Monday, December 20, 2010

Plagiarism and undergraduate papers

Some words from Prince of Networks (Graham Harman) that have been on my mind
by J J Cohen

I thought I'd move here a lively conversation that has unfolded on Facebook about undergraduate papers, plagiarism, and widely available internet sources, especially Spark Notes.

On Saturday I was discussing via email and then by phone yet another case of potential plagiarism in my my "Myths of Britain" class. One of my TAs had sent me a paper about which she harbored suspicions. At a quick glance I noticed a line containing information that the student could not have obtained from my lecture or from the introduction to the translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight we are using. A quick Google search of Spark Notes revealed its source, though the student had changed each word to a synonym. A deeper read of her paper suggested that she had worked with the sections on chivalry and theology as part of her argument. She cited no sources. My first reaction was to scream. Yes, I screamed, and it was loud enough that the rest of the family ran to the study. "Another plagiarism case, eh?" They know me too well, my family. I pity them for having to live with me.

I am frustrated. This semester sets a record for academic integrity violations in "Myths of Britain," despite the fact that I spoke to my students repeatedly about the dangers of "accidental" plagiarism as well as the the necessity of citing sources. "Myths of Britain" is an introductory level course that requires not a research paper but a strong argument built on textual evidence. The syllabus contains this admonition:
Academic dishonesty: Academic dishonesty of any kind will be treated as a serious offense. In most cases you will fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at The best way to avoid “accidental” plagiarism: do not speak to or look towards others during the reading quiz; do not use the internet for this class, except when specifically told to do so.

I read them this paragraph the first day, and I then repeated twice during the semester what constitutes plagiarism. I warned of the perils of using Wikipedia and Spark Notes to jump start your own paper ... and yet what this frequent mention of dangers seems to have accomplished is to have advertised using the internet for research. This semester has yielded a bumper crop of academic integrity violations (four so far, with two more likely, in a course with ninety students).

Out of frustration I posted this status update on FB: "So exactly how many students think they can raid Spark Notes for their ideas and not be brought up on academic integrity violations?" Twenty-five comments later, friends have wondered:
  1. Is plagiarism on the rise, or has it simply become easier to spot?
  2. Are students having a harder time coming up with arguments (as well as other fundamental writing skills), spurring them to seek "inspiration"?
  3. Isn't telling students not to use the internet useless, since most of them can't really think without googling something first? 
  4. Shouldn't we acknowledge how technology has changed writing, making it in some ways akin to sampling? That is, might what we are calling cheating actually be an emergent and soon to dominate mode of writing?
  5. Is high school to blame? Writing courses? Have we failed to teach students the skills for which we are penalizing them for not possessing? (ie, is this not about ethics at all?)
A student who has come of age in a technology-saturated age might possess different attitudes towards ownership of facts and arguments. When your reading is mediated via the web rather than traditional books -- via a sprawling network of connections rather than than through discrete objects with singular authors -- maybe you absorb more and keep information less well categorized. So perhaps that means that what we are teaching in writing and literature classes runs counter to how information is actually utilized, thought about. Does this mean that we ought to acknowledge how things now are, or get better at providing students with the skills and viewpoints we expect them to have as they form their arguments on critical papers?


Rick Godden said...

"Does this mean that we ought to acknowledge how things now are, or get better at providing students with the skills and viewpoints we expect them to have as they form their arguments on critical papers?"

We definitely need to acknowledge where our students are, but I we also need to get better at providing our students with the skills for forming their arguments. While part of me wants to hold to the idea that studying literature is its own reward, I think that the defense of the humanities and of English specifically (at least in part) might lie here--we teach how to write and think critically, and we give students the opportunity to learn, explore, and experiment with how to do so effectively.

Chris said...

Any student who, when faced with a new and unfamiliar text, doesn't immediately turn to Wikipedia for greater context, to enrich their reading experience, is doing it wrong. (Critical thinking is, perhaps, all about challenging your own impressions of a text with others' voices.) It seems bizarre to deny students access to this sort of material. Maybe it would be better to model how to use Spark Notes et al. (including your lectures/classroom discussions) as a launchpad in line with academic integrity guidelines?

Beth said...

One thing that I don't understand, though, is how students can't tell the difference between "this came from my head and nothing else" and "I thought of this while I was reading Sparknotes." As a student, I was more likely to cite more than was strictly necessary to avoid taking credit.

The other problem I see is a conflict that arises when high school teachers are trying to teach close reading, and so encourage students not to look at other readings. I try (try!) to convince my students that learning to cite their sources is not, as they have been taught in high school, and admission of failure, but rather the first step to having a grown-up mind, to participating in a conversation. But there is still a deeply-rooted feeling that unless it is their own unaided thinking, they are somehow failing. I think that part of the goal of the freshman writing course at a university should be to break this perception.

I also cherish the memory of a student who insisted that the reason that his paper on the Watergate break in (which also didn't fulfill the assignment, but that was a different problem) matched the Wikipedia article precisely was that he was talking about facts, and they just were. You couldn't plagiarize them, and there were only so many ways to describe them, so it was purely coincidental that he and the anonymous author of the Wikipedia article had chosen exactly the same words.

Unknown said...

I am a high school teacher. I work diligently to teach responsible writing and documentation skills. I bet the ones cheating in your class are the same ones I nailed in my class. One of your commenters appeared to be pointing toward high school teachers as the source of the problem. We're not.

Beth said...

I'm absolutely not saying that high school teachers are the problem. I know that practices differ, and so your high school may not teach the way mine did a little more than a decade ago, and the way my students report theirs teaching.

In my high school English classes, consulting outside sources when dealing with literature was frowned on. Many of my students report this same attitude. I absolutely understand why such a policy might be in place; even now, when doing research, I try to read a new text and form my own opinions on it before I go and see what other people think. I can see why it would be good to get students to think on their own about a text.

But I think that students are not often good at thinking beyond rules, and so don't see the reason, and one of the things that they take away is that admitting that they've looked at outside sources is somehow embarrassing.

So I think that one of the things that it is important to teach in college writing classes is that citing sources is part of becoming a part of an ongoing conversation. In my 10 years of working with undergraduates on writing, I have spent a lot of time trying to get rid of embarrassment about citing sources.

Again, not blaming high school English teachers; there's a reason to do what they do. Talking about transitioning from high school to college, and how perhaps more conversation needs to be had to break down some of the things that the student has internalized. It's like the 5 paragraph essay; very useful for teaching organization and clear thinking, but not something you want to use for the rest of your life.

ThisWas said...

Professor Cohen wrote: "I read them this paragraph the first day, and I then repeated twice during the semester what constitutes plagiarism."

I am reminded of Patrick O'Brian's novel "Master and Commander" in which British naval captain Jack Aubrey reads to his crew at least once a month the Articles of War, many of which end with the punishment prescribed punishment "shall suffer death." E.g.:

- Every person in the fleet, who through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall in time of action withdraw or keep back, or not come into the fight or engagement, or shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty's ships, or those of his allies, which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve, every such person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court martial, shall suffer death.

- Every person in the fleet, who though cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall forbear to pursue the chase of any enemy, pirate or rebel, beaten or flying; or shall not relieve or assist a known friend in view to the utmost of his power; being convicted of any such offense by the sentence of a court martial, shall suffer death.

(from "The Articles of War - 1749" by Gibbons Burke February 1997)

I don't know what GW's policies are with respect to making an example of a few students by hanging them from a yardarm, or if GW has any convenient yardarms.

Surely scholarship is nothing without complete and accurate citations of sources. Without understanding the principles of research and academic citation, you end up with Manchester's "A World Lit Only By Fire", which is to academic research what Fox News is to journalism.

The Internet does not make life more difficult for your students. It makes research easier, putting millions of facts at their fingertips. It should make it simpler for your students to assemble new combinations of ideas and arguments to satisfy the requirements of your assignment - if only they use original sources (paper or electronic) and cite them!

a little bird said...

Chris makes a good point. Rather than asking students to pretend as if tools don't exist, we might consider how to work them into our teaching and assignments. Wikipedia, for example, unlike Spark Notes is a user-generated resource. We could talk about the differences between them and the implications of those differences when it comes to the ability of our students to participate in a conversation about texts. Spark Notes delivers "authoritative" interpretations of texts to users who, for the most part, don't get to participate in the production of meaning. Wikipedia, in contrast, evolves from the contributions of and negotiations among users. We could even talk to our students about how they could make thoughtful contributions in the public forum of Wikipedia and task them with doing just that as part of an assignment. Or, if we want to create a less-public space where they can experiment with generating and curating textual interpretation, we can use wiki software to provide them an opportunity to create their own wiki resource that engages with and responds to the other available resources in the way a new scholarly journal might seek to fill a rhetorical gap in the scholarship. Using Spark Notes and Wikipedia as examples, we could begin to engage students in a higher-level debate going on in our own profession about the future of peer review and academic publishing.

Anonymous said...

I have started having a long discussion historicizing plagiarism (glibly), talking about why it was recognized as a good idea meticulously to cite sources. Coupled with this, I have a long statement on my syllabus and a page where they must sign that they have read and understood the statement. The rate of plagiarism cases I have caught has dropped -- but it might just be my eyes blearing over after too many years without a sabbatical.