• August 29, 2014

Playing Dirty in the War on Plagiarism

Plagiarism is running rampant on American college campuses, and everyone knows that technology is partly to blame. After all, any student with a few dollars can go to one of the many Web sites that sell research papers and buy the perfect paper for the assignment. Or the student can merely write the topic into a search engine and find a free paper some seeming altruist has posted. Of course, the latter method often results in students turning in papers on "Youth in Asia" or "Capitol Punishment."

Another reason for the chronic plagiarism is the attitude that it doesn't matter. I've been told by employees of the local copy shop that more than one student has had a paper faxed to them by their friends or parents. I asked the copy shop workers, who were also students at the college, why they didn't report this breach of the honor code, and they said they didn't know it was wrong and they certainly didn't think it was their responsibility. In other situations, students have said that they knew it was wrong, but insisted that it wasn't so bad and that, besides, everyone is doing it, and they'll never do it again. Right.

When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, one of my students turned in a plagiarized paper and, when I tried to follow campus policy and flunk him for the course, the director of the writing program told me not to. She feared that the student or his family might sue.

I'm sure everyone has his or her own plagiarism stories (I originally wrote that phrase in the singular, "his or her own story of plagiarism," then I bit the bullet and went for the truth). We even have favorites we tell friends and colleagues.

But faculty members (at least those who haven't resorted to plagiarism themselves) remain in the front lines of a war against plagiarism. What is at stake? Truth and honor. What is the cost? Our time grading and looking up the plagiarized papers, our belief in the integrity of our students, and their learning. Maybe this isn't a total war, but it is at least an ongoing struggle.

A lot of academics have offered ways to combat plagiarism. Whenever possible, I try to construct assignments about a topic on which very little has been written. In my poetry section of "Introduction to Literature," I ask students to bring in the lyrics of three of their favorite songs. Later I assign a paper asking them to compare the lyrics of one of the three songs with one of the poems in the anthology. In my composition class, I assign students to find a newspaper article from the last month and argue with one of the points of view expressed in it. I still get papers turned in (usually by undergraduates who miss a lot of classes) that are graduate-level treatises of the poetry of Milton and mention no song at all; or for the second assignment, papers that cite sources from long before the month allowed (they'll use a recent newspaper article, "Congress Debates Cloning," and cite a 1985 article on abortion rights).

Of course there are many Web sites -- such as plagiarism.org -- that allow the subscriber to submit a student's paper electronically and, for a nominal fee (which many departments will cover), the paper will be compared to a vast database of papers for sale or otherwise published. The thrifty professor can type an obviously lifted phrase from a paper into a search engine, and often find the article or paper that is being copied.

These methods, as well as explaining the evils of plagiarism until one is blue in the face, asking students to write papers condemning plagiarism, or flunking students who are caught so they can stand as examples of what happens to those who steal, have all been unsuccessful. My idea is to pollute the source in order to discourage students from eagerly grabbing papers off the Internet and assuming they will get the grade that the term-paper service almost guarantees.

To illustrate this point, I must relate another story about students' plagiarizing. This one, while not my favorite (that would be the one in which a Stephen King story was given an F and a C in a team-grading session before I read it and recognized it), leads me to my strategy.

When I taught Gulliver's Travels to my "Introduction to Literature" class one year, three women turned in the same paper. The first one I flunked for reasons I will explain in a moment. The second flunked because I recognized the paper from my earlier reading, and the third one flunked because she had not only turned in the same paper as the others, but she had not bothered to reformat the paper from the site she downloaded it from. She printed all that was on the screen, including advertising, hyperlinks, the source of the paper (a popular term-paper service, by the way), and then scrawled her name on the back of the final page.

The reason I flunked the first student was not that I recognized it as a plagiarized paper. It flunked because it deserved the lowest failing grade possible. The paper was some sort of lunatic raving that included adventures Gulliver had never gone on and characters who weren't in the book. Gulliver's Travels was published in the 1720s, so any mention of the American Civil War and Charles Darwin's voyage of the Beagle were outstanding anachronisms. They were as bad as writing that Huck and Tom lit out for the territories, after first checking fares on Priceline.com.

At first I was shocked by this incredibly incorrect paper. It quoted things from pages that weren't in our copy of the book and had Gulliver playing poker with his Houyhnhnm friend in London. I first thought that the young lady who turned the paper in was imagining things and needed help. Then I saw the second paper and the third.

Perhaps someone who was hallucinating wrote and posted the paper. Alternately, someone rewrote the story and wrote a paper about that version. Or, and this is what I suspect, someone deliberately posted a bogus paper. Think about it: If many of the papers out there on the Internet are so bad that they will automatically flunk, then maybe students will not risk searching for papers online to turn in as their own.

I propose that we start posting bad papers.

These papers would be ostensibly about the subject, but incapable of earning a passing grade. Submit them to the term-paper sellers or post them on sites that are open to the public. Include anachronisms, obvious misquotes, and glaring mistakes in logic. Construct "Works Cited" pages that are total fantasies and have nothing to do with the paper. Write a thesis about one book by an author, but use the plot of another of his or her books. Include coded messages that any reader can decipher that state the piece is stolen. Long, turgid, verb-less, incomprehensible, incomplete sentences, too.

Of course this method will have its drawbacks. Some of these horrid papers will actually pass because of professorial inattention. Or an occasional prof may have the same feeling that is mentioned in Woody Allen's "The Kugelmass Episode" when a student notes the sudden appearance of a short, bespectacled Jewish man from the 20th century in Madame Bovary -- that the mark of a classic is getting something new out of it each time it is read.

My proposal is deceitful, of course, and some people may have moral qualms about out-and-out lying and entrapment. We may even be said to be descending to the cheaters' level. My answer: There are good papers out there. Wouldn't you want to spend less time tracking them down and just give bad grades to really bad papers?

Finally, some may criticize this as further pollution of the Internet. We do, after all, warn the students that much of what they find there is unreliable. This will be a lesson to make that point in a bigger way.

On the whole, I think this idea has merit. Not only do we get a chance to bait the cheaters, but we get to indulge in a little creative writing. We can throw together a few bad ideas and practice sounding convincing, which is always a worthwhile skill for a writer. And who knows, maybe if a few of us combine our efforts, we can get a big grant to pursue the idea. Oh, and maybe we'll discourage a few plagiarists.

Now to return to my paper. Let's see, Huck found a good fare on Priceline.com, but Tom, all of a sudden, has this harebrained idea to join a boy band and buy a ticket on the space shuttle.

Vincent Moore, who earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1998, starts this fall as an assistant professor at Tiffin University.

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