'Originality, Imitation and Plagiarism'

April 3, 2008

The fire and brimstone approach to preventing plagiarism has failed to promote either understanding of ideas of academic integrity or its practice, according to many essays in a new collection, Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. The book, just published by the University of Michigan Press, features essays on how these issues play out in different disciplines and a mix of philosophical and practical approaches to analyzing the state of student writing.

The book's co-editors are Caroline Eisner, academic dean at Landmark College, and Martha Vicinus, director of the Sweetland Writing Center and the Eliza M. Mosher Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. Vicinus responded to e-mail questions about the themes of the new book.

Q: Plagiarism by students obviously isn't new. What's changed (and what's not changed) in the Internet era?

A: Plagiarism certainly isn’t new -- when I was an undergraduate in the early '60s our dorm had a filing cabinet of old papers, and as an English major I was frequently asked to write papers. What's changed is how easy it is now to buy a paper or to have one made-to-order from an on-line company. But equally, it's easy to check these papers via Google. We’re really in a world of information overload these days, and we all need to learn how to be selective -- that's an especially hard task for students who might have difficulty evaluating sources. When rushed, they can be tempted grab a piece of writing quickly off the Web and hand it in.

Q: Your book talks in several places about the judgmental way that many academics talk about theses issues. What concerns you? How would you advise people to talk about this?

A: We’ve all become more aware of how common plagiarism can be because of several high profile cases, as well as simple mistakes, such as politicians using someone else’s eloquent phrases to pad out a speech. I’m most concerned about the simplistic way student writing has been labeled as either “original” or “plagiarized,” and with the consequent belief that there’s a simple solution. Many students do take short-cuts, especially in classes that seem irrelevant to their main interests, but they can also misquote and misattribute sources as they try to master new and complex ideas.

To enter into teaching with the idea of “catching” students and punishing them seems utterly counter-productive and truly destructive of a learning environment, yet all too often this is how the media frames the question of student writing and research.

When I talk with students and parents about plagiarism, I try to move the discussion away from the admonition “don’t do it or you will suffer dire penalties” to a discussion about the process of learning, why imitation is often a necessary first step to learning a new discipline (think of the first lab report you prepared), and that thoughtful engagement with material leads to thoughtful papers.

When I talk with colleagues, we discuss how to construct thoughtful assignments that will engage students and that will be difficult to pull off the Web. For example, no one wants to read another paper that invites plagiarism, such as “Discuss the character of Gatsby in The Great Gatsby.” Engaging with the character of Gatsby through the main themes of the course seems to me to be a far more interesting and challenging assignment. Moreover, if faculty include in-class peer reviewing of the rough drafts of papers and then submitting these drafts with the final papers, they both avoid last-minute work and the temptation to plagiarize. In addition, they model how most of us write important papers: we start with a rough draft, share it with a trusted friend, and then revise it fully before submission.

Q: How do these issues differ among disciplines?

A: They clearly do. As one of our contributors, Gilbert Omenn, points out, theft of ideas rather than words is far more serious in the sciences. Ironically, the policy of anonymous reviewing may make it easier for a senior reviewer to steal some of the best ideas from, say, an NIH proposal written by a junior researcher. Many years ago I was involved in the case of an MFA student who had used several phrases from another student’s poem; in this case, a dozen words seemed to constitute plagiarism. Law school students are taught to use their own words when discussing legal cases and writing up briefs, but once they graduate and join a law firm, they turn to past precedents and use the wording from previous cases. These distinctions can be very confusing to students. I think we need to be much more explicit about the context and audience for whom we are writing; this will help students who often think that their only audience is their professor.

Q: What is your take on services colleges or professors use to detect plagiarism?

A: The best-known plagiarism detection service, Turnitin.com, is actually a phrase detection service. That is, its program detects sets of words written in the same way, rather than the actual theft of information, research, ideas and phrasing. Students who forget to close quotes when quoting, for example, would be caught, but is this an accurate interpretation of their work?

Journalists, perhaps dismayed at numerous recent examples of plagiarism committed under time pressures, have highlighted these detection services as a solution to all problems, as if the goal of teaching was to catch students. Good teaching depends upon mutual trust and shared work, not the adversarial notion that students’ writing is guilty till proven innocent. All too many people are fooled by the quick technological fix.

Q: What is your advice to colleges that want to educate students about academic integrity, while not scaring people away from broad Web searches for information?

A: I think we should not assume that students know how to use the Web. Most students were warned against it in high school. One of my colleagues in Sweetland has his first-year students spend time evaluating different types of sites (commercial, educational, government run) in an area of interest (eg, nursing, dentistry, town planning). He’s found that they find it very difficult to distinguish among the sites and often confuse those that are selling a product with those that are providing information to the public. This short exercise leads naturally into a discussion of how to use Web information, and how to supplement its sources with library sources. Fortunately our librarians also offer an excellent introductory tour of the library that includes hands-on advice about how to access and evaluate different sources of information.

I think we faculty are sometimes so enamored with our subject matter that we forget the importance of teaching the process of learning. A year after our course students may have forgotten many of the facts and ideas we have presented, but they won’t forget the skills they have learned in writing a research paper or in gathering and evaluating different sources, or revising a paper that seemed finished. The hard work of thinking through a written project will stick with them -- and give them the kind of skills we want for educated citizens.

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