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How I Reduced Plagiarism in the Classroom

April 10, 2017

The internet has become a double-edged sword in higher education. On one hand, it brings information from millions of sources to the fingertips of our students as they struggle to complete the writing assignments we give them semester after semester. In looking back to my undergraduate years, I have vivid memories of perusing the library stacks, searching for the right book to help me complete my research paper or actually fingering through the pages of an academic journal to see if any articles were related to my topic. It's all a distance memory from today's Google Scholar. How I miss the smell of all of those books!

 

On the other hand, the internet has made it easier than ever for students to plagiarize material in their own writing. Rather than the note-card method that Generation X and prior cohorts learned - where we tirelessly paraphrased and quoted material on 3x5 index cards, keeping them separate from our pile of 3x5 reference index cards - today's college students can simply copy and paste material into their own papers. Copy and pasting is not so bad...unless you make the common error of not paraphrasing, referencing, and/or quoting the source. 

 

A few cases of plagiarism stand out to me. On one end, I had the student who genuinely seemed confused about her offense. I spent time educating her and allowing her to rewrite the assignment for a reduced grade. Unfortunately, her final paper was riddled with new mistakes of inadequate referencing, resulting in her having to retake the class. At first, there were tears. There was also embarrassment and anxiety for her, since she had to retake the class with me as an instructor. After our second semester together, she thanked me for making her repeat the course and said that she realized that she needed a second semester in my class to "get it." This contrasted starkly from a case that occurred a few years before this, where the student did not seem upset to be accused of plagiarizing. I also gave her the chance to rewrite the paper, which she accepted...but ended up handing in the same exact paper. 

 

Students plagiarize for many reasons, but I grew tiresome of the common response of "I didn't know this was wrong." To address this, and to keep my sanity, I devised a tutorial on plagiarism that all students are required to take on their own as part of the writing assignment. I do not check whether they review the tutorial or not, but the policy makes it a lot easier to give them a zero for an assignment or fail them altogether, since they can't claim ignorance. 

 

To help with other professors' sanity in the ongoing struggle with plagiarism, here are some lessons that I have learned in improving students' use of references for their papers.

You may need to spell out what patchwork plagiarism is for them. 

 

Many students seem genuinely confused when they are accused of copying material, when they believed they made an earnest attempt at paraphrasing. However, their approach to paraphrasing is mostly copying and pasting a paragraph and making creative use of their Thesaurus. Poor, Roget - If he only knew what evils his grand reference book has been used for.

 

To guard against this common offence, I have given students examples of patchwork plagiarism and methods to improve it:

 

 

Students often believe that they cannot say what the author wrote better than in the words used by the author. I tell them to practice paraphrasing by reading a passage, and then summarizing out loud what the author is saying. Then, write down their oral summary and begin to edit. This also is helpful for students who rely too heavily on quoting material in their papers. 

 

Students can be quite liberal in what they believe is common knowledge. 

 

Consider the following passage from a student's paper:

Here, the student was confused about why this was not common knowledge, since he indicated that he learned some of this in other courses. Giving students examples of arguments that may be mistaken for common knowledge helps them think twice about their own arguments in their papers and encourages them to use citations. 

 

Use Turnitin as a teaching tool, not a policing tool. 

 

Most universities and colleges offer anti-plagiarism software so that professors can check if students are plagiarizing in their papers. Rather than having students submit their paper on the due date to Turnitin and make my own assessment of the paper's originality, I offer students the option of submitting their paper to Turnitin as many times as they want before the assignment is due so that they can assess their originality report themselves and fix problems on their own before I review their work. Many students appreciate this option and it reduces the number of problems I encounter with plagiarism. 

 

Make them aware of the importance of diversifying sources. 

 

When giving workshops on responsible use of research sources, I often present a slide similar to this one and ask students what is wrong with it (I created this particular slide during a semester when students were learning about cultural understandings of health):

It does not take long for a student to point out, "You can't tell what material came from the Nichter source." I often get tired of reading through papers where paragraph after paragraph contains a single source at the end of it or three pages that only cite a single source repeatedly. I explain to students that they may find that one book or article that has all of the arguments they feel like they need for their paper. Unfortunately, I reveal to them that by only citing that source, their paper turns into a book report and not a research paper. 

 

One way I have addressed this is by giving students an example of different ways to reference material, such as this:

 

 Here, it is clearer about what material came from the original source, by referring to the author more directly in the text. 

 

Another (and better) way to combat this issue is to teach students what I call "bottom up" research. Many students use a "top down" approach to research papers - they compile a list of books and journal articles on the subject of their paper and piece together arguments from what they have collected. I also explain to them that they can specifically look up articles that verify specific arguments in their paper - hence, in some cases the argument may come before the reference! By using this, they can find additional sources that further support the claims made by the first source they consulted with, further strengthening their paper. 

 

I also present an example of this:

Here, I point out to students that we can enhance the original paragraph by finding new sources that support examples from the original author. 

Should students know to do this before they get to my classroom? Yes, they should. However, I learned after several years of reading students' research reports that it takes less work to teach them about plagiarism than it does to punish them for it. The one-hour it took me to put together a PowerPoint tutorial on plagiarism has saved me a lot of heartaches and headaches. It also emphasizes their accountability to academic honesty while encouraging them to dialogue about the topic of plagiarism. Think a similar tutorial would be helpful for your students? Here is a copy of the full tutorial I created. Feel free to revise the lessons offered with examples from your own discipline. 

 

Have additional tips on helping students avoid plagiarism in their papers? Feel free to comment what has worked in your classroom! 

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