Best of 2012: A positive solution for plagiarism



We know that students plagiarize. We suppose that plagiarism, as well as academic dishonesty in general, has increased over the past few years, decades, or century—depending on which academic ax we choose to grind.

The caveats are familiar: Perhaps cheating just is easier than it used to be (most honors students who are caught plagiarizing say they did so because it was \”easy\”). Perhaps we are better at detecting plagiarism because of software such as Google and Turnitin. Or perhaps we forget that every generation, at least since the ancient Romans and Greeks, complains that the next one is composed of lazy, possibly illiterate, youngsters willing to cut ethical corners.

But a good dose of skepticism toward the doomsayers doesn\’t make the worry go away. For example, a July 21 article in The Chronicle on a New York University professor who vowed to stop pursuing plagiarists has drawn 249 comments, several of which were impassioned denunciations of institutional responses to the problem. Dealing with student plagiarism is a nagging, seemingly endless problem for academics, judging from the number of articles, blog posts, and forum discussions on the topic. Indeed, I\’ve contributed to some of those discussions but have yet to find any consensus emerge.

I\’ve organized and participated in conference panels on plagiarism, held workshops for college instructors and schoolteachers on the subject, and for several years have used the methods I\’m about to describe. I also began my teaching career with a zero-tolerance policy, which meant that I have been involved in campus judicial proceedings, a step that drains just about everyone touched by the accusation.

But as the Internet has matured, I decided that I did not want to spend time as a cyber-cop. More important, my goal should be to help inculcate honor and integrity rather than build a culture of fear and accusation.

It\’s easy to find excellent articles and Web sites on dealing with plagiarism. From those sources, we can develop four general guidelines for an effective response:

  • The solution should be positive; that is, show students how to act as responsible scholars and writers. The same tone should be reflected in the syllabus. I have seen many syllabi in which the penalties for plagiarism are laid out in excruciating detail, with no positive models or behavior mentioned. Surely by now we know that positive motivation trumps the negative variety.
  • It should help students avoid plagiarism rather than focus on our catching it.
  • The solution should objectively strengthen both students and teachers.
  • It should also make students and teachers feel as though they are stronger.

Those seem to me to be minimal requirements, yet they often are not met in practice. Before laying out a workable solution, let\’s review some approaches whose weaknesses contribute to the seemingly endless discussions of plagiarism.

Draconian consequences.
The instructor who threatens maximum damage if plagiarism is detected usually stakes out the moral high ground. Syllabi and accompanying class discussions list everything that will befall the student, including possible expulsion.

If applied consistently, without regard for extenuating circumstances, this approach seems to work particularly well for teachers who are both imperious and admired by their students. I knew one colleague, a tenured professor of literature and writing, who threatened to ruin, as nearly as possible, the reputations of offending students. Somehow he still inspired them.

Weakness: Instructors who use this tactic set an adversarial tone at the beginning of a course. Although some can inhabit the Professor Kingsfield character from The Paper Chase, many simply come off as nasty or suspicious. And approaching plagiarism this way is dispiriting—it never energizes students or teachers. In the end, it often doesn\’t prevent enough plagiarism to counter its weaknesses.

Preventive construction.
A teacher who is concerned about plagiarism and has read about strategies may attempt to construct every assignment in a way that precludes plagiarism.

Rethinking assignments—freshening them up—often produces new energy in a course. Those who reflect often on pedagogy will be attracted to this approach.

Weakness: The approach often means devising assignments with a narrow scope. But it\’s important to train students to explore widely. They need to be able to sift through all sorts of sources, and closely tailored assignments may be too restrictive. Such assignments certainly don\’t simulate the strengths needed in graduate or professional school. And sooner or later, we either will run out of ideas for assignments or will be lulled into a false sense of security.

Dedicated discussion.
Some teachers discuss extensively in class the nature and consequences of plagiarism, believingv that such time is well spent.

Strength: Some students may not understand what constitutes plagiarism or its consequences. By discussing it carefully in class, instructors demonstrate an awareness of that problem.

Weakness: Merely talking with students, especially about a critical topic, is a poor way to ensure that they will act correctly. Giving quizzes on the topic is a move in the right direction. But a quiz still encourages passivity. Plagiarism and academic dishonesty are actions taken by people; powerful lessons about it require actions as well.

A workable solution.
The first writing assignment I give students in my writing courses involves plagiarism as a topic. I ask them to investigate and read resources on the Web assembled by experts on the subject such as Nick Carbone, a new-media consultant for Bedford/St. Martin\’s, and Bruce Leland, a professor emeritus at Western Illinois University. I ask students to take notes on the readings, especially on how both authors are unhappy with standard approaches to preventing plagiarism and academic dishonesty. I tell them to pay special attention to Carbone\’s discussion of dDos and don\’ts, a list he developed after deciding that his previous approaches to fighting plagiarism adopted an inappropriate tone, and to Leland\’s extensive list of resources that instructors can use to deal with plagiarism.

Then I ask students to find a Web site that offers free essays for download. I provide a central source, such as \”Cheating 101: Internet Paper Mills,\” available at, though there are many others. Each student has to download one paper (or as much of one as is permitted by the site) and analyze its strengths and weaknesses. They must bring to class a copy of the paper as well as their notes on their reading, and deliver oral reports.

The idea is for students to read materials written by teachers for teachers, rather than something written just for students. The explicit lesson is for them to learn about plagiarism and academic dishonesty. An implicit lesson is that instructors already are aware of free papers and other Internet dodges. Even if you, as a faculty member, are not particularly computer-savvy, students will assume from this assignment that you understand how to track down plagiarism.

By analyzing these \”free essays\” before the class, students learn firsthand that the papers available over the Internet often are far inferior to what they could produce on their own. When they occasionally happen on a strong paper, they will remark that it is too good: No professor would believe that such a professionally written piece had come from a student for a course assignment.

You need not guide the students\’ choices of papers: Their own interests and majors will do that. Through this assignment, they are engaging in research from the first day of the course, and are practicing critical reading. They understand that you will treat them like adults, since you have assigned them to read authoritative, friendly articles from Web sites that speak to adult professionals. And other than require that they concentrate on a paper\’s strengths and weaknesses, you need not guide the analyses: Students of all writing levels will demonstrate that they can pick apart someone else\’s work.

You can substitute other Web sites or articles, of course. But you should give students separate credit for their Web-site notes and for their critique of the downloaded paper—both of which should be physical copies. Students who took notes can be distinguished easily from those who did not, which allows you to teach the lesson that strong scholars or professionals take notes. The physical copies also allow you to collect the assignments if you run short on time for the oral reports, though I encourage you to allow everyone to present.

This assignment builds: (1) a direct awareness of plagiarism and its responses; (2) research skills, since students immediately follow and analyze reliable Web sources; and (3) presentation skills, all without creating a hostile or adversarial atmosphere. The assignment can be adapted for large (or online) courses by creating a blog or online discussion area, although nothing beats the in-person connection. (I also ask students to introduce themselves by name every time they present. My philosophy is to maximize what any assignment can achieve.)

I have employed this approach with undergraduate and graduate, traditional and nontraditional students. During the past two semesters, I used it in online classes to great effect. Any method that makes both students and professors feel strong is worth trying.

Jeff Karon is a visiting instructor in the English department at the University of South Florida.