By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
College literature teacher Steve Schlesser tells students they will fail his class if they deliberately plagiarize.
Before assigning term papers for literature composition class at Gavilan College in Gilroy, Steve Schessler takes time to discuss something that has tormented teachers from the beginning of time — or at least the beginning of homework assignments. The subject he broaches is plagiarism, and a show of hands reveals that his students are not exactly clear on the concept.
Schessler, a member of the Gavilan College Faculty Association, is not surprised. In his past four years as a college professor, he has been alarmed by the increase in students who copy and paste information from Web sources into their papers without proper attribution — sometimes without even bothering to remove hyperlinks, which show up in blue.
Plagiarism is defined in the Collins English Dictionary as “the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work,” and it is on the rise. The New York Times reports a “disconnect growing in the Internet age” as concepts such as intellectual property, copyright and originality get clouded. Music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking have given students the notion that they are freely entitled to anything in cyberspace, writes Times reporter Trip Gabriel in an article, “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in the Digital Age.” Surveys from 2006 to 2010 by Donald L. McCabe, co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and a professor at Rutgers University, reveal that 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments, and that the number of students who believe copying from the Web constitutes “serious cheating” has declined during the past decade.
Schessler makes it clear to students from the beginning that plagiarism won’t be tolerated.
“Any time you use someone else’s words, you need to let me know whose ideas they are and where they come from,” he says. “You need to give credit to the original source, and there’s a reason why we cite everything.”
Students soon learn the reason: Schessler uses an online service, turnitin.com, that scans for plagiarism by comparing student papers against all published materials and previously submitted papers in the website’s database. Schessler shows students on an overhead projector how Turnitin raises “red flags” by highlighting phrases that appear to be plagiarized. He then demonstrates how to cite sources based on the MLA Style Manual published by the Modern Language Association of America, commonly used in schools. He tells students that if they deliberately plagiarize, they will fail his class.
Carlene Barros, a world history teacher at Crawford CHAMPs (Community Health and Medical Practices) High School in San Diego, also has seen an increase in plagiarism. Sometimes students plagiarize from the Internet; sometimes they plagiarize from each other; and sometimes they submit research papers without documenting their sources. When it happens, she tries to make it a teachable moment.
“You discuss it,” says Barros, a San Diego Education Association member and a 20-year teaching veteran. “You explain the importance of completing assignments, engaging in the writing process, taking notes and documenting evidence so it doesn’t happen again. I want students to understand the concept of authorship and ownership and academic honesty and integrity.”
Students sign a form at the beginning of the year that they are aware of the rules about plagiarizing and are aware of the repercussions, which include receiving no credit for the assignment and a lowering of their overall grade.
To reduce the chance of students committing plagiarism, Barros asks to see students’ note-taking and rough drafts. She also assigns topics that require students to be critical thinkers.
“If the topic is too broad and isn’t specific enough, you’re more likely to find plagiarism involved,” Barros explains. “Instead of saying ‘What was the French Revolution?’ you might ask them to explain ‘How did Enlightenment philosophy shape the policies of the French Revolution?’”
Eighth-grade English teacher Hiroko Niksch does not use Turnitin at Miller Middle School in San Jose. But she warns students that the local high school uses the website, so they better get used to doing the work themselves. When she suspects a student may be plagiarizing, she uses Google to search for some of the phrases to determine whether or not it’s original work. It can be a slow, painful process, but she says it’s important to take the time to check.
“I’m apparently the Big Bad Plagiarism Police teacher,” says Niksch, a member of the Cupertino Education Association. “Word has gotten out, so plagiarism is dwindling in my classroom.”
She believes students plagiarize for different reasons. “Some students are doing it because it’s the easy way and they are dishonest,” Niksch says. “Some students don’t know better and think that if they change something a little bit, it’s not really plagiarizing. For many students it’s about procrastination and running out of time.”
Eighth-grader Nitya Mani agrees with her teacher’s assessment. “A lot of students are really busy with extracurricular activities and are really frenzied about grades and maintaining straight A’s. When you start an essay at 12 o’clock at night, you can get tempted. Even if students aren’t trying to plagiarize, what you see as the end product can be very close to the beginning product on a website.”
In Niksch’s class, Mani and her fellow students work on their research papers in class. Some write down quotes from books on index cards and rewrite the information in their own words on the back of the card. Others work on searching for information and writing proper citations for it.
“It’s easier for me to do research this way, because on my own it would be a little bit more confusing,” says eighth-grader Daniel Vahabi, taking a break from his Lewis and Clark citations.
For Niksch, it’s about the process as well as the product.
“I want them to understand that as a teacher, I need to see how they write — not how someone else writes,” says Niksch. “I tell them I don’t care if they can’t write something perfectly, and that if they knew how to write perfectly, they wouldn’t come to my classroom. I let them know that plagiarism doesn’t help me to do my job — and it doesn’t help them either. I want them to understand that it’s wrong, and that they are stealing someone’s intellectual property.”
Sue Thompson, coordinator of the library systems at CSU San Marcos, was so concerned about the plagiarism upswing among students that she developed a website devoted to prevention (library.csusm.edu/plagiarism). The California Faculty Association member began developing the website in 2003 after learning that some faculty members were afraid to assign term papers because they were worried about plagiarism.
“The website took the better part of a year and lots of research,” says Thompson, who is in charge of library technology at the university. But it was well worth it: San Marcos professors and teachers from other schools throughout California refer their students to the site, which has pages titled “What is Plagiarism?” “How to Avoid It” and “How to Credit Sources.” Especially popular with educators is a multiple-choice test students can take to make sure they truly understand what plagiarism is.
“Turnitin doesn’t catch everything, because students at our university have access to 60 databases with hundreds of thousands of journals in them,” says Thompson. “It can be a tool, but it’s important to have students think beyond legalistic terms. We want students to think about being good participants in the ‘intellectual neighborhood’; the importance of giving other people credit for their ideas; and to realize that by doing so, they can become better writers themselves.”
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