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INDIANAPOLIS – Professors often frame plagiarism as an ethical problem, with a simple solution: don’t do it. For students tempted to plagiarize knowingly, that approach might work. But the academic integrity rhetoric ignores the fact that students sometimes unintentionally plagiarize or misrepresent source material in their work, panelists said Thursday during a session on the topic at the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Stephanie Roach, associate professor and director of writing programs at the University of Michigan at Flint, recalled a class discussion about why students misuse sources in their work. Students named all the usual suspects – the assignment was too hard or they ran out of time, for example.

But Roach was struck by a student who said, “I didn’t think I was that person.” The student had crossed a boundary she'd never thought she would, and Roach wondered how it had happened. The professor said she later mused with colleagues that the war on plagiarism was like the war on drugs, in that academe tells students to “Just say no,” painting a bright line between right and wrong and assuming students have the tools they need to make the right choice.

But sometimes they don’t. Students might misrepresent a source because they don’t understand it, or don’t know how to weave it in with their own thoughts, panelists said. And open-source culture, where facts and thoughts easily can be “plucked” from webpages, makes that supposed bright line dimmer still.

Valerie Seiling Jacobs, a master of fine arts in nonfiction writing candidate at Columbia University, doesn't lecture her first-year writing students on intentional plagiarism, she said. She tells students that if they're going to deliberately misuse others' work, “then you have bigger problems than I can ever help you solve.”

Instead, Seiling Jacobs focuses on inadvertent misuses, which are far more plentiful. For example, she said, a student once cited the Bible as proof that animals are sentient beings – not an appropriate source for a scientific argument. Another student once cited the table of contents of Science magazine. Others still have cited scholars citing other scholars, skewing the source material’s real meaning.

So the instructor spends time teaching students how to recognize appropriate sources. She teaches the parts of a scientific paper so her students know not to quote the abstract, for example. They’re all things she in her “naïveté” assumed students already knew, but they must explicitly be taught, she said.

Seiling Jacobs said these practices are the result of an “accidental” research project based on four semesters of requiring students to turn in source material with their research papers, so she could check the accuracy of their citations. She said it was time-consuming, taking up to four hours per paper, and discouraged colleagues from the practice as unsustainable. She feared that requiring such documentation without checking it would “implicitly” signal to students that inaccurate sourcing was acceptable. Instead, she encouraged attendees to require their students to deeply engage with the with source material before they start writing.

Roach said that just as “just say no” hasn’t eradicated drug use, it hasn’t eradicated plagiarism. She encouraged attendees to adopt a more useful slogan: “Just say know.” That means teaching students to do “good, ethical writing,” rather than being ethical and writing separately.

Seiling Jacobs, borrowing a term from a colleague, said she encourages “good research hygiene,” advising students to mark in their notes where their source texts end and their own thoughts begin. She also advises students to have in their work stations a list of signal phrases to throw into their papers, to make the distinction between original and quoted thoughts explicit.

Panel attendees said they agreed with the presenters, but some questioned whether they could adopt the “Just say know” rhetoric on their campuses. Some said they worried about faculty in other disciplines “passing the buck” of plagiarism education to writing professors only. Panelists agreed that is a shared responsibility.

Other attendees said they struggled with trying to reframe plagiarism education at an institutional level. Rebecca Nowacek, professor of English at Marquette University, said she’d been tasked with creating an online plagiarism tutorial required of all students, and wondered how should could make that format meaningful.

Roach said even a just say no-style tutorial wasn’t detrimental, but should be “step one" in a series of education efforts.

Nowacek said she'd at least try to "flag" in her tutorial some of the issues discussed, because students need to be aware that plagiarism is more than intentionally passing off another's work as their own. That's especially true for the many students who write across media, such as blogs or fanfaction, where sourcing standards are different than in academic writing, she said. 

"We assume that students can switch gears, but it gets fuzzy for them," Nowacek said. "They lack strategies." And for some students, she said, "a foul's not a foul unless the referee calls it."

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