It's not surprising that time-starved language students reach for the web to copy other people's work, but introducing more creative writing tasks can help them rely on their own skills and avoid the copy-and-paste function
A new teacher on an English foundation year at a university in the Middle East was marking some reports. She was amazed to find that one report was written entirely in French. The next morning, she went in to work ready to entertain her friends with this egregious example of plagiarism. Her colleagues simply shrugged off her scoop with "Yes, we do get the odd one from time to time!"
I did not believe similar stories when I went to work as an English language teacher at a college near this university. My colleague pulled out two examples from his drawer, complete with accents acute, grave, and circumflex copied perfectly in the student's own handwriting. Presumably, he reckoned the teacher might suspect a printed report was a straight download? He was given a score of eight out of 30 for this effort because marks were awarded for having a list of contents and a title page, etc.
Many students did submit straight downloads, with not even the minimum of editing. One on the English Language was obviously cribbed from an encyclopedia entry and began "English Horn: see Oboe. English Language..." Another on Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist, had three pages of reviews of his trilogy, and the fourth page began "All these books and many others are available at reasonable prices at the... Bookshop, Cairo."
Nor is the problem confined to written reports. The first oral presentation by students that we held in our college began: "Good morning. My name is... Welcome to the website of the Northern Ireland Assembly" and continued with a loving description of the delights of the province including the "lush green fairways that snake their way through the dunes".
These are extreme examples, but plagiarism continues to be a problem all over the world. What is the solution? The first step is to set aside any moral indignation and ask why students do it. Some are lazy, but for many plagiarism is their last and only resort. They do not have the language or the skills to research a topic, collate and organise the information, paraphrase it and present it in an appropriate format or style, in writing or speech. So, the teacher should abandon reports or structure the activity and support the student at each step.
I had a group of trainee science teachers who in previous years had submitted plagiarised accounts of great scientists and their discoveries. Instead, I asked them to write a report of a science lesson. I gave them headings and detailed leading questions to elicit sentences which would form the report. They had to submit one section at the weekly clinic, and there was zero tolerance of plagiarism. Most of the students realised that they could actually do the job, with a lot of individual help.
I gave a group of Arabic teachers topics like "Problems of learning English", "Compare English and Arabic writing systems", "What are the problems of transliteration between the two languages?" They too were given the structure and the leading questions. Most of the students in both groups did a reasonable job, and took some satisfaction in their achievement.
When I was allocated a course in "Report Writing" with trainee English teachers, I adopted the same approach. They were asked to submit a title from a list of suggestions about education, languages and language learning, local issues, etc. The students had to draw up an action plan and deadlines for completing the various steps such as compiling a questionnaire, conducting interviews, making a survey, etc.
They had to submit drafts of each section "Introduction", "Method", "Findings", "Conclusions", which were discussed at regular clinics. At the same time, in the "normal" classes, the students were trained in the research, language and presentational skills they needed. The final reports covered a wide range of topics from social issues like "Fire Safety at the College", "Wheelchair Access", "Problems of Immigrants" and "The Rising Cost of Housing", to more academic topics like the English Language Programme in Government Schools, or "Technology in Education in..." The students were able to work independently and produce substantial documents of which they were rightly proud.
It had proved relatively easy to turn a chore and a
charade into a worthwhile learning experience. Not that the project
exercise was entirely without problems. One science student invited to
evaluate his lesson, wrote:
"I tried to development my lesson by that to try is always to make measure lesson
"a correlated merry... I am good that as a favour that the sciences didn't perish
Where does one start? Well, first of all, tell the student to throw away his electronic Arabic/English dictionary, but that still leaves an awful lot to be done.
• Philip Skeldon is a teacher and materials writer based in Oman.
By TRIP GABRIEL
At Rhode Island College, a freshman copied and pasted from a Web site’s frequently asked questions page about homelessness — and did not think he needed to credit a source in his assignment because the page did not include author information.
Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times
At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.
And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.
Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.
But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.
It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.
Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.
“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”
Professors who have studied plagiarism do not try to excuse it — many are champions of academic honesty on their campuses — but rather try to understand why it is so widespread.
In surveys from 2006 to 2010 by Donald L. McCabe, a co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and a business professor at Rutgers University, about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments.
Perhaps more significant, the number who believed that copying from the Web constitutes “serious cheating” is declining — to 29 percent on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade.
Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution.
“This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don’t have the same gravity,” said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. “When you’re sitting at your computer, it’s the same machine you’ve downloaded music with, possibly illegally, the same machine you streamed videos for free that showed on HBO last night.”
Ms. Brookover, who works at the campus library, has pondered the differences between researching in the stacks and online. “Because you’re not walking into a library, you’re not physically holding the article, which takes you closer to ‘this doesn’t belong to me,’ ” she said. Online, “everything can belong to you really easily.”
A University of Notre Dame anthropologist, Susan D. Blum, disturbed by the high rates of reported plagiarism, set out to understand how students view authorship and the written word, or “texts” in Ms. Blum’s academic language.
She conducted her ethnographic research among 234 Notre Dame undergraduates. “Today’s students stand at the crossroads of a new way of conceiving texts and the people who create them and who quote them,” she wrote last year in the book “My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture,” published by Cornell University Press.
Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs.
In an interview, she said the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.
“Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.
She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.
“If you are not so worried about presenting yourself as absolutely unique, then it’s O.K. if you say other people’s words, it’s O.K. if you say things you don’t believe, it’s O.K. if you write papers you couldn’t care less about because they accomplish the task, which is turning something in and getting a grade,” Ms. Blum said, voicing student attitudes. “And it’s O.K. if you put words out there without getting any credit.”
The notion that there might be a new model young person, who freely
borrows from the vortex of information to mash up a new creative work,
fueled a brief brouhaha earlier this year with Helene Hegemann, a German teenager whose best-selling novel about Berlin club life turned out to include passages lifted from others.
Instead of offering an abject apology, Ms. Hegemann insisted, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” A few critics rose to her defense, and the book remained a finalist for a fiction prize (but did not win).
That theory does not wash with Sarah Wilensky, a senior at Indiana University, who said that relaxing plagiarism standards “does not foster creativity, it fosters laziness.”
“You’re not coming up with new ideas if you’re grabbing and mixing and matching,” said Ms. Wilensky, who took aim at Ms. Hegemann in a column in her student newspaper headlined “Generation Plagiarism.”
“It may be increasingly accepted, but there are still plenty of creative people — authors and artists and scholars — who are doing original work,” Ms. Wilensky said in an interview. “It’s kind of an insult that that ideal is gone, and now we’re left only to make collages of the work of previous generations.”
In the view of Ms. Wilensky, whose writing skills earned her the role of informal editor of other students’ papers in her freshman dorm, plagiarism has nothing to do with trendy academic theories.
The main reason it occurs, she said, is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing.
“If you’re taught how to closely read sources and synthesize them into your own original argument in middle and high school, you’re not going to be tempted to plagiarize in college, and you certainly won’t do so unknowingly,” she said.
At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others.
Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied — knowing it was wrong — who were “unwilling to engage the writing process.”
“Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice,” he said.
And then there was a case that had nothing to do with a younger
generation’s evolving view of authorship. A student accused of
plagiarism came to Mr. Dudley’s office with her parents, and the father
admitted that he was the one responsible for the plagiarism. The wife
assured Mr. Dudley that it would not happen again.
A report released today by the plagiarism-detection tool TurnItIn confirms what a lot of teachers already know: that students are copying content from online sources. According to the report, for both high school and college students, Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers were the top two most popular sources of lifted copy.
But another interesting fact emerged from the report about the difference between high school and college students. While 31% of content matches for high school students came from social and “content-sharing” sites (like Facebook or Yahoo Answers), just 26% of the matches for college students originated there.
College students were more likely to use content from cheat sites and paper mills, the report finds: 19.6% of content matches in college students’ papers came from those sites, whereas just 14.1% of matches to high school students’ papers. College students were also more likely to turn to news sites — 16.6% versus 12.3% of college students. And even though Wikipedia was the most popular source for copied content, encyclopedias in general constituted roughly 11-12% of content for both populations.
The data from this report comes from TurnItIn’s own business: some 128 million content matches from 33 million student papers (24 million from higher education and nine million from high school) over a one-year period. That is, when students’ papers were submitted to TurnItIn, its system found passages from those papers matched content available on the open Web.
The report doesn’t indicate whether or not students cited these sources (it’s likely that many did). And TurnItIn doesn’t always catch plagiarized material from behind paywalls — sites that require subscriptions, for example, like many academic journals may not be included in what TurnItIn indexes.
TurnItIn’s report backs up a recent Pew Research Center survey, which showed that more than half of college presidents said that they believe plagiarism has increased among their students over the course of the last decade. None of this is surprising, of course. The “copy-and-paste” functionality and the massive amount of online material available makes it a lot easier to take whole sections of a Web site and plop it into one’s assignment. As long as the source is cited, of course, it’s not necessarily considered plagiarism.
To help combat plagiarism, TurnItIn makes a number of suggestions for educators: make your assignments plagiarism-proof, the company suggests. Help students better understand citations. And — of course — the company recommends schools use a service like TurnItIn.
Recently we looked at some of the factors that may be behind our “culture of academic dishonesty.” Is it simply that students are taking advantage of easier copy-and-paste technology and online resources, or are there other issues at play? For example, what are the pressures on college students that make them far more likely to turn to cheating sites than high school students? What are the reasons why high schoolers turn more to social sites? How can we take advantage of their interest in working with their peers while helping them learn not to simply copy from them?
How can we address these factors, while creating better assignments — ones that reward creative thinking — and offering better instruction about citation?