Plagiarism season

It’s that time of year again, when newspapers start reminding us that cheating and plagiarism happen.

“Lines on plagiarism for students blur in the digital age”

If you are not so worried about presenting yourself as absolutely unique, then its O.K. if you say other peoples words, its O.K. if you say things you dont believe, its O.K. if you write papers you couldnt care less about because they accomplish the task, which is turning something in and getting a grade, [anthropologist Susan D.] Blum said, voicing student attitudes. And its O.K. if you put words out there without getting any credit.

“To stop cheats, colleges learn their trickery”

For educators uncomfortable in the role of anti-cheating enforcer, an online tutorial in plagiarism may prove an elegantly simple technological fix. That was the finding of a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in January. Students at an unnamed selective college who completed a Web tutorial were shown to plagiarize two-thirds less than students who did not. (The study also found that plagiarism was concentrated among students with lower SAT scores.)

I absolutely hate those “Web tutorials”. They’re a waste of time, that have come to be used for everything from human subjects guidelines, conflict of interest rules, and employment handbook reviews. I don’t question that they may work, but I perceive them as hostile: a “CYA” tool for administrators who don’t want personal contact with their employees.

I don’t have a silver bullet for plagiarism, but it helps to explicitly introduce the topic, and review acceptable citation and quotation practices before the first writing assignment. It helps even more to assign online work with hyperlinks – there’s little reason nowadays to require a whole class to cut a tree for their work, when they’re already accustomed to interacting online. And make assignments that aren’t meaningful outside the context of the class – specific reviews of particular readings, or critical analysis of specific hypotheses, not general topics.

Professors encourage plagiarism when they don’t hold students accountable for their opinions. When a student isn’t personally invested, she isn’t going to think seriously, and she may find it easier to just to slide by.