In the final week of teaching a college writing class this past semester, I failed two students for plagiarism. Neither was doing well in the class, but they were going to scrape by with D’s and be done with the required freshman course. That’s when they made the very poor decision to bring in papers for a peer-review workshop that they clearly hoped I wouldn’t examine too closely. Typically on workshop days, I simply look quickly to see that each student has completed the assignment and then put a check or minus in my grade book. But that day, a suspicious feeling prompted me to actually collect the papers, revealing that the two students had lifted every single word from patched-together Internet sources.
Discussions about plagiarism — “the uncredited use (both intentional and unintentional) of somebody else’s words or ideas,” according to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab — start early, usually in grade school, when young students first write reports that require research. The fact that teachers are training children to correctly quote, paraphrase and cite sources is a far better scenario than when I was in grammar school and copied most of my essays directly from the World Book Encyclopedia, rearranging a few words here and there. I don’t remember if we had to include a bibliography back then, but I’m thinking not.
Today, the temptation for students to cheat is even more pervasive, with seemingly every idea about everything just a few finger taps away.
I remember when my son was in fifth grade and had to write a daunting five-to-seven-page “research paper” on his topic of choice: World War II weapons. I also remember him enthusiastically surfing the Internet, gathering ideas, and skimming blogs and sites on the topic, but not necessarily noting the sources, as one should when conducting research at any age. In other words, he was taking in ideas that could potentially wind up — unacknowledged — in his work.
“Stealing someone else’s ideas without giving credit is as bad as stealing candy from a store,” I explained to him. In one way, he understood. In another way, he didn’t, because candy clearly has a price, not to mention a store clerk who might punish you for taking it without paying. But all of those great ideas that other people have about weaponry seem to be out there just begging to be read and copied. Is anyone ever really going to catch, or even care about, a grade school kid who borrows a few phrases from some random person’s blog? Maybe not, but you don’t teach your child that he can take just one little piece of candy because the store clerk probably won’t notice. You teach him that all stealing is wrong. And the same goes for plagiarism.
While teachers are helping students avoid the perils and pitfalls of academic dishonesty, parents have a crucial role here, too. When your kids are working on absolutely anything that requires research, remind them to take notes, save the website link in a folder for the project, take a screenshot of the page and follow any other system that the teacher recommends. In that way, those pages full of other people’s ideas will be there when it’s time to write a bibliography. That folder will keep other people’s hard work from just sort of slipping unacknowledged into your child’s writing.
If that sounds a little complicated, think of it like this. Establishing good research practices is far less complicated than the paperwork I had to file with the university provost last semester when those two students turned in someone else’s writing. Basically, you’re helping your child learn a crucial academic skill while showing them the value of respecting other people’s work and words.
Things get more serious — and out of your hands — in high school, when teachers might use an electronic plagiarism checker to keep kids honest. For example, at my son’s school, a teacher can run a suspicious-looking paper through a computer program, generating an originality report that highlights all instances of potential plagiarism.
Similarly, at the university where I teach, all of my students upload the final draft of their essays to Turnitin, an electronic submission system that allows professors to screen written work. While I don’t love using the system (it can encourage students to resort to awkward paraphrasing in an effort to avoid all instances of plagiarism), the tool is highly effective. I can easily determine whether a student has copied a string of words from an Internet source. I can even see the exact words of the Web source matched up against what the student wrote, as well as a percentage of how much content is not the student’s original work.
Over the years, I’ve had some minor cases of plagiarism (a few sentences or a paragraph) that I’ve used as a valuable teaching moment. Basically, I remind students of my clearly outlined plagiarism policy that I emphasize several times throughout the semester, and I make sure they understand the seriousness of what they’ve done.
I also remind my students that they will soon be in the real world writing reports, giving talks and more, and that they won’t have anyone policing their words. So the lesson they are learning is not just limited to academics. It’s really about integrity.