giving credit, either for having published the words or ideas, or for the use of copyrighted material.

Obviously plagiarism is a topic that frustrates and bothers conscientious professors. I have done a fair bit of research on the subject, mostly to come up with convincing ways to dissuade my students from the practice. Here is one good article on plagiarism.

Not all the fault of plagiarism lies on students. Oh, to be sure, anytime a student plagiarizes, that student should bear the blame. BUT there is another facet to this problem: the laziness of professors. The article referenced above suggests various interventions that professors can employ: change exams frequently, monitor students taking exams, discuss academic integrity, policy on syllabus, use Internet to check. I am happy to report that I employ ALL of these.

Some of these tactics, I take to an extreme, perhaps. For example, the monitoring students while taking exams. Before the final exam, I inform students of the usual classroom policy on no use of cell phones. Since cell phones have extensive text capability, I now tell students--after the exam begins, if you TOUCH your cell phone, your exam is over and you are out of here.

Of course, it is important for me to be consistent. So when I do research and write, I try to observe as scrupulously as possible the standard I am requiring for students. Even in writing my blog, I try to be intellectually honest, and give credit for any text or photos that I use that I did not create.

One unanswered question for me is whether there is a cultural element at work--a colleague of mine once suggested that some countries may not have same standard of acknowledging source use. Among my students, ESL students have disproportionately committed plagiarism. Does Western education have a different standard for plagiarism? I am not sure. I guess this question will have to remain open for me.


Anvilcloud said...

Geography papers, by nature, were mostly research based. I'd tell my students that several citations per page would tend to show an attempt at honesty. It may not be rigorous or up to college standards, but it seemed to work fairly well.

dguzman said...

Oh, Donna--this is a sore subject with me as well. Too many students just don't value the printed word or the ideas and intelligence that went into creating those words. It's like their minds just don't work on that level, and they say "what's the big deal?"

My partner teaches college courses now, and she runs everything through an online program/service that identifies plagiarism of anything ever entered online--which means other students' papers, school texts, etc. She has a zero-tolerance policy and has failed many students for plagiarism. I'm always impressed by her strict adherence to the school's honor code, and students learn very quickly NOT to plagiarize.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

As a clergyman, I found this a difficult issue. You are always looking for a clever turn of phrase which you often appropriate; but, the sermon is no place to use footnotes. If a sermon is rewritten for publication quotes should be footnoted but often the source of a word or phase is lost or forgotten.

On the Internet are sites discussing Dr King's plagarisms. Apparently, large parts of his doctoral dissertation was appropriated from another scholar. Even his "I Have a Dream" speech echoes other's work and ideas.

Outside of the academic community their are lots of fuzzy corners!

Climenheise said...

You wonder about other parts of the world. From our Asian students I gather that to quote large blocks of someone else's work acknowledges one's own status as a beginner in the field. I don't know how students would write in Korea (for example), whether they would repeat without attribution, or repeat with attribution, or use sources more in the way that we are used to doing. I do know that what we call "plagiarism" is at least partly defined by our culture.

Mary said...

I can only comment on the teachers at the high school level who knew their students' writing styles and personalities well enough to zero in on the stealers. And zeros are what they received, without argument. I can imagine at the college level those same students plagiarized again with the same sentiment, "no big deal", but remembering the wrath of their 12th grade English teacher.

Nora said...

The entire Internet is one big plagiaristic (made up word) me. It has made it so easy for students to access text for their reports and for unscrupulous bloggers to access your blog text also. My entire site was scraped at one time and someone was using each of my posts to earn themselves ad money!! I found him and had him removed. It is the wild, wild west now with Internet. I think in the future we will probably see some changes.

KGMom said...

AC--of course if students cite sources, that helps dissuade plagiarism. Sadly, I have students who use the material and forego the cite.
Delia--my community college has looked at the software you reference. What is required with that is that students must give up their "intellectual property" rights; in other words, entering the text into the online program is turning material over to them.
Philip--my church's website prints pastors' sermons, with their permission, and they use footnotes in their printed texts. The way to acknowledge when speaking, of course, is to say "as so-and so says. . ."
Daryl--interesting. I.e. using someone else's work elevates your own and acknowledges that you are but a novice?
Island--oh my. I knew you had troubles with your prior blog and concerns about people using it unauthorized, but I didn't realize they were using it for their own economic gain. No wonder you were so upset. I would be too!

Thanks all for continuing and enlarging this discussion.

KGMom said...

Oops--Mary--I meant to respond to your comment too.
I agree a zero tolerance policy is best. I mostly use that, but occasionally I encounter a truly uninformed student. The one example--the student who thought she didn't plagiarize because she used the cite. What she was doing was wholesale using major sections verbatim without quotation marks. She thought giving the cite covered her. Well, zero tolerance would have been a teachable moment lost. So in that kind of case, I allow the student a REDO, but she has to change her topic.