Plagiarism - Blame the Assignment? Published 2006-09-08

Do you remember the first time you caught one of your students cheating.  Wasn't it shocking!  I don't know about you, but I took it personally.  Sure I knew kids cheat, but my kids would never cheat on ME.

Well, I am older now and a bit less naive (perhaps jaded).  Kids do cheat. According to The Center for Academic Integrity, over 70% of the high school students surveyed admitted to have engaged in one or more instances of serious test cheating.  The Center also suggests that plagiarism, especially Internet plagiarism, is a growing problem.

I just finished reading an article by Doug Prouty titled "Plagiarism? Blame the Assignment" published in the recent OnCue newsletter from CUE. [note: I could not find a digital copy of the article but it draws on an earlier article "Combating Digital Plagiarism" by the same author]

I agree with much of what Doug states including the impact of "cut and paste" on plagiarism.  We are also in agreement with the need to re-think the assignments to encourage original thought and higher order learning skills.  Where our opinions diverge is on blaming plagiarism on the assignments.  While I don't like what is referred to as "Go Find Out About..." assignments, I won't excuse a student who plagiarizes on such an assignment or blame his behavior on the assignment.

"Basing assignments on who, what, where, and when questions invites plagiarism."  Yes, it does make plagiarism easier, but "invites" is too strong a word. I recall a meeting with a parent whose son copied from another student's work on a take-home test.  The parent defended her son by blaming the teacher for assigning a take-home test.  "Of course kids are going to copy each other" was her defense. 

Students plagiarize because: a) they don't realize they are stealing someone else's work and passing it off as their own, OR b) they know they are stealing someone else's work and don't care or don't think they will be caught. The lack of knowledge reason is a serious issue and one that is exasperated by the easy access to information provided by the Internet. Certainly this is an area that we, as educators, need to address.  In fact, I would suggest that every teacher include a discussion of what constitutes plagiarism so that students are clear as to the teacher's expectations.

It is to the second reason that I draw more concern.  Again from the Center for Academic Integrity:

In the absence of clear direction from faculty, most students have concluded that 'cut & paste' plagiarism - using a sentence or two (or more) from different sources on the Internet and weaving this information together into a paper without appropriate citation - is not a serious issue. While 10% of students admitted to engaging in such behavior in 1999, almost 40% admit to doing so in the Assessment Project surveys. A majority of students (77%) believe such cheating is not a very serious issue.
Research by Don McCabe - Center for Academic Integrity [link]

Is plagiarizing OK?  Certainly many students (and parents) think so, or at least can rationalize plagiarizing.  In our quest to get better standardized test scores, have we forgotten about ethics?  Are ethics and morality too difficult (or divisive) to teach in school and should be left to the home and church?  I applaud those institutions that seek to create an environment that celebrates academic integrity, where discussions on the unethicalness of plagiarism take place. 

While we can take measures to make plagiarism more difficult (e.g. change our assignments, detect plagiarism), let's not leave the ethics out of the classroom.

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rob banning said...

The following is an example of a handout that can be given to students as part of a discussion of plagiarism. The text was taken from part of my wife's first day handouts.

Academic Honesty:

I expect each of my students to take the School’s honor code seriously - to be a role model for the rest of the community.

I expect each of my students to respect someone else’s work. As noted in the student handbook:

Students who use another student’s work or who submit work as their own using any source without citation are cheating. Similarly, unauthorized collaboration with another student or students during tests or quizzes is also considered to be cheating. When students sign their name to any work, the implicit statement is that all of the work is their own. Cheating is intellectual dishonesty, and when students cheat they reduce the integrity of the entire school. Students who misrepresent their work are failing the entire School community and will, in most incidences, appear before the Conduct Review Committee.

Plagiarism consists of:
1) Copying information verbatim from any published source, including textbooks and the Internet, without proper footnotes crediting that source.
2) Paraphrasing information from a published source without proper footnotes crediting that source.
3)Copying directly from another student’s paper. Copying or borrowing the ideas of another person. If given an assignment to write a critical paper on a specific topic, the choice of that topic, the methods of organization for that paper, the content of the supporting paragraphs (including topic sentences and specific facts, details and examples), and the conclusion must be original. That means that a student is to write a paper on his/her own without any assistance regarding the substantive aspects of said paper.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Where do I tell my student that plagarism begins and ends/ not easy.