for a Cure:
Understanding the "Plagiarism
The whole world, it seems, is worried
about what is often regarded as "the plagiarism epidemic." Reporting
for the New York Daily News, journalist Brian Kates explains, "In
numbers growing by the thousands, students have found a quick-fix cure for their
academic headaches—on the Internet. In the wonderful world of Web sites, scores
of online companies are eager and able to provide slackers with whatever they
need—for a price." A general sense of alarm can be detected in the number
of self-sponsored informational websites such as those of Ronald B. Standler
and Heyward Ehrlich. And the number of teachers and universities signing up
for plagiarism-detecting services increases annually. The concern is most acute
for composition teachers, who regularly assign writing and who are, at many
institutions, expected to teach students how to avoid plagiarism. Given the
sense of shared urgency about the topic, it is especially important that educators
not unthinkingly apply traditional remedies to what may be new phenomena.
1. Is plagiarism more
widespread than it used to be?
A current study in Canada indicates that one in three college undergraduates
plagiarizes (Sokoloff). But no reliable longitudinal research is available
to demonstrate whether this constitutes a rise in the incidence of plagiarism.
Clearly, people are more
concerned about plagiarism than in previous years, but that does not
necessarily signal an increase in plagiarism. It may be instead that
because of the availability of text on the Internet, readers are more
aware of plagiarism when it occurs. It may also be that the ways
in which the Internet is complicating the notion of original, individual
authorship is inciting greater cultural anxiety about individually authored,
2. Are online term paper
sites causing an increase in student plagiarism?
Online term paper sites are plentiful and active; two years ago, over
200 sites were available (Atkins and Nelson 101). One term-paper-mill
proprietor claims that they are one of the few profitable online businesses
after the dot.com meltdown (see Glasner). But student plagiarism is
a longstanding phenomenon, as Sue Carter Simmons' historical research
demonstrates. It may be that the Internet term paper sites are a now-obvious,
now-visible part of an always-thriving term-paper industry that was
previously conducted in much-rumored fraternity files and by mail-order
ghostwriting companies (see, for example, Witherspoon).
3. How should plagiarism
Institutional practices vary widely on the matter of defining plagiarism.
Some say that close adherence to the wording of a text, even when the
source is cited, is plagiarism. Others say only that entire texts written
by others are plagiarized. And some institutions have no plagiarism
policy at all. Instructors need to follow whatever guidelines their
institutions provide; otherwise, instructors' decisions will necessarily
be overturned if the student should appeal.
For those who are in a position
to set or revise policy, the Council of Writing Program Administrators
offers this useful definition: "In an instructional setting, plagiarism
occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else's language, ideas,
or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging
its source" (1).
Notice that this definition
does not include patchwriting-closely following the wording of
a source-as plagiarism. Careful scholarship (see, for example, Hull
& Rose; Kraus) suggests that students' patchwriting usually derives
from an effort to understand unfamiliar ideas, not from a wish to deliberately
use someone else's language without acknowledgement. Many college policies-and
many writers' handbooks-nevertheless include patchwriting in the scope
roles and responses in Internet plagiarism
1. How useful is plagiarism-checking
Atkins and Nelson offer an enthusiastic endorsement of Turnitin.com,
the most popular software. Turnitin.com was developed by John Barrie,
an alumnus of the high school where Atkins and Nelson teach. "This
service is not designed to be punitive; it is meant to be preventive,"
Atkins and Nelson say. "The main goal of TurnItIn.com is to help
students maintain their ethics and academic integrity, while learning
the skills that will help them communicate effectively" (104).
The website for Turnitin.com emphasizes the dangers from which the software
will protect both students and teachers: "Turnitin products and
services help educators and students maximize the Internet's educational
potential by making it a safe place for research and learning"
(Turnitin.com). Atkins and Nelson offer a dramatic portrait of how the
software works: "Late at night, TurnItIn.com's 'cyber-robots' access
the students' digitized work and, using complicated mathematical machinations,
convert the papers into a digital algorithm. The program sends this
algorithm to the Internet and quickly searches servers online all over
the world" (102).
Some educators and government officials, however, believe that teachers
may be violating students' intellectual property rights when they donate
students' papers to the plagiarism-checking service-as they are required
to do by Turnitin.com (Foster). Another problem with plagiarism-checking
software is its complicity in a cycle of exchange that is motivated
more by economic profit than by educational ideals. Barrie, the founder
of Turnitin.com, accused two of his competitors of being involved not
only in plagiarism-catching services but also in term-paper mills-profiting
from both poles of the cycle (Young). Still other commentators point
out the shortcomings of these services in differentiating plagiarism
from quotation, even while the services act as "hanging judges"
The most important concern is that a reliance on plagiarism-checking
software will prevent needed revisions of pedagogy (Howard, "Forget").
Joe Krauss suggests that extensive student plagiarism is a phenomenon
that teachers should listen to and learn from. Donald
McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity (http://www.academicintegrity.org/),
is "lukewarm" about plagiarism-detecting software. Interviewed
by a journalist, McCabe explains, "'I'm not a big supporter [of
plagiarism-checking software]. I think faculty should look at things
that promote integrity, and then look to catch people'" (qtd. in
2. How might assignments
be crafted and pedagogy revised?
Canadian researcher Lynn Taylor specifies the need for assignments that
engage students in meaningful rather than ceremonial tasks, and McCabe
asserts that students "rarely cheat when they believe their professors
are working hard at engaging them in the class" (qtd. in Sokoloff).
Deidre Mahoney adds that writing assignments should be multi-staged
and that instructors should stay involved in the writing process throughout
those stages. In an earlier entry in the McGraw-Hill Teaching Composition
service, Gail Hapke offers detailed suggestions for teaching writing
from sources. And the Council of Writing Program Administrators provides
a list of "best practices" that include direct instruction
in textual practices; syllabus statements; assignment design; and student-teacher
3. What if students still
Many definitions of plagiarism focus on issues of morality and
property, enjoining students to be "honest" and not to "steal."
Maurice Isserman, however, explains what is for educators the most compelling
issue: "Plagiarism substitutes someone else's prowess as explanation
for your own efforts. As Julia Schult, a reference-department librarian
at the college, has pointed out to me in an ongoing conversation we
have had on the problem, plagiarism isn't a bad thing simply because
it's an act of intellectual theft-although it is that. It's a bad thing
because it takes the place of and prevents learning."
Instructors must apply sound definitions of plagiarism and must
craft pedagogy that engages their students and that teaches writing
from sources. But they must also apply and enforce their institution's
policies on plagiarism. To fail to do so would not only send the message
to the instructor's students that plagiarism really isn't a big deal,
but it would also enable the incorrigible "serial plagiarist"
who, until stopped by the application of institutional sanctions, will
continue to plagiarize in one class after another.
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