Yes, this is another post on plagiarism, which is a topic academics will continue discussing until it disappears (and how likely is that to happen?). ProfHacker has had posts before on preventing plagiarism and responding to plagiarism, and I am sure we will have more posts following this one. Today, I thought it might be useful to add some thoughts from my work as an administrator who has had to deal with a lot of plagiarism cases from across the university. I certainly am not saying my thoughts will end plagiarism, but they might help reduce it in some cases. And, in the comments, I hope you all will add even more thoughts to this list.
First, a bit on what shapes my perspective. I spent three years as director of my university’s first-year rhetoric and writing program, which meant that I was the first person a faculty member or student would come to see if they could not agree on whether or not plagiarism had occurred and/or whether or not the penalty was fair. I stepped down as director and became chair of my department last semester, which makes me the person who deals with plagiarism cases if the program director is not able to have everyone come to agreement. I have spent over two years as a member of the academic standing committee for another college at my university where a group of us hear plagiarism cases that have not been resolved at any of the earlier stages. In other words, I have heard a lot of faculty and students talk about plagiarism and what should be done to prevent it and when it happens. From all of these discussions, I have developed some thoughts that might help everyone become a bit better at discouraging, recognizing, and responding to plagiarism.
Do define plagiarism in your classes. I have seen many syllabi that say that plagiarism can lead to failing the particular assignment or the entire class. That is what I say on my syllabi. But I have discovered that many people say this without any explanation as to what plagiarism means. Many people seem to assume that everyone works from the same definition, which is not always the case. Sure, a student who downloads a paper from the internet or pays someone else to write her or his essay is committing plagiarism, and most of us would agree with that. But what about other cases? What is the difference between plagiarism and bad paraphrase, for example? That is a question I have had to discuss with many people over the years and one of the major reasons that cases get reported to administrators. These discussions show how faculty sometimes cannot agree on what counts as plagiarism, which helps lead to my next point.
Do not assume that students have learned to cite sources as you wish in previous writing courses or in high school. I have heard many faculty outside my department’s writing program say that they should not have to define plagiarism or teach citation in their classes because students should have learned it already. There are a few problems with this line of thinking. First, many students do get out of high school never having written an essay that involves research or working with sources. This is happening more and more because of the state-mandated tests students have to take to earn a high school diploma. These tests usually do not require that students cite anything, so teachers who have their salaries or continued employment tied to the test scores of their students do often focus on teaching for the test. Do we rant and rave about this? We can and we should, but it is not the fault of the teachers or of the students. Second, many students do not take their required writing courses in their first semester or even their first year. I once heard the complaint that students should have learned citation in their writing course, but the students in question were in a college that did not have students take that course until their second semester, so the instructor was assuming that students in his first-semester course had knowledge that students could not have. Third, students in introductory writing courses do not learn all citation systems in that course. I have colleagues who believe we should be teaching MLA, APA, and Chicago style in our classes, but we barely have time to address one of them well. Yet some faculty expect students to come out of my class, where I teach MLA, and be able to use APA or Chicago style without any guidance or instruction. This also leads to my next point.
Do remember the realities of university life and the fact that introductory writing courses are often taught by passionate but overworked adjuncts. Almost one hundred percent of our courses are taught by adjuncts. That is a point I raise a lot with administrators. Those of us who are full-time faculty in my department are fighting to change that, but change is not happening anytime soon. We have a great group of energetic and eager adjunct faculty, but they do not all have the same training. We try to train them, but there are three of us and thirty of them. And this is true at many, many places. Some of our adjunct faculty work really hard to teach things like citation, but they may not have the experience or the training to teach it as well as they could. This is actually why, in my college, students take research courses in their major and do not rely on my department to teach research to their students. Different departments want students to follow different disciplinary conventions, and they know we are not the ones who can teach research in every disciplinary model. This becomes even more complicated when non-writing courses are also taught by adjuncts who have even less training in teaching citation. People may try their best but still not be able to teach all they should, which is why one of my pedagogical mantras is to teach what I want them to know, even if it takes time from other things. All of this is further explanation for why you cannot expect students to know all you want them to know when they come to your class.
Do assign projects that students cannot find already done in other places. Summary is an important skill, and I teach it in my classes. But I have seen some assignments that ask students to summarize an entire book and then give their opinions on it, and summaries of that book exist in multiple places online. It makes it too easy for students not to do the reading and just read all the summaries. Some will just choose to copy from all of the summaries that exist. Instead of asking for information that already exists, put another spin on the assignment. Ask them to read a book but to connect it to the larger themes or other texts in the course. Or ask them to relate the book to certain news events of the last month or two. Do something that forces students to do more than repeat what already exists. Sure, they may plagiarize parts of their essay, but it makes it more difficult to plagiarize the whole thing.
Do provide detailed prompts for all major assignments. Every time I have had to deal with a plagiarism case, I ask not only to see the paper and the sources from which it was taken but also the instructor’s syllabus and the prompt for the assignment. I check the syllabus to see what it says about plagiarism, and I check the assignment to see what it says about citation as well as what the student was actually asked to do. I have been amazed at the number of times an assignment prompt says nothing about which citation system a student should use, and I have been even more surprised when I ask the instructor about that and she or he replies, “Well, students should know.” I have seen students get marked down for following MLA style when the instructor wanted (but did not state on the prompt) APA style. Along with teaching students what you want them to know, you should also just plain tell them what you want, preferably in multiple ways such as assignment prompts, syllabi, repeated mentions in class, and the like. Oh, sure, some students will still say they did not know, but it has been very easy as an administrator when I can pull out the written prompt and show them what they should have known. Without a prompt, that becomes much more difficult.
Do follow your university’s protocols. If your university has a procedure for handling plagiarism cases, follow it. I have seen problems arise when faculty wait too long past the timeline set in my university’s policy to raise the issue, and I have seen students wait too long, too. It is probably a good idea to go over the university’s policy in every course you teach at least once to ensure that everyone knows it because saying “I didn’t know” is not an excuse for faculty or students. If your university does not have a clear policy, then ask your colleagues what they do and see if it’s possible for your department or program to come to some sort of consensus. If such consensus is not possible, at least be clear (perhaps outlining on the syllabus and/or the assignment prompt) how you will handle such cases. It will make your life easier in the long run.
For the administrators reading this, what else would you add to my list? And for the faculty and students reading this, what do you think administrators should know? Get that discussion going in the comments; I am sure we would all benefit from it.