Students are from Mars

Today was a very disappointing day in my interactions with students. Few showed up for my class, and then I guest lectured for a colleague on ethics. I’m not particularly fond of lecturing on ethics, because it can be a frustrating topic. However, the timing aligned well, because there were not single, but multiple instances of plagiarism on an assignment this class handed in. So after an hour of talking about Kant and Bentham and Rawls — and tying this back to some professional ethical dilemmas from my own experience — I turned to the topic of plagiarism, and what was an appropriate way to deal with it.

I was blown away by the response. In retrospect, I don’t know why. Students seemed to think that a warning or a slap on the wrist was an appropriate way to deal with plagiarism. Why?

Because maybe it wasn’t intentional. I proposed a hypothetical: it was an entire paragraph. Yes, some said, but maybe they just forgot to cite it or add quotes. If that was the case, I suggested, they were stupid, and should still fail.

Because if it was just one paragraph in a 20 page paper, they should only be punished proportionately. There are two problems with this. First, that a single paragraph of plagiarism is usually simply a matter of what is detected. If I detect plagiarism, I don’t bother to read the rest, because I have no way of knowing who wrote it. Second, the act of plagiarizing an assignment is so egregious that it doesn’t really matter how good the rest of your work is.

Many of them seemed very reluctant to deal harshly with the plagiarists in their midst (“it could have a serious effect on their lives”), which to me was inexplicable. If, as a graduate student, I found out that one of my colleagues had cut and pasted their work from the web, I would have wanted to see him or her strung from the nearest lamppost. But many among the students — and the faculty! — seem very reluctant here.

One of the students suggested that as professors we surely accidentally forgot to quote things, but that this was then caught by an editor. Seriously, this is what the student seemed to think. I tried to convey to the student that this isn’t how things worked, and that a professor or information professional who plagiarized was likely to loose all credibility, and possibly his or her job. But they just don’t seem to think that plagiarism is an important issue.

It’s just a depressing and unfortunate thing to have to deal with. And frankly, it says a lot about the quality of the students you are admitting. In the Communication program this year, we have a small but truly outstanding group of new students. I cannot even imagine any of them plagiarizing their work. But even more depressing to me than the few bad apples in this other class is a group of people who seem simply not to care that it has occurred. I wonder how long it will take for me to stop caring.

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  1. Posted 12/2/2004 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    I know it is very frustrating and disappointed, but I also think it needs lots of time and efforts to communicate with students. My previous job is a full time research assistant. When I grade students’ assignment for the first time, I felt very angry. Almost all students copied and pasted data from Internet, including master or some Ph.D students. Many of them even do not change the HTML style, and it makes it very easy for you to distinguish where the data come from.

    But when time goes by, I gradually found that, it is because they do not have a clear understanding of what plagiarism is. It is just what they did when they are in elementary or junior high school. Thus, we wrote a very detail instruction with lots of example of what plagiarism is and how to cite properly. Furthermore, we spent an hour during the class in the beginning of every semester to emphasis on the importance of this. However, students still did not understand it very clear. When we found some plagiarism evidences in their term paper, we ask them to explain. However, they got shocked and they do not know why it is called plagiarism. It is very frustrated when you try to explain but they still do not get the point. I think they are not on purpose. Many of them worked very hard and were very careful about the plagiarism, but still have that mistake. I do not know how to find a better way to help them.

    But the most frustrated thing is that, as you said, they seemed unconcerned and reluctant. However, even though I know that they do not mean to make me angry on purpose, sometimes I got mad, too. One student said to me, “but the teacher said the idea should be free……” At that moment, I suddenly realized that education is really a difficult process, but perhaps I can get doubled excitement when I see the student like that finally changed, grew, and learned things.

  2. Posted 12/2/2004 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    All students in your classes have been warned of the consequences of plagiarism. I think back to the plagiarists I dealt with while teaching, and am so discouraged that someone who, for example, took a paper that a friend had turned in, for another class, that had been copied off the Internet in the first place, was able to go on and receive the same degree that others work so hard to earn. I doubt that most plagiarism is an isolated incident brought on by stress or being overwhelmed. It speaks to someone’s intellectual character – or lack of it.
    Plagiarists aren’t going to go away, but they shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from stealing others’ ideas and passing them off as their own.

  3. Posted 12/2/2004 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Amen, Alex!

  4. Posted 12/2/2004 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I don’t seem to have much problem with ‘plagiarism’ in my classes, 2 cases that were clear and obvious in the last 5 years. We have an honor code and i structure my assignments so that they are somewhat hard to plagiarize in whole or in part. i tell students that i want a formal essay, properly documented, in their own words, with citations and quotations as appropriate, and when i get inappropriate citations, i take points, when i get ‘theft of ideas’, i talk to the student about it, and they usually admit it, and then they either choose my ‘rewrite a new essay or fail’ or go to honor court to prove they did not plagiarize.

    However, i think there is broad differentiation in the cultural norms in regards to plagiarism. for a long time, a very very long time, there was no such thing as plagiarism, you cited, you may attribute or not, etc. etc. but it did not matter. Even today, some of my favorite fiction authors appropriate in ways that explicitly plagiarize, but that is ‘art’. There was time when plagiarism was not ‘offensive’, but part of writing, and then i look at most writing, and nearly all writing is derivative in some fashion, and wonder… why this is so important? why do we prioritize it, and why do certain classes of people absolutely ‘flip out’ when it happens to them? The answers are not immediately clear, but it does seem to be part of a system of beliefs that may be somewhat contradictory in the end. For instance, some people revel in the fact that they get the allusion to rare material in their colleagues work, clearly unsighted, unreferenced, but don’t see that as related to plagiarism, and other people tend to use phrases and terms unique to certain authors without concern or worry. Then again, i’ve seen the same people get upset when someone uses their exact words against them in the same fashion. Now plagiarism, in the cases i’ve found was clear, a student took a whole paper on remotely related topic and tried to turn it in, and the like. in this case, the student knew what they were doing, they were turning in a whole work that was someone elses or turning in a work that was in substance the work of someone else. To me that is plagiarism, without a doubt. There is an intent to deceive, and to steal. A paragraph in the middle of an essay unattributed and unmarked is also plagiarism of sorts, but it might not have the same intent to deceive, it could be an honest mistake, or it might not be. But as you get past the level of the paragraph, i think we run into real conceptual issues, that cannot be resolved as easily as we might think.

    I’ve done a bit of research on this and there are some great books on the history and problematization of plagiarism in western society. My conclusions are simply that we should not really talk about plagiarism in terms as assignments as much as we talk about the qualities of the work that we really want. If we want work that a student could turn into their future employer, that is one thing, if we want a rough exploratory essay, that is another, if we want to require thorough citation, we should make that explicit. In short, we should define our terms…. We need to be very careful about boundaries, diverse norms, and in the end our own opinions about the category we term plagiarism.

  5. Posted 12/2/2004 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    I find your students’ reaction to be equally troubling (I am a grad. student at Cal)… just like firewalls in computer security, there should be firewalls between one’s sources and the end-product.

    There is a protocol for quoting verbatim, of course. If they did “forget” to properly use this protocol, they should be adequately reminded. If they don’t learn this lesson in graduate school, the real world will not be as forgiving.

    (new to your blog, it would be great to have the option to preview my comment… it could be nonsense and reviewing in this tiny window is difficult)

  6. Posted 12/2/2004 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    I nearly hesitate to say this, my girl friend and I were caught “copying” in 8th grade. (I haven’t done anything unethical since, I swear!) The difference there to me is that it was a stupid worksheet that didn’t reflect any thought process, you just looked up the answers in the notes–fill in the blank. They weren’t “my” answers, there was no knowledge retention.

    Perhaps students don’t take pride in their own work, perhaps ethics aren’t very strongly enforced in high schools…(oh wait, they’re not!) Perhaps the work isn’t *hard enough*! Seriously, when people can get away with minimal work then they will.

    Do the professors invest time in the students, do they strive for mastering topics? In many cases the answer is no. (Although Alex will answer your questions, if you ask :) We as TAs, RAs, instructors, peers need to encourage a sense of pride in actually learning and wanting to learn new things, regardless of the topic. Very few teachers in high schools teach in a manner that encouages a love for learning. They teach to tests, students learn enough to get by, and there’s no sense of accomplishment. It’s just about “passing” because the class isn’t “interesting” or “it’s not my major” or “this is just a blow off course”. We’ve all heard it “It’s communication!” (whine, it shouldn’t be hard.)

    Ive graded papers where students need to quote, cite, etc. but we’re not allowed to deduct points or grade them on that aspect. What’s that teaching undergrads? How long can we let things slide in the Comm dept. while “we” complain about not attractng the right students. No one I knew in undergrad would DREAM of copying someone else. As much as some make fun for Fredonia, plagairism wasn’t as prevalent and we didn’t have to hear the same lecture over and over about how bad it is.

    And Alex, please don’t stop caring, even if others do. Someone needs to set the bar and there are those of us with less power who can’t.

  7. Posted 12/2/2004 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you Alex. My son is in grade 7 – 12 years old and they are taught what plagiarism is – there is no excuse. I try to drill into my student’s heads what plagiarism is and what the consequences are – yet EVERY time I teach a course, I have an incident. It makes me crazy. Part of it might be laziness – part of it is overwork and no time – it’s all about taking shortcuts. They are pressured to not only work part time (sometimes full time) but complete their academic work, and do it well. I try to be open with the students and let them know that being busy and overworked is not an excuse – come see me instead.

  8. Posted 12/3/2004 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I’ve never really been bothered by plagarism… not that it doesn’t exist, it does. But I am just not interested in giving students assignments that allow for plagarism as a viable option. Plagarism can be seen as a reasonable response to an overly institutionalized educational system. Cookie-cutter assignments should result in cookie cutter responses… who can we get angry when students decide that their need to actively participate in the process is questionable, and they become open to alternatives.

    I’ve always felt that plagarism is a failure of pedagogy, and instead of dealing with the problem, we mask it with ‘ethics’. Why not avoid temptation by refusing to give out plagarisable assignments? And there are a variety of ways to do this. A couple that come to mind, that I’ve used. 1) choose a topic that has never been taken up in the field; an intersection of formal ideas in a non-formal context. My favourite example of this was when the final take-home exam question for a senior environmental science course was: “Dracula. Discuss.” There is lots to say about Dracula and the environment, but nothing has really been done on the topic of victorian attitudes to water born diseases, fear of nature and whatnot in that manner. I got great answers that obviously reflected student interpretations of the question. 2) Force students to engage in the lecture material explicitly with reference to class dates, etc. You can plant factual errors and other creative widgets of knowledge in the lecture notes to ensure that students are working closely with what you are saying, and of course then finding other sources. Bonus marks for any student who call you on your errors. 3) Engage the self. Structure the course assignments such that students have engaged, sustained reflective narratives from which to draw materials for their assignments. And of course they must refer to those materials. I use blogs for this. “Answer the following question in the context of your own blog entries for this course, as well as the readings and your secondary research. Make explicit links between your thoughts (with permalinks) and your research.

    If someone can still plagarise in my course in a manner that doesn’t stand out painfully obviously, I’ll be impressed.

  9. Posted 12/3/2004 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Jason: This is not an infrequent argument… that is, that plagiarism can be avoided by making assignments unique. However, doing so often means finely tailoring an assignment to a particular problem or question. I far prefer giving general guidelines and letting students find the topics and questions that they are passionate about. To me, being able to locate and articulate an interesting question is at least as important as their ability to answer it.

    And so, I thrive on the “off topic.” Another faculty member also doesn’t have a problem with plagiarism because he tailors his assignments in such a way that it is impossible to find a fixed answer. (Or so he believes. Cutting and pasting at a paragraph level is still not uncommon.) So, when students buy or steal a paper to answer his question, while the work may stand well on its own, it rarely gets good marks because it is not “on topic.” From my perspective, a well done essay, even if it has nothing to do with the assignment, is worthy of a good grade.

    Of course, there is a happy medium. But generally speaking this approach doesn’t seem to work well for me.

  10. Posted 12/6/2004 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I am disheartened, too. Part of the problem, I think, is that despite all the sternly written policies, when students do plagiarize, we want to believe it was a stupid, one-time-only mistake, so students end up rewriting the assignment and/or getting a lowered grade, but not failing or facing harsh penalties. I wonder if it might help to have some form of departmental watch list, where the names of students who have been warned before are placed. That way, we’d know the second time around was no innocent mistake. Or perhaps students should be asked to sign a contract that explains plagiarism and states they understand what it means and what the ramifications are.

  11. Posted 12/6/2004 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Marsha: Those are both excellent recommendations. I know this to be so because I made substantially similar ones. In fact, graduate students last year (?) were required to sign such contracts, I think. The faculty of the School decided that this was too adversarial an approach, and scrapped the contract idea. The law school still does this.

    I also recommended we keep a watch list, since it seemed that (a) we were probably only catching a small number of plagiarists, while many were getting away with it and (b) they were getting warned over and over again. But it turns out that to put a note in the student’s record (and you cannot get around this), you need to also send a copy of the note to the student via registered mail. I’ve done this once, and it yielded an amazing amount of grief from the student, from his parents, etc. It just wasn’t worth it.

    In the same case, the student had turned in the same plagiarized work for two classes, and a member of our own faculty refused to do anything about the case, even though it was obvious plagiarism. He said it “isn’t our job to police the students.”

    I think the most effective solution is probably to use turnitin. We’re trying it over the next year. It’s unfortunately expensive, though, and I don’t know that we will be able to afford it at a large scale.

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