Winning Hearts and Minds in War on Plagiarism

To many writing instructors, going nuclear (expulsion threats) or high tech (detection software) have failed to stop cheating. So they aim for small victories, through new approaches to teaching about academic integrity.
April 7, 2008

It's come to this: Writing professors are so desperate for new ways to teach undergraduates about academic integrity that they are assigning them to plagiarize.

That's what Kate Hagopian, an instructor in the first-year writing program at North Carolina State University, does. For one assignment, she gives her students a short writing passage and then a prompt for a standard student short essay. She asks her students to turn in two versions. In one they are told that they must plagiarize. In the second, they are told not to. The prior night, the students were given an online tutorial on plagiarism and Hagopian said she has become skeptical that having the students "parrot back what we've told them" accomplishes anything. Her hope is that this unusual assignment might change that.

After the students turn in their two responses to the essay prompt, Hagopian shares some with the class. Not surprisingly, the students do know how to plagiarize -- but were uncomfortable admitting as much. Hagopian said that the assignment is always greeted with "uncomfortable laughter" as the students must pretend that they never would have thought of plagiarizing on their own. Given the right to do so, they turn in essays with many direct quotes without attribution. Of course in their essays that are supposed to be done without plagiarism, she still finds problems -- not so much with passages repeated verbatim, but with paraphrasing or using syntax in ways that were so similar to the original that they required attribution.

When she started giving the assignment, she sort of hoped, Hagopian said, to see students turn in "nuanced tricky demonstrations" of plagiarism, but she mostly gets garden variety copying. But what she is doing is having detailed conversations with her students about what is and isn't plagiarism -- and by turning everyone into a plagiarist (at least temporarily), she makes the conversation something that can take place openly.

"Students know I am listening," she said. And by having the conversation in this way -- as opposed to reading the riot act -- she said she is demonstrating that all plagiarism is not the same, whether in technique, motivation or level of sophistication. There is a difference between "deliberate fraud" and "failed apprenticeship," she said.

Hagopian's approach was among many described at various sessions last week at the annual meeting of the Conference of College Composition and Communication, in New Orleans. Writing instructors -- especially those tasked with teaching freshmen -- are very much on the front lines of the war against plagiarism. As much as other faculty members, they resent plagiarism by their students -- and in fact several of the talks featured frank discussion of how betrayed writing instructors feel when someone turns in plagiarized work.

That anger does motivate some to use the software that detects plagiarism as part of an effort to scare students and weed out plagiarists, and there was some discussion along those lines. But by and large, the instructors at the meeting said that they didn't have any confidence that these services were attacking the roots of the problem or finding all of the plagiarism. Several people quipped that if the software really detected all plagiarism, plenty of campuses would be unable to hold classes, what with all of the sessions needed for academic integrity boards.

While there was a group therapy element to some of the discussions, there was also a strong focus on trying new solutions. Freshmen writing instructors after all don't have the option available to other faculty members of just blaming the problem on the failures of those who teach first-year comp.

What to do? New books being displayed in the exhibit hall included several trying to shift the plagiarism debate beyond a matter of pure enforcement. Among them were Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age, just published by the University of Michigan (and profiled on Inside Higher Ed ), and Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies, released in February by Boynton/Cook.

Like Hagopian, many of those at the meeting said that they are focused on trying to better understand their students, what makes them plagiarize, and what might make them better understand academic integrity. There wasn't much talk of magic bullets, but lots of ideas about ways to better see the issue from a student perspective -- and to find ways to use that perspective to promote integrity.

What Students Are Saying

Roy Stamper, associate director of the writing program at N.C. State, gave a presentation about a discussion he followed (for purposes of understanding, not enforcement) on the Wolf Web, a student discussion board. Students at N.C. State post anonymously, and while Stamper said he didn't know if all of the students were posting with accuracy about their situations, he still found plenty of truth in what they had to say.

The discussion was kicked off by a student asking for advice about certain term paper companies and whether they sold good work. The student, apparently fearful of how this would make him look, talked about how he was "completely and utterly fried and overloaded" and didn't have enough time. But he also said he didn't want to get caught plagiarizing.

While some of the responses rated various term paper sites, there was also a strong, intense reaction from other students -- much of it critical. “The less time you spend posting on here the more time u get to work on your paper," wrote one student. Another student wrote: “It’s called college. Grow up and get your shit done."

As other students joined in, offering suggestions on time management, Stamper said he was struck that the argument being put forth against plagiarism wasn't honesty, but efficiency, and that has its dangers too, as was brought home to him by this posting: "I say that if you can get away with doing 30 minutes worth of plagiarism as opposed to a few days of work ... then you my friend are efficient, and not necessarily a bad person."

Yet another student argued that term paper mills could promote efficiency without turning one into a plagiarist. This student said that he used term papers obtained online to gain ideas, but that because he then rewrites these ideas himself, it's not plagiarism. "My work, with a little help," is how he characterized it.

This prompted an angry outcry from another student, who wrote: "This shit is plagiarism by any definition. If you were caught and turned over to the office of student conduct, your ass would be nailed to the cross."

Stamper said that he shared the anger of that final student (if not the idea that the plagiarist deserved to be compared to Jesus), but that once he got past the anger, he found that his lurking online raised many questions. For instance, Stamper said that while he does not believe being overworked justifies plagiarism, he has found himself wondering about whether an intense workload puts an emphasis for students on efficiency as opposed to quality. "Good writing takes a lot of time and thought. I'm not sure I'm always giving them enough time," he said.

The other thing that the online discussion demonstrated, he said, was that many students do have a strong sense of right and wrong when it comes to plagiarism and the idea that every student born in the last 30 years believes everything online is fair to use is a stereotype. Students clearly are educable, he said, and perhaps the best approach may be peer pressure -- the plagiarists on the N.C. State site were clearly embarrassed and looked to justify themselves. Should writing instructors be looking to peer teaching -- and specifically peer pressure -- as a new tool to promote integrity, Stamper asked.

"Patchwriting" vs. Plagiarism

Several of the speakers discussed ideas related to differentiating plagiarism of the sort that involves buying a term paper or submitting another student's work with more common, and not always intentional, writing behaviors used by many students that meet textbook definitions of plagiarism but that may raise different moral and educational issues. Many cite the work of Rebecca Moore Howard (co-editor of one of the new books on plagiarism and a contributor to another), who is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University.

Howard talks about "patchwriting" as a common undergraduate technique of grouping together various sources of information, frequently with only minor changes in wording and without appropriate attribution. For her own classes, she uses a policy that says such writing will generally lead to a poor grade, but not to sanctions that would go to someone who bought a term paper.

Along these lines, R. Gerald Nelms, an associate professor of composition and rhetoric at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, spoke of how plagiarism must be seen as "an educational problem that requires an educational response." Much student plagiarism, he said, is unintentional, as students don't know how to take notes, how to summarize ideas, how to attribute ideas or quotes, and what paraphrasing means (and doesn't) with regard to plagiarism.

In a handout, Nelms wrote that patchwriting is "developmental plagiarism," or "behavior that is caused by the effort of the writer not fully integrated into the community for which she or he is trying to write to imitate the behavior of that community." Such plagiarism, he said, shouldn't be viewed as acceptable, but also shouldn't draw punishment. Students who engage in patchwriting need to be taught, he said, not brought up on charges. Nelms recommended a series of teaching subjects for instructors trying to show students how to write original work.

Students need to be taught to take notes, he said in his handout -- so notes aren't just direct quotes or synopses, but also include students' reactions or potential use of information. In this way, students are starting to learn how to use information, not just how to repackage it. Similarly, he said in the handout, "integration involves more than citation," and must include efforts to show students how to mix various sources, how to attribute, and how to include original ideas.

"Restorative Justice" for Plagiarists

Christy Zink, an assistant professor of writing at George Washington University, used the controversy over the play Frozen to teach her first-year students about plagiarism. The play -- about a psychiatrist who examines serial killers -- was a Broadway hit, but also led to charges of plagiarism against its author by a psychiatrist who said that writings about her career were used without her permission for the drama.

Zink is an advocate of using "restorative justice" to deal with plagiarism. "Restorative justice" is an approach to criminal behavior that involves repairing the harm done by an act, but not focusing on punishment for the sake of punishment.

One of Zink's students -- even though the course was focused on a discussion of plagiarism issues -- plagiarized her work for an assignment. Zink said she was a bit stunned that in such a context, a student would engage in blatant plagiarism (she stressed that this wasn't a borderline case). But the student appealed to Zink's commitment to restorative justice, and said "isn't that why I'm here? To learn from my mistakes?"

While Zink worked out a punishment herself with the student -- involving new work and a grade punishment -- she also decided to try to apply the restorative justice ideal to the situation by talking to all three sections of the class about the situation (without identifying the student) and seeking their views on what to do. Zink's announcement to her clases that "we have a plagiarist among us" prompted a range of reactions from students.

Zink said that her students were angry at first, but that they then argued that many other considerations should go into consideration of sanctions. To most students, "intentionality matters," Zink said. Students wanted to know if the plagiarism was "an honest mistake" or deliberate. At the same time, given that the class was so focused on plagiarism, the students were doubtful that the student couldn't have known what she was doing was wrong. So the students were both interested in motivation, and not willing to accept any excuse.

The lesson, Zink said, is that while "we need the law," we also need to make decisions on more than just legalistic approaches. As another example, she described very much not wanting to like the play Frozen, in part because of the plagiarism issues. But she found herself deeply moved nonetheless.

An Unusual Sort-of Plagiarized Essay About Plagiarism

Catherine Savini, director of the Undergraduate Writing Center at Columbia University, described using an unusual essay to prod students to think in new ways. The essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," appeared in Harper's last year. In the work, Jonathan Lethem makes an impassioned plea against traditional concepts of copyright and plagiarism, and he does so with words and phrases that are almost entirely plagiarized -- with no credit while making the argument, but a key at the end fessing up to his writing thefts. His technique drew attention and controversy.

Even Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford University law professor who is a prominent critic of copyright restrictions, wrote in to express his discomfort at finding one of his own sentences used in the essay. "The freedom that Lethem depends upon -- the freedom to integrate and build upon the work of others -- does not need the license the plagiarist takes," Lessig wrote in a letter to the magazine. "The rules against plagiarism, after all, require only that words borrowed be acknowledged as borrowed." (Lessig also applauded the essay's creativity and expressed hope that it would prompt further thought by those who seek to regulate the use of others' works.)

Savini said that this text is at once "dangerous" and provocative for students because it appears to glorify plagiarism and yet goes so far -- and copies the work of such noted authors -- that students are taken aback. "Is it a model? Is it fodder?"

When she assigned students to write about the essay, many were afraid of a plagiarism trap. "How do I cite Lethem?" was the question she received from many students, anxious about whether citations should go to Lethem, to those whose works he borrowed, both or neither. Students were so puzzled by the situation, Savini said, that many went to unusual lengths to avoid quoting from the essay they were writing about.

Then Savini told the students she wanted them to consider sharing their writing with Lethem. This further challenged students, she said, because they normally don't think about audience in writing, placing their instructors in some other category. Thinking about people as being affected by their writing was another step in viewing writing as more than completing an assignment, Savini said, but as something with ethical issues involved. "It's a difficult leap of the imagination" for many students to think about anyone other than their instructors reading their work, but they need to, she said.

"Suddenly, students were asking questions without easy answers," Savini said, about fairness, about the obligations of authors, and the relationship between authors and readers. "It's a morass I want my students to be in," she said.


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