Monday, December 12th, 2011...12:15 am

Thoughts on Plagiarism

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As you can imagine, teenagers often look for the best way to maximize results, while minimizing time and effort.  This is no surprise because it’s what we all do.  However, when it comes to academic integrity, the “easy way” can often get students in trouble.

This is not to say that students plagiarize maliciously, only that copy/paste is often too easy not to do.

In an attempt to cut back on plagiarism, many high schools have started using turnitin.com as a way of comparing student work to assignments submitted by other students and to sites across the web.  The truth is, turnitin.com is effective in reducing plagiarism, mostly because it makes students scared.  In my opinion, making students fearful every time they submit an assignment leaves a bitter taste in their mouths, which I think is harmful for inquiry-based learning in the long run.

Just to be clear, what I am talking about in this post is the type of plagiarism that most high school teachers deal with, namely copy/paste.  I am not talking about more serious issues of academic integrity like paying other people to do your work for you.

I think that the problem of plagiarism in high school stems from two bigger issues:

  1. We are not taking the time to teach students how to conduct research properly.
  2. Assignments that teachers give are often too simple to be called “research.”

In general, we need to be doing a better job to educate teenagers as to WHY referencing is so important.  Most importantly, it needs to be taught, not from a place of fear for getting caught, but from a place of character education.  It is important to be academically honest because it is the right thing to do!  In my experience, appealing to students’ sense of right and wrong is actually quite effective because everyone has been on the receiving end of “wrong” before, and knows what it feels like.

I also think that students fail to site their work, simply because it’s a lot of extra work to do it.  I remember being in university and being told that my APA formatting had to be perfect or I would lose marks.  But who can really remember if you’re supposed to put a comma after the date or a period, or whether or not the title should be underlined or italicized?  Even for someone like me, who wants to be academically honest, referencing properly is annoying.  The inconvenience of creating citations is one of the reasons why I like the web tools so much (easybib, bibme, Citation Maker, etc.)  Although these tools are not perfect, they make the process of creating references so much faster and and easier for students.

The second reason that students plagiarize is because they have been asked to do meaningless work.  The teachers who are teaching now did not grow up in the same type of world our current students are living it.  We grew up in a time of information scarcity; our students have an abundance of it (and maybe an overabundance!)  Finding the name of the Prime Minister and a list of his duties is now so ridiculously easy that the task becomes a joke.  Even looking for more complex information, such as the pros and cons of nuclear energy, may have been difficult at one time, but can easily be found these days with a simple Google search.  No wonder students copy/paste from the internet!

Teachers need to be redesigning their assignments to make them plagiarism proof.  One of the key ways of achieving this is to ensure that the method of output is not the same as the method of input.  That is to say, requiring that students transform their learning into a new format or medium.  For example, if students are researching the pros and cons of nuclear energy, don’t ask them to write a report (text in, text out); instead, ask them to put together a public service announcement, or write a song about it (text in, audio/video out).  Even more important though, is asking students questions that are not easily googlable.  If the answer can be found in one of the top sites in a Google search, then the question does not require any higher order thinking skills and should not be considered research to begin with!

Photo Credit: Nisha A



9 Comments

  • The reason students plagarize is because now days it’s too easy like you said in your article when I was a student in the late 70′s you had to go and search the Library(great if it was 20 miles away) for any info, if it was available, now you can check anything on your phone.

    • I completely agree, Chris. “Back in the day,” it was a lot of work to obtain good information because it was so scarce. Additionally, when you found good information in the library, you probably could not sign the book out, nor was photocopying an option. Therefore, BY NECESSITY, you would have learned how to summarize what you were reading and take good jot notes.

      If teachers do not realize how much the research process has changed, then they are going to set their students up for failure.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • I love this post. Your two bullet points are super important. One way I always thought of footnotes and citations is that is is the same as what we teach students about the scientific method. The scientific method is there (and laid out step by step in EVERY SINGLE publication) so that other scientists can replicate it and further prove or question the experiment’s conclusions. Citations are the scientific method of written literature. It’s important to be able to go back and question those original sources (are they valid sources? did the author twist the words of that source? etc.) Also citing properly means you are prepared to defend your writing, whatever that may be. It means you’re not hiding anything. In my view, the copy/paste function is (mostly) fine, so long as it`s followed by a footnote :)

  • Personally I wonder if the idea of plagiarism is outdated in and of itself these days. There is often only one correct answer to many questions, or only a few sides to an issue even when talking about even the most poorly understood areas of science. The idea that each and every student must present an original re-interpretation of research is a stretch. There may be only 15-30 students in a classroom, but there are millions of students around the world, all of them getting their answers from similar sources, and sharing their answers themselves via the internet.

    In the maths and sciences it would be ridiculous to ask each student to have original answers. Is it plagiarism to say that 2+2 is 4 if Joe Blow down the street already said that answer?

    The problem of “plagiarism” can then be traced back to a simple scarcity of truth, and only a slightly diversified number of ways to convey that truth.

    What I think educators should be focusing on is the ability to find and VERIFY truth, and being able to add information to your knowledge base with which we all interpret the world with. And by knowledge base, I mean retaining the information in your own mind (not on a computer or cell phone) so that it improves how you think and react to challenges and problems. Being able to look something up after the fact is fine for hindsight, but the real goal of education should be enabling foresight.

    I think the point you touched on about citing good references is then what becomes the most important skill to teach, and should be valued more highly than trying to discourage plagiarism. Since it is being able to weed out good information from bad, and trustworthy from untrustworthy that is what good referencing is about. I also think that many people, students and teachers alike, in their search to “not plagiarizer” forget that taking direct quotes (and properly citing them) is a perfectly acceptable way of conveying an idea that has already been stated in a succinct manner.

    Otherwise all we are teaching students is that it is okay to waste time, energy and resources re-stating what has already been well stated. Re-stating something in a different way is not what encourages learning. Learning is the finding and utilization of information, not the transformation of it.

  •   latashia
    June 24th, 2012 at 11:49 pm    Reply

    This is a great topic. I have to say that plagiarism is a topic that needs to be addressed in high school. I do not remember being taught about plagiarism until twelfth grade. I feel that students need to be aware earlier in their high school years.

  •   sgrisham
    October 7th, 2012 at 5:40 pm    Reply

    Great post! I love how you encourage teachers to think about the complexity of what they are assigning. In North Carolina, we are in the first year of implementing the Common Core Curriculum. In the Common Core, we are asking children to read much more complex texts and significantly more non-fiction. I think you make a great point in that we need to be asking students to research and write complex papers on two-sided issues. Student research should not be as easy as copying and pasting. When we ask them to analyze the texts they are reading, they need to also be thinking that what they are producing should be equally as complex.

  •   moniquegareau
    October 21st, 2012 at 5:21 pm    Reply

    I completely agree with your statement that students are often asked to do meaningless work. Rather than asking students to take in information and regurgitate it in an “original” way by rewriting it in their own words, it is much more beneficial to create authentic, meaningful experiences for the information students are being asked to retrieve.

  • Thanks for showing us this important issue. Thanks for sharing

  •   Richard Eaves
    May 23rd, 2013 at 3:41 am    Reply

    Well, I like to raise the issue of plagiarism in the context of writing online. As information is readily available, some writers or bloggers are tempted to copy and paste existing online articles to pass as their own. I think the real challenge lies in presenting information found online creatively and uniquely.

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