Plagiarism and the Internet

By Steve Frandzel

A 10 1/2 minute podcast of this program is available here.

Plagiarism is one of the most consistent academic crimes. The word itself, according to Deb Ayer, a lecturer in the English Department and Director of the Writing Center, derives from the Latin for kidnapping. It can involve more than just stealing another person’s words, or ideas, she went on. It can also involve stealing a person’s sentence structure and even the shape of their presentation.

Ayer spoke recently at a panel discussion about plagiarism among college students and how to decrease its frequency. Students are often unaware of precisely what constitutes plagiarism and of the “enormity of their crime,” said Ayer, adding that she favors education over punishment when students thought they had acted in good faith and clearly did not understand that they were plagiarizing.

Plagiarism falls into three categories, Ayer explained:

  1. Cheating: Blatant appropriation of another’s work, such as downloading complete term papers from the internet or paying someone to write a term paper.
  2. Non-attribution of sources: the “writer’s” submissions mislead the reader into believing it is their own work.
  3. Patch writing: Paraphrasing a source’s language and blending it with the writer’s own words. Even when citations are supplied, it’s still plagiarism.

The first two infractions, Ayer added, should result in a failing grade and, in some cases, expulsion. But patch writing, a frequent occurrence on college campuses, is a gray area often open to interpretation and therefore harder to deal with. Students understand that downloading a paper is unethical, and most know they should cite their sources, she explained, but few know that constitutes accurate, honest paraphrasing. Patch writers are often unaware that they’re plagiarizing, and often do it with no intent to deceive. Making matters worse is that students often learn the practice in high school, because their teachers condone, or at least give tacit approval to, paraphrasing and patch writing.

Ayer recommended that faculty focus on education rather than punishment as the primary response to patch writing. “Students should know exactly what plagiarism is, so if they cheat they’re doing it with their eyes wide open,” she said. “It’s not enough to post a statement about plagiarism on Blackboard; most students don’t learn from these. You need to take students by the hand step by step… many students think that if it’s not copied word for word, it’s not plagiarism.”

Ayer also suggested that faculty include written exercises designed to help students identify plagiarism; assign frequent short writing assignments from which their writing styles and proficiency can be judged; and assign writer’s logs and short assignments that build up to a final research paper.

Speaking next, Erin Mooney, coordinator of program development for Emory University Libraries, said she has also confronted students about plagiarism. One of them handed in a paper copied directly from a journal. When Mooney told the student to bring back photocopies of her source material, she came back with a completely different – and original – paper. Since then, Mooney has required photocopies of any article, chapter, or page that a student quotes or paraphrases in a paper.

Mooney also recommended a number of sources that deal with plagiarism, most notably the website of Rebecca Moore Howard. She also suggested creating coursework that sequentially moves toward a final paper. For instance, instead of heavily weighting the grade for a final paper, give students credit for each smaller but related assignment during the semester, such as the preliminary bibliography, research proposal, and annotated photocopies of research material. Then support the process with periodic meetings and even assign students to read and offer written feedback about their classmates’ drafts.

“Be realistic about assignments,” Mooney said. “Define how much scholarly material and what types you want. Make them reflect on the process and guide them through it.”

Alan Cattier, director of the Academic Technologies Department, spoke about one technology that may help teachers better deal with plagiarism. The SafeAssign system, a module for Blackboard, is designed to alert teachers to the possibility of plagiarism. The software checks student papers against internet paper mills, journals, and a variety of other online databases. Cattier emphasized that the system is not exhaustive and still leaves the final determination up to instructors.

“SafeAssign is an entry point to ask if people are being original in the answer to a question,” he said. “It looks at resources on the internet and matches text to the submitted paper, but it’s up to you to make the judgment if a student has taken material without attribution. It’s not a green light/red light mechanism. You need to judge.”

Plagiarism is a constantly evolving problem with new technologies used to commit it and new technologies used to discover it. What we need, all three panelists agreed, are new pedagogical approaches, as well as new technologies, to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Such an approach will give the student both a clear sense of what honest academic writing is, as well as a renewed respect for their own writing and thinking processes.