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Problems with Plagiarism

February 22, 2009

In response to my recently posted take on plagiarism, a nice reader was kind enough to flesh out a logistical flaw.  I had proposed that diligence be made (by all faculty) to differentiate between missing quotation marks (lesser plagiarism) and High Treason of Plagiarism (buying a paper).  The writer points out:

Some of us don’t have a choice about differentiating between missing quotation marks and wholesale plagiarism. Our university academic honesty policy explicitly says that both of these count as plagiarism and both incur the same punishment (a write up on the student’s record in the first instance, to be erased upon graduation if it doesn’t occur again; a failing grade for the course if it happens a second time). Students are required to read the policy in class and we are supposed to enforce it.

Of course, we could choose to ignore this policy, but I think that’s probably a really bad idea for an adjunct or young faculty member to do, given the consequences it could have on his/her career if it came to light (which it presumably would once students start complaining to other lecturers who enforce the policy that “Dr So-and-so didn’t treat this as plagiarism when I did it in her class”).

I see no honor in this policy.  It, like many zero-tolerance policies, is enacted in anger and frustration, missing any and all attempts at good education.  If your institution has such a policy, work to change it.  It does not teach.  It is militaristic and ineffective.

Imagine, if you will, a similar policy for driving.  Consider, instead of regarding running a stop sign as a minor infraction, that the law equated a “rolling stop” with causing an accident that resulted in personal injury (just short of manslaughter).  Thus, if you were deemed to be not stopped, you would incur the more harsh penalty (points on your driving record, higher fine, possible jail time).  The pllicy, one would assume, would stop any and all rolling stops.  But, in reality it would only make those guilty of more minor violations angry at the police state.

Do not be a Police State of Plagiarism.  Sure no one wants to encourage stealing (don’t hear me say that), but neither does one introduce a guest into a new community by thumping them on the head for a minor social faux pas.

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2 Comments
  1. brokeharvardgrad permalink
    February 24, 2009 6:08 pm

    If a student is written up for plagiarism, and then there is no penalty upon graduation, where is the problem? I think this eliminates the instructor’s perspective for a specific reason: to cut down on plagiarism that may be allowed by instructors. Hold the instructors responsible for student work–tried before and works only part of the time.

    My issue with all of this is that a if a student misses quotes, that might be accidental, but then again, it really might not be. And, I never had a student who just “forgot to quote” someone. So, I don’t really see how this qualifies as a reason not to write a student up. Most students don’t turn in work forgetting to quote a major source of the paper.

    That said, in the old days, before all the digital text sources, I made my students turn in sources with their areas of research highlighted in matching colors to text in a draft before the final was turned in. Teachers always have the option of proposing a draft stage before final turn-ins, and most writing teachers already do this. This doesn’t mean instructors have to grade twice. I offer to comment on a student’s paper in 1, 2, or 3 areas, no more. It depends on how long the paper is, but any more than that, I and I tell the students to seek out a writing center, multiple audiences, etc. The point is, most teachers include an instructional phase in their writing projects designed to weed this thing out.

    I have never seen a final paper with an accidental plagiarism at the end of the semester. Perhaps waiting to grade until farther along in the process or structuring the process will help, but for many years the game has remained the same: do you think my teacher will notice if I copy this out of a book? The game hasn’t changed, only the ways in which students have access to text. Some teaching must occur in the semester. These are not fully formed writers from the outset.

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