Still struggling with plagiarism

Some time in the mid-1980s, when I was a lecturer in Dublin, I came across an essay I was marking that had all the hallmarks of plagiarism: the paper drifted between inarticulate banalities and then, suddenly, beautiful writing with intelligent analysis. Its referencing was suspect. And its passionate argument for a particular legal reform did not sit easily with the views of this student as normally expressed in class.

Anyway, I called in the student and told him that I suspected plagiarism and asked him to comment. Almost immediately he admitted the offence, and then proceeded to tell me how he had gone about it. In order to find sources with which I might be less familiar, he had travelled to a university library in Canada (where he had friends), and there he looked for materials that were in more obscure books and articles; then he had taken passages from different works to hide his tracks.

At this point I asked him whether it wouldn’t have been much simpler for him just to do the work properly, rather than take all this immense trouble. He agreed that this was a reasonable question; but he then added that he had learned much from the materials he had plagiarised, and that they had broadened his outlook.

Of course the opportunities for plagiarism have grown exponentially as people got access to the internet and its vast resources. But the tools for detecting plagiarism have also become more powerful. Chief of these is the program Turnitin, which compares submitted text with a huge databank of materials and then offers a conclusion as to whether there has been plagiarism. But as this product became more and more effective, its developers offered a rather different product for students: the program WriteCheck advises them as to whether their essay or assignment may be breaking the plagiarism rules. This has prompted outrage on the part of at least some academics.

I wonder sometimes whether we are allowing our fears of plagiarism to overwhelm us. Clearly plagiarism is wrong, but it is not life-threatening. Students who plagiarise may be hiding the tracks of their inattentiveness or, occasionally, modest talents; but they will have spent at least a little while opening their minds to the materials they are abusing. Turnitin has given academics some means of monitoring what is going on, but now WriteCheck is accused, by some, as an insurance policy for students against the risk of plagiarism detection.

I strongly doubt that our world will collapse as a consequence of this. And while it is important that students understand that plagiarism is not acceptable, we should not become paranoid about it. There are other things that should have a better claim to our attention.

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33 Comments on “Still struggling with plagiarism”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The example you cite is a blatant infringement. That person knew exactly what he was doing. But I don’t believe for an instant that the vast majority have a clue about plagiarism beyond the picking up of a work and passing it off as theirs in it’s entirety.
    When would they have learned about the finer points of this. Who has informed them.

  2. Al Says:

    Turn it in, and all that has potentially dumped down the whole research and writing effort in academia. The main reason for this is our dependence on written materials for assessment. Why not presentations as an alternative?

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Because presentations are stultifying for everyone but the student presenting.

      • Al Says:

        What can I say to that?
        How does it reflect on you? Your students? Your area of expertise? Your teaching?

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          I can’t see hoe it reflects poorly on me or my subject. It certainly reflects poorly on Irish students who are, on the whole, tuned out members of Homo Oeconomicus and seeking to get the maximum grade for the absolute least effort. 80% of them are extraordinarily weak students and rote learners who have no idea what is involved in university work On the days when other students are presenting, all those who are not will either not attend or not prepare. Those doing the presenting will crib whatever they can from the Internet and present mere information as though it were thought.

          You could fault me for not doing enough to shake them from rote learning habits (I do try), but:

          1) remediation is not my job;
          2) you’re attempting to go against their entire educational experience and the entire student culture among their peers (e.g. get the max for the min, find the easiest electives possible, get away with whatever you can, party every night you can, etc.)

          Of course these attitudes are those of the culture as a whole.

          • Al Says:

            I see all that, but as I walk thru this failed world I remember Bracton who sought to make the bad good and the good better!

          • Regina Says:

            @Ernie Ball
            ‘remediation is not my job’
            Well, at least you’re being honest about it. Tolerating the bottom 80% is often seen as one of the trials of teaching, where teachers at all levels invariably like to bask in the reflected glory of the top 20%, or 2%, preferably. Isn’t that the icing on the conferring cake after all?
            ‘Remediation’ may not be the teaching intention, but transcending the limitations of previous educational experiences should be part of the higher education mission. Most of our students will graduate in spite of us. What will they have learned because of us?

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            You’re right, Regina. Rather than set a standard that the students should strive to reach, we should just dumb everything down to where they’re at. If where they’re at is being completely uninterested in anything other than sex and drink and Facebook then we should just turn the universities into bordellos with wifi and be done with it.

            Again, I cannot transcend their limitations because every aspect of the culture is working against me, gallantly though I try.

      • Regina Says:

        Is this also true for everyone but the *lecturer* presenting?

  3. anna notaro Says:

    I think I agree with the view that plagiarism is not of paramount importance in the big scheme of (university-related) matters.
    From an art & media scholarly perspective I’m used to discuss with students practices of ‘collage, re-mix or mash up’ which pre-dates contemporary digital technologies, in fact a *collaborative authorship* is nothing new in the humanities as well as in the sciences. What is of crucial importance is for students to appreciate the ethos behind giving credit to somebody else’s idea, which stems from a truly mature and self-reflective adoption of their creative sources, in doing so they do create something new and very personal, as for the concept of *originality*, Goethe had already put it under a new perspective when he wrote: ‘All intelligent thoughts have already been thought; what is necessary is only to try to think them again.’

  4. Al Says:

    Let me develop my point a little further.
    Depending on what one is assessing in terms of subject area, discipline etc, I believe there is a hierarchy in terms of cost effectiveness for assessing competency.
    The maxim that one doesn’t fully learn something till one has to teach it put in to the learners context may highlight the importance of students presenting or demonstrating competence. The common methods of demonstration: exam paper, thesis, oral/ dreaded PowerPoint all have positives and negatives, but consider that the lecturer also demonstrates their competence primarily thru the lecture hall presentations, but also supported by the writings of themselves and others.
    Presenting ones level of competence thru oral presentation is an under valued method of assessment, it does lack the quality assurance that having scripts offers, but isn’t it a real life skill necessary for all aspects of adult life?

    • Jilly Says:

      OK, leaving aside all intellectual and pedagogical issues raised by your suggestion, let’s look at the practical problems alone. If the weighting of assessments is to be altered towards an emphasis upon student presentations, it would seem reasonable that each student would make a fairly substantial presentation. That would have to be perhaps 30 mins (or 20 mins x 2) for a module. Each module is typically taught over 12 weeks. We therefore need to allow for 30 mins multiplied by the number of students in each module. Best case scenario these days is that students have seminars of 20 students per class, which means that you need 10 weeks of 2 presentations per week for everyone to do their assessment. This also means that some of these students have to do their primary assessment in Week 3 of the module, which seems rather hard on them (!) since they’ll have had only 2 weeks to learn/prepare anything to present, and it therefore seems logical that their work will be less impressive than those who get to present in Week 12.

      This also means that all small-group teaching time will be devoted to student presentations; no chance for other kinds of discussion and the vital opportunity for students to ask questions.

      The only alternative to this scenario is to increase contact hours per student per module. Even assuming that both the student and lecturer’s timetable could allow for this, most colleges are already straining at the seams in terms of space – anyone who has ever tried to find a classroom for one extra class in Week 7 will know that you’re lucky to be offered a broom-cupboard at 5pm on a Friday (to which no students will show up).

      The short version of all this (familiar to anyone whose tried to plan student presentations in recent years) is that with the massive increase in student numbers, presentations are a time-hungry activity which are becoming less and less feasible. Most of us still use them – typically as group presentations in order to save time, which of course have their own problems – as part of the wide mix of assessments set across any given semester’s modules, but they are dying out for practical reasons.

      I would also note that when I was an undergraduate, it was taken for granted that everyone gave at least one seminar presentation per course – for no marks, but merely as part of the structure of learning. This of course was when classes were smaller and we weren’t semesterised, so courses ran all year and there was plenty of time for this as merely one part of seminar activities. These days you would never get students to do that for no marks – see Ernie’s points above about changing student motivations.

      • Al Says:

        Dont leave aside the intellectual and other issues, please engage in those too.
        I see the problems that arise from the scenario you have presented.
        But, being able to cram information into short term memory and write exam question answers is a less employable skill than being able to present ones work to others.

        • Jilly Says:

          well (to keep it brief) one big problem I would have with shifting the burden of assessments away from writing to presentations (though I certainly think they’re a good skill to learn as well) is the importance of learning to communicate clearly and coherently in written form. If there’s no place for that in university, we may as well shut up shop. But, to be fair, I presume that you’re not actually arguing for that?

          • Al Says:

            No, I amnt arguing for that, and would agree with you about the importance of writing. However I would say that for the average person it takes decades of effort to reach a decent level of writing skill.
            with that in mind, it is time to start looking at the actual level of writing ability, speaking, etc rather than pointing to learning outcomes, or grades of graduates.
            typing on a phone,
            apologies for my typing!

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      The insistence on the cost-effectiveness of assessment is exactly the attitude that the students have internalised. Get the maximum for the minimum. It is everything that is wrong with Ireland today and why Irish universities and Irish society, absent a massive cultural change, will never excel at much of anything. On the one hand, gombeenism, a form of economic thinking (“take whatever you can get”). On the other, its mirror image (meant to reign in the assumed tendency of everyone to gombeenism): narrow economic thinking–which is invoked every time anyone starts yammering about “accountability”–which holds everyone back. But there are other options. Outside the pure selfishness of gombeenism and the narrow rigidities of “economism” (which only serve to reinforce gombeenism as the ultimate in getting the maximum for the minimum), there are other options: inspiration, generosity, having a vocation, commitment. Most lecturers are motivated by these yet are constantly drawn back by students and administrators to the dual ideology of gombeenism/economism.

      Even in business terms, this is counterproductive. Do you think Jobs and Wozniak were doing a narrow accounting of their time when they were inventing Apple? Were they trying to get away with whatever they could? How about Sergei Brin and Larry Page at Google? Even in the field of business, that is not how the world works as opposed to the “getting by” and “getting over” that everyone in Ireland is satisfied with.

      Yeah, OK, that was a bit of a rant and not commensurate with what I’m commenting on. But I still mean it.


      • Ernie, the problem I detect in your writing is that you yearn for certain ideals but have long given up on them, so that what dominates your critique is simple cynicism. The risk is that this communicates itself to your students, who may feel that if this is what you think of them, why bother living up to any higher ideal. I may be wrong of course, and you may reserve these thoughts for here, or indeed that may just be ‘Ernie Ball’, whereas the real UCD academic may be different.

        I spent over 20 years teaching students who had been ruined by education. My formula was to respect them, treat them as mature adults and encourage them to engage their critical faculties and pursue an intellectual generosity of spirit. I was rarely disappointed. And what I see again and again is evidence of lecturers who, despite all the odds stacked against them in terms of resources, time and understanding still come through and give their all so as to give students a sense of the importance of knowledge and scholarship. If we lose that, we never regain it.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    As Lily Tomlin once put it, the problem with cynicism is that you can never keep up. Indeed, nothing I’ve said is as cynical and world-weary as the claim that plagiarism is ultimately unimportant. What does that say about what it is we’re doing and how does it contrast with what I’ve said?


    • Well. I don’t know who said that plagiarism is unimportant, so I can’t assess the state of mind of whomever it was. Clearly it isn’t unimportant. But equally it is not everything.

      Actually, as we go through life plagiarism is all around us, sometimes unintentional and sometimes not. Prominent musicians have been quite open about the extent to which they borrow from other people’s work. The legal case surrounding George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ contains some interesting analysis of this. Someone – and I need to check back who that was – once described plagiarism as ‘etiquette’ rather than ‘principle’. I think that an assessment of plagiarism and its implications needs to move beyond statements of shock and horror.

      In education, it is of course important that students learn that analysis and critique require a genuine input rather than just a recycling of what has already been said. But this isn’t just an issue involving plagiarism, it is also about how to move beyond the quoting of sources, even when this is done in an unimpeachable manner. It is about how to deploy the mind.

      I think we get excessively hooked on concerns about plagiarism, and we often fail to communicate the reasons convincingly, because to those at whom we preach our message can sound as if it’s mostly about obeying rules. That’s the least important part of it.

      • Al Says:

        The way I present plagiarism is that for academic currency to have value, ideas must have their clear origin. Otherwise counterfeiting implodes the whole system.
        Then I present situations where academics caught for plagiarism had to resign, thus establishing the value of the system.
        But isn’t it more our system than the students, in that we are relatively permanently here and they are passing through?
        Rather than spending money on software, I would prefer a greater intolerance and the odd public hanging for transgressors.

  6. anna notaro Says:

    on the matter of whether plagiarism in unimportant or not, as I mentioned above I personally reckon it not to be of ‘paramount importance’ which of course does not mean to say that it is unimportant. Contemporary digital tools have rendered easier and further enhanced well established artistic and cultural techniques, sticking to rigid regulations in this area without taking into account such a background only risks alienating our students.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Balderdash. We’re not having them write hip hop tunes. Well, I’m not anyway. Not yet.

      • anna notaro Says:

        might be nonsense to you Ernie, but not to a lot of academics for whom popular culture, hip hop included, is a serious scholarly topic..

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          That’s beside the point. It being a serious topic (a debatable contention) doesn’t imply that the methods used to create hip hop are acceptable for writing essays about hip hop or any other subject.

          • anna notaro Says:

            If you don’t appreciate the scholarly value of the topic or, better know nothing about it, it derives that you are bound to make debatable assumptions about methodologies to write about it. There are some discipline specific angles and sensitivities with regards to any discussion about plagiarism which havd emerged rather clearly in the thread so far.As always there is no need to deem as nonsense what is beyond one’s intellectual interests or grasp

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            You presume quite a bit more than I do. My point is that the putative legitimacy of hip hop as an object of study can no more legitimate “sampling” (aka plagiarism) than the legitimacy of birds as an object of study would legitimate presenting one’s scholarly research by means of screeches and squawks.

          • Al Says:

            Doesnt it take a nation of millions?

  7. Vincent Says:

    If we take a student of 19. You people have handed him a primary reading list and a longer secondary list. Then you proceed to lecture twice a week for say 10/12 weeks.
    If you have been doing this course for yonks there is probably a goodly section in the library. But normally what you have is a half the primary list and a fifth of the secondary. But no matter how long the course has been on, the entire list will not reside within the walls of the institution.
    Now given that the newly minted course produced by a nice gal from Tulane has the legs to get to December. And given the library purchasing policy is parsimonious. Given the secondary list is weighted to US publications. And given, if, amazon dot co dot uk hasn’t melded into a hissy fit and can get the stuff it will not arrive before Tulane has issued her essay titles.
    So, what have we got here, 80 students, 5 primary and say a generous 14 secondary of the reading list and 19 year old’s trained to answer questions. Even if they were some sort writing angels the narrowness of the input data couldn’t but toss up similarities. Actually the miracle in all this plagiarism hoohaa is that there isn’t more.

    • Wendymr Says:

      You would seriously put items on a reading list that aren’t in the university library?

      If I ever wanted to include anything on a reading list, the rule was that I had to ensure that the item itself, or properly-produced photocopies (in accordance with copyright law) was available in the Library, for borrowing or in-library consultation. For courses with more than about 15 students, it had to be multiple copies – again, originals or acceptable photocopies.

      • Vincent Says:

        Not me, I was on the receiving end at UCG that was.
        And I’ve encountered enough since to know that things haven’t changed hugely. Better, yes. Solved, No.

  8. Regina Says:

    Lovin’ the colourful commentary Vincent!

    Notwithstanding Ernie’s gallant efforts, one should see the plagiarism shoe on the other foot sometimes, and hear students complain (with respectful bitterness) about having to sit through a lecture that is largely comprised of cut ‘n paste from Wikipedia, *badly* pasted into a PPT (such that the text doesn’t fit the screen), while the utterly sober and quietly ambitious students have to sit there in meek compliance…surreptitiously reading the Wikipedia material for themselves, and thinking: “I could make a better hand at presenting this.”

    All very anecdotal, isn’t it, and certainly doesn’t describe anyone here.

    And as you say, Anna, plagiarism is relative…

    Wikipedia has its own built-in disclaimer these days, inviting readers and evaluators to rate the entry, e.g., “Trustworthy: Do you feel that this page has sufficient citations and that those citations come from trustworthy sources?”

    Start with a easy topic like “knowledge”. A nice exercise for students might be to make a case for trustworthiness🙂


  9. On the original topic, I will say I’ve been offered Turnitin (optional on our campus) several times and declined. I would rather just assign papers that require something of the student’s own opinion and experience. It is counter to the “pure” term or research paper but seems to alleviate the plagiarism issue and most of the cat-and-mouse games. I also don’t allow Wikipedia quotes, but allow its use as a resource to find primary sources. Ferdinand’s midpoint comment about “deploying the mind” is eminently quotable and I may share it with my students in our discussions of academic integrity.

    On the comments overall, I found myself reading Ernie from the smug position that I’ll never take a class from him. I also hope along with Ferdinand that it is really just “Ernie Ball” talking. I used to do that myself, vent about remediation and such, but I hope I’ve grown out of it.


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