Saturday, August 15, 2015

Becoming Plagiarism “Experts”

I am by no means the foremost plagiarism expert on campus but, after a revision of the university academic dishonesty policy, I had several proactive faculty and students coming to me wanting me to teach a class or share recommendations for how to prevent plagiarism (accidental or otherwise).

Faculty will come to me and ask me to “talk to their students about plagiarism.” While that’s fine, it’s more helpful to everyone if we can lay some groundwork with the faculty as they develop their assignments as well. 
It’s always best to prevent plagiarism before it happens, and one way to do so is to have faculty build in checkpoints. It is a lot harder for students to procrastinate and fake it if there are several check-ins, drafts, annotated bibliographies, and individual conferences along the way. 

In terms of instruction for their students, I try to fold the idea of plagiarism into other things. I go through what plagiarism is and why it’s important to know about. But the bulk of my time isn’t spent looming scare tactics and hefty consequences over their heads (though consequences are mentioned). The bulk of my time is spent helping them develop strategies to prevent it, focusing on:
If it’s something that raises a red flag for the faculty member after the final draft has been submitted, it’s helpful for them to:
  • Google any quotes or sections that sound fishy
  • Look for a brand new voice not seen in any of their other writing (throughout their semester’s work)
  • Conduct interviews with the student(s) about the topic of their paper (where the student comes in and visits, without any notes) -- This one is especially helpful. If the student has trouble talking about many (or any) details from their paper, perhaps they didn’t write it themselves. Often faculty forget about this option. 
If a student approaches me individually I try to explain it in direct relation to the assignment they’re working on.  
  • Sometimes, however, we wind up catching it mid-project. Perhaps their instructor has gone through a draft of their paper and noted some areas of concern, i.e. “If this were your final draft, it would be plagiarism. Please fix this” or just “Plagiarism! Fix!” with a section circled. While this helps the student see something is wrong, it doesn’t help them understand what is wrong or how to fix it. That’s where our conversation comes in. Usually when this happens I ask the student a series of questions:
  • Did you know this information on your own, before ever reading or seeing it somewhere? (Usually the answer to this question is no.)
  • Where did you get the information? Then we track it down to the exact page number and paragraph, make note of the necessary information to cite it with, see if what they used was a direct quote, paraphrased, or sort of paraphrased but not changed enough to quite fly.  
  • If it’s not quite paraphrased enough, I’ll have the student flip the resource over (sometimes I’ll even ask if I can hold onto it), hide their original draft, and I’ll open up an email, address it to them, and ask them “tell me about…” or “describe …” or “explain to me…” while I type what they tell me. This forces them to put it in their own words, helping with paraphrasing. If they don’t know the content well enough, it will be evident. If they think there’s no other, or no better, way to say it, then we return to the original and work through the direct quote process. 
  • We also have a conversation about how using too many direct quotes counts as plagiarism -- The instructor wants to see the student’s thoughts, evidence of understanding, and interpretation in the writing, too! It can’t just be a regurgitation of quotes from others. That doesn’t count as original work from the student. (If they wanted that, they’d ask for a list of their favorite quotes or a book report.)
I prefer the individual interview as it is really effective in helping the student step back from the sources to figure out what the words within actually mean. Without that understanding the deeper discussion, interpretation, and application of ideas can’t happen. 

There are tons of great activities and lessons others have done and shared online. What are some things you’ve found work well in helping students identify plagiarism and prevent it in the future?