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Confronting plagiarism


Usually I try to find the humour in my academic experiences, but today isn’t one of those days. Today I am talking about plagiarism, and there isn’t one thing that’s funny about that.

I am still shocked that I must deal with plagiarism at the graduate school level. I have put in place a number of procedures to reduce this problem (which I’ll outline at the end of this post), and they have reduced the rate of occurrences. As professors we have an important role to play in educating students about plagiarism. And of course, preventing plagiarism is beneficial to us, too, because I assure you… dealing with a plagiarism accusation is awful.

Because my student’s assignments are generally in essay form, the type of plagiarism I usually deal with is when portions of someone else’s writing is embedded in a document written by a student. There are generally two reasons that students plagiarize in this way.

The first is that they don’t really realize that it is wrong, and what the consequences are. Even though this reflects a minority of students, there are some students who got through their undergrads by copying out sections of other people’s papers into their own work. Never underestimate the possibility that a small number of your students have slipped through the cracks and truly never been taught how to write an essay, cite a paper, or paraphrase a reference.

The second reason that students plagiarize is that they think they will get a higher mark by doing so. Interestingly, it is not only weak students who plagiarize for this reason; sometimes it is the high achievers, who may also have high anxiety about failure.

As there are a number of reasons for plagiarizing, one would imagine that there should be a number of approaches for dealing with the problem. However, at our university, we have been informed that we are not permitted to deal with accusations of plagiarism at the departmental level, and that all cases must be reported to the faculty dean.

While it is appropriate to deal with all cases firmly and swiftly, I fear that dealing with it only at the faculty level will reduce our ability to refine our response towards students who we know well, on an individual level.

Nonetheless, at this point we must do the only thing that we really still have control over: stop plagiarism before it happens. Unfortunately, I think that most of us assume that at a senior level, all students know that plagiarism is wrong. I don’t think this is the case. More importantly, if you aren’t sure that the student standing pitifully before you in your office doesn’t know, it’s difficult to take a hard line on plagiarism. The only way to feel justified in following through with serious consequences is if one is positive that the student knew what kind of behaviour was academically appropriate prior to the plagiarism occurrence.

One step that I take every year to avoid this uncertainty is to devote 30 minutes of the first class of each course to teaching students about plagiarism and proper citations. We talk about how to cite paraphrases and quotations, what paraphrasing is, and how to paraphrase. Many students really don’t know that they can’t just change a few words of a sentence and then imply that it is their own work. Should they have learned that before they got to my class? Of course. But that doesn’t mean that they have. This is one of the few cases in which I teach to the lowest common denominator in my class, because it is essential that every student knows how to paraphrase and how to cite their works. If I take that time in my first class, then no student has any excuse to claim that they didn’t know how to write or paraphrase, if plagiarism accusations come up later.

And the truth is, there are more grey areas than you would think. Why is it ok to use the same proposal for two scholarship applications, but it isn’t ok to use the same essay as a thesis chapter, and in a course? Why is it ok to use your professor’s words in a grant application that is co-authored with a professor, but not in a scholarship application that is for the same project? Why is it ok to insert a figure from another source (if it is in the public domain, and properly cited) into a manuscript, but it’s not ok to edit the same figure and then insert it into the manuscript, even if it’s still cited? There are genuine subtleties to the issue of plagiarism. At the very least, students can be taught to be aware of them, and who they can go to when they have questions.

The second approach our department takes is to require all students to attend a lecture on copyright laws and/or plagiarism in their first or second year. Again, this allows us to be certain that students have been taught what is expected of them, so they can’t argue that mistakes have been inadvertent.

Further, copyright laws are changing quickly, and to be honest, they aren’t always logical (e.g., you can photocopy and distribute up to 20 percent of a book, or one chapter that is no more than 10 percent of a book? Who would guess that without being taught it?). There’s a pretty high chance that even the student’s supervisor doesn’t know about all the copyright rules they are supposed to follow. So it’s very helpful to make sure that the students themselves are kept up to date on current rules and guidelines. We are training them for a career, and in any career, they need to be aware of intellectual property rights.

And one last point: If students hear professors complaining about how they can’t distribute class notes that have graphs inserted in them… as many of us have been made aware of in recent years… it’s going to be harder to convince students that they can’t take someone else’s work and insert it into their papers. Profs need to take a serious line on plagiarism and copyright laws, and if we expect students to follow regulations, we need to do the same thing. Remember that our motivations for integrating other people’s works into our teaching may be the same as student’s reasons for plagiarizing. Some professors might genuinely not know that they are not permitted to distribute an “entire work” (e.g. a figure, table, photograph) to students without written permission. Some professors might want to do so because they want to do a better job in teaching students than they could do without that insertion. Copyright law in Canada doesn’t permit this, even with proper citation.

So profs need to be educated about copyright law, students need to be educated about plagiarism, and we all need to follow regulations that ultimately protect the academic rights and intellectual property of other people.

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