Tackling Plagiarism Head on

            Every semester, I find at least a couple students who plagiarize in my college English classes.  For the English 101 courses, it’s hard to say whether these students intentionally plagiarize or if they have never been taught what plagiarism is and that it’s wrong.  For courses beyond 101, it’s clear that those students are aware of plagiarism and know that it’s wrong.

            When I began teaching college English, I never thought I would run up against plagiarism.  Because I didn’t cheat, I never thought others would.  Yes, I was naive.  I teach between 60 and 80 students each semester, and I’ve learned early on to expect between two and five instances of plagiarism each semester.  I have no idea how many cases of plagiarism that I did not catch, but before I began really focusing on plagiarism in creative ways, I was catching between 3% and 7% of my students plagiarizing on their college English papers.  Recently, I have been catching one to two students a semester.

            When I caught my first instance of plagiarism, I felt betrayed by the student.  I don’t know why, but I took it personally.  I’m sure that student was only concerned with passing my class with a good grade.  I doubt that he thought at all that it would bother me.  Now after over ten years of teaching, I see it sometimes as a game and others times, especially near the end of the semester, as a timewaster for me.

            Garrett Bauman, author of “CSI: Plagiarism,” doesn’t believe instructors should use too much energy in being outraged although he understands it:  “Cut-and-paste theft saps time and energy, insults professors, creates distasteful confrontations, and damages the integrity of education.”  I really relate to the sapping of time and energy.  When someone plagiarizes, I have to spend extra time documenting and showing the plagiarism.  It keeps me from getting to the other honest papers.  Barman thinks instructors should learn to enjoy the hunt in seeking out plagiarism.  There are times that I do enjoy the hunt but not at the end of the semester with grading deadlines looming ahead.

            I did enjoy Bauman’s article and the good natured humor he showed.  In fact, now that I am between semesters, I am relaxed once again and my sense of humor is back.  I can also reflect on my latest case of plagiarism and ponder the topic again.

            Last semester, I discovered only one case.  Who knows how many others I missed.  In the case of this student, she plagiarized on all three papers that I assigned during the semester.  The first time, I was fortunate because Turnitin unearthed it for me.  But while Turnitin initially helped me, it didn’t work for the subsequent two papers.  That’s because she learned how to fool the program’s matrix.  When I gave her a chance to rewrite the paper, she simply inserted words.  She inserted just enough words into the passages she copied that Turnitin didn’t catch the plagiarism on the revised paper and the other papers.  However, when I read through, much of her writing had turned into gobbledygook because her insertions did not make sense.  I had to turn to Google, and it took far more time to unearth her cheating.  She had completed English 101 the previous semester, so I knew that she had clear instruction about plagiarism recently.  When I met with her, she didn’t offer excuses or denials.  She simply took her lumps quietly.  I have no idea what she was thinking during our meeting because she was so quiet.

            Through the years, I have just learned to incorporate instruction on plagiarism in all my courses whether in English 101 or in my more advance technical writing courses.  I have enough students who never learned about plagiarism or who are returning to college after many years that it has become worth my while to take the time to go over it again and again.  I haven’t decided which method is best, but I offer a variety of ways to address it.

Have students read a real life “plagiarism” incident and get their reactions:

            This is one of my more fun activities that I often use in my classes.  It all began with a former student who emailed an article:  “Magazine Steals Writer’s Article and Tells Her to be Grateful”.  I loved the article although I was as outraged as my former student.  How dare the editor tell the writer to be grateful that her online magazine used the article and improved it since it wasn’t well written to begin with?  So I pose to my students the question:  How would you feel if something you wrote was taken without your permission and someone else profited from it?  And the discussion usually takes off.  I found if I make the discussion personal, I get a stronger reaction from students, and then the discussion leads naturally from copyright infringement and stealing to academic plagiarism.  I try to make the connection between integrity in academics and ethics in the real world.

Have students try to find articles to buy:

            This is a bolder activity that I have my online literature classes do. I take one of the more popular and common short stories from our textbook, usually “A&P”, and I have my students search Google or Yahoo to see how many sites they can find with free essays about the story.  Then I have them do the search again for paid essays.  Then I have them go back to one of the free essays and copy and paste one of the sentences from that essay into the search.  More often than not, at least a dozen sites offer the same free essay.  With those results in hand, our discussion takes off.  I get different levels of reactions, but most students express amazement about this not so underground industry.  Along the way, I point out that as easy as it is for students to take things off the Internet, it is equally easy for instructors to find instances of plagiarism.

Test students’ knowledge of what constitutes plagiarism:

            Many of my students claim that while instructors mention that plagiarism is bad, they do not spend enough time showing students what is and isn’t plagiarism.  I do this in different ways – through examples and through the Internet, but I always end with a PowerPoint with scenarios (In your paper you use your uncle’s experiences on a trip to Germany to support your points about….), and as a class, we go over each one answering either cite or don’t cite.  With these examples, we cover all kinds of information gathering and use including interviews, the Internet, personal experience and common knowledge.

            Have I reduced the incidences of plagiarism?  I don’t know for sure.  I haven’t tracked my results, but I am finding fewer instances of plagiarism in the years since I have used these activities.  Maybe all I’ve done is developed more creative plagiarists that I can’t catch, but I prefer to think that I’ve created awareness in my classrooms and enlightened students.