Saturday, December 16, 2006

Why do students plagiarize?

Below is a recent post from the Chronicle of Higher Education on student plagiarism. The author makes a point I have always thought right: that to plagiarize in such an effective way that you won't get caught, you need precisely the reading and writing skills that would render plagiarism unnecessary--i.e., you would know how to write a paper yourself. Indeed, I think that a corollary of that claim is that it would take more work to plagiarize a paper well enough to avoid suspicion than it would to write one's own work.

As our semester closes, and many students have had to write term papers for their courses, I'd be interested in hearing their thoughts on why students plagiarize, what they think of those who do, what conditions in a course or school make it more likely that they will, and what would need to be done to change that trend and stop those practices, especially when the internet makes it so easy to engage in them.

Happy Holidays to all.
Anna

http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2006/12/2006121101c/careers.html
Monday, December 11, 2006
How Dumb Do They Think We Are?
By Jonathan Malesic

It happened more times last year than I can even recall, but I clearly remember the first time. I was grading a paper and came across a sentence that surprised me. It just didn't fit in with what I had read up to that point. I was surprised partly because the sentence made proper use of the word "implacable," whereas in the paragraph before, the student had used an abstract noun ending in "-ship" as a verb. Twice.

I read more and found more seismic shifts in the writing style. Magisterial paragraphs were followed by inane ones; syllogisms gave way to circular logic, and back again. I picked one suspect sentence, entered it into an Internet search engine, and in milliseconds, I found it -- word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark. It turned out much of the rest of the paper had been plagiarized from the same document.

I deduced that the student had also performed a "find-and-replace" function on one key word in the document to make paragraphs that were on a different topic seem as if they were on the topic I had assigned.

Did this cheeky twerp think I wouldn't notice? For an hour after I found the paper's origin, I could only sit in my office and stew, comparing the paper to the Internet version again and again and determining that, at most, one paragraph was entirely original to the student.

My anger then turned into self-questioning. What did I do to this student to deserve such an insult? How had I failed as a teacher, to make the student think that stealing someone else's words was acceptable?

Since I was a new assistant professor, I sought my colleagues' advice about the paper. They sympathized, they shared my indignation, but as I calmed down, they also told me that I shouldn't take it personally. Apparently I would be seeing cases like this again. Senior colleagues gave matter-of-fact appraisals of just how many plagiarized papers I could expect in a given class of 25 students.

They were right. Throughout the year, I saw plagiarized papers in nearly every stack I read. At times, I started to think that maybe every paper was plagiarized.

My extreme and irrational reaction to that first plagiarized paper was partly the result of my having been unprepared for it. I had seen a case or two of cheating when I was a teaching assistant, but it didn't seem like a personal affront. After all, it wasn't my class. Cheating was the professor's problem, so I felt no need to look for explanations.

There are probably dozens of reasons why some students plagiarize. They're lazy. They're afraid. They perceive plagiarism to be standard practice at their college. They believe that any means to a good grade are legitimate.

What's most astounding, though -- and most insulting -- is that students plagiarize in ways that are so easy to catch. They cut and paste without thinking to cover their tracks. They copy from the most obvious sources possible. They find and replace words and then do not proofread to ensure clarity.

Do they think we're stupid? If they're going to plagiarize, why can't they at least do it in a way that acknowledges that their audience is intelligent? Don't they know what the big framed diplomas on our walls mean?

I think that student plagiarists are often poor plagiarists because they don't realize that it's even possible to be a savvy reader, that it's possible to read a text that has been cobbled together from multiple sources and determine where one source's contribution ends and another's begins. Those students don't pay attention to diction, syntax, or tone when they read, so they can't possibly imagine that someone else might.

If that is, in fact, what goes on (or, rather, doesn't go on) in our students' minds when they are copying material from the Internet, then we may have run into an example of a broad human tendency to take our individual selves as the standard by which we judge everyone else.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach noticed that tendency, explaining the difference between two bad poets like this: "He who, having written a bad poem, knows it to be bad, is in his intelligence, and therefore in his nature, not so limited as he who, having written a bad poem, admires it and thinks it good."

If Feuerbach is right, then by showing our students what good work is, helping them discover what makes it good work, and explaining how we can very clearly tell the difference between good and bad work, or the relative differences between two authors, we are not only improving their minds, but improving their "natures." That is a lofty word, one that even humanities professors (maybe especially humanities professors) hesitate to utter. But maybe we can agree at least that we can try to broaden students' perspectives and raise their standards, so that they can be better critics -- and better self-critics.

Students can't entirely be blamed for the narrow-mindedness they come to college with, but they absolutely can be blamed for persisting in it in the face of their colleges' best efforts to expand their horizons.

Plagiarism is, therefore, not only dishonest; it is also a sign of students' shamefully entrenched satisfaction with their limitations.

I no longer see cases of blatant plagiarism as personal insults. They are, instead, the pathetic bleats of students who think they know enough -- maybe all there really is to know -- about how to read and think and write.

The paradox of plagiarism is that in order to be really good at it, you need precisely the reading and writing skills that ought to render plagiarism unnecessary. If my students could recognize what differentiates their own writing styles from those of authors whose work they find online, then they should also be able to perform with ease all the tasks I require for their essay assignments: to read texts carefully, to determine the relative importance of textual evidence, to formulate a clear thesis, and to defend it convincingly.

I'll grant that my hypothesis that students plagiarize so obviously because they are unable to imagine someone noticing does not cover all cases. I have caught even students whose other work and class participation exhibit exactly the skills that ought to obviate the perceived need to plagiarize. Maybe I should be insulted by those students: They know better and still try to fool me.

I believe in relentlessly exercising my students' critical abilities, but I also believe in punishing plagiarism. A student who plagiarizes refuses to be educated. There shouldn't be room in my classroom for that kind of student. Indeed, that person is not really a student at all.

Jonathan Malesic is an assistant professor of theology at King's College, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

9 comments:

Mike Cooper said...

I plagiarized a little in high school. I'd say I did it on between 2 and 5 papers total. The reasons I stopped had a lot more to do with the concerns in that article than any moral concerns. I would find a resource online on my topic then copy and paste. Then I would sit there and think of all the ways I could get caught. I went back and changed the wording in every sentence so that it could not be googled. I went back and looked at the vocabulary and changed out any words I wouldn't use. It got to be so much work that I might as well have done the actual writing myself. It got to be so different that it was barely even plagiarizing anymore, just work inspired by a source that isn't cited.

That's assuming I could even find something online that was on my topic. I think the most effective anti-plagiarism tool is asking questions that are unlikely to be pre-written online. A college course of any kind ought to have enough uniqueness and variety to yield essay questions that can't be answered easily through plagiarism.

I think that the main problem is the way students view college. I think most students either think that college is a four year summer-camp where they pay money and drink booze to get a degree (to make money in the long-term), or they just wish it was. They don't view a grade as something that reflects learning in any way, so they don't have ethical qualms about trying to get a grade without learning the material.

I ought to make a distinction here. The statement I just made implies a certain level of reflection that I don't think really exists. I think that the 'buying a degree' scenario is in the back of their minds and they purposefully avoid examining it. At some level they realize that examining those beliefs will just add to their ethical obligations, so they avoid thinking such discomforting thoughts.

It is all about the willful ignorance of the students.

hazlett said...

I think Malesic is right that many plagarists have a limited perspective - they can't concieve of the difference between a real essay and a cut-and-paste job, and so assume that their Professors can't tell the difference.

Although I agree with Anna that "that to plagiarize in such an effective way that you won't get caught ... you need precisely the reading and writing skills that would render plagiarism unnecessary," I suspect that almost all plagiarists base their actions on another mistaken premise: that plagiarism isn't immoral. They know it's against the rules, but they don't think the rules reflect the moral facts. Mike's point about how many students view college are apt, in connection with this. Although it is imprudent to plagiarize (because you run the risk of getting caught), it is also immoral.

There are facts about the kinds of beliefs one can coherently have about oneself that will make it difficult to convince students that plagiarism is imprudent, even supposing that Anna and Malesic are correct. I can't believe that I am wrong in most of my beliefs - it's just not possible. And I think, for similar reasons, I can't think that I know nothing about how to think and write - even if it's true. Many of our students know nothing about how to think and write. But I suspect that it might be impossible for a being to consciously think that thought. To recognize one's own cognitive deficiencies - well, it aint easy.

Anyway, the fact that plagiarism is imprudent is an important point to make, but we shouldn't let it obscure the fact that plagiarism is immoral. The immorality of plagiarism does not depend on its imprudence, so the two ideas need to be kept separate. I actually have a fairly optimistic view of the students who don't plagiarize - I think they refuse to do it because they think it would be wrong, not because they think they couldn't get away with it (even if it's the case that they couldn't get away with it).

"My-T Masta" Matt Watkins said...

Well, here's what I think:

How Dumb Do They Think I Am?
By Matt Watkins


It happened more times last year than I can even recall, but I clearly remember the first time. I was grading a paper and came across a sentence that surprised me. It just didn't fit in with what I had read up to that point. I was surprised partly because the sentence made proper use of the word "implacable," whereas in the paragraph before, the student had used an abstract noun ending in "-ship" as a verb. Twice.

I read more and found more seismic shifts in the writing style. Magisterial paragraphs were followed by inane ones; syllogisms gave way to circular logic, and back again. I picked one suspect sentence, entered it into an Internet search engine, and in milliseconds, I found it -- word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark. It turned out much of the rest of the paper had been plagiarized from the same document.

I deduced that the student had also performed a "find-and-replace" function on one key word in the document to make paragraphs that were on a different topic seem as if they were on the topic I had assigned.

Did this cheeky twerp think I wouldn't notice? For an hour after I found the paper's origin, I could only sit in my office and stew, comparing the paper to the Internet version again and again and determining that, at most, one paragraph was entirely original to the student.

My anger then turned into self-questioning. What did I do to this student to deserve such an insult? How had I failed as a teacher, to make the student think that stealing someone else's words was acceptable?

Since I was a new assistant professor, I sought my colleagues' advice about the paper. They sympathized, they shared my indignation, but as I calmed down, they also told me that I shouldn't take it personally. Apparently I would be seeing cases like this again. Senior colleagues gave matter-of-fact appraisals of just how many plagiarized papers I could expect in a given class of 25 students.

They were right. Throughout the year, I saw plagiarized papers in nearly every stack I read. At times, I started to think that maybe every paper was plagiarized.

My extreme and irrational reaction to that first plagiarized paper was partly the result of my having been unprepared for it. I had seen a case or two of cheating when I was a teaching assistant, but it didn't seem like a personal affront. After all, it wasn't my class. Cheating was the professor's problem, so I felt no need to look for explanations.

There are probably dozens of reasons why some students plagiarize. They're lazy. They're afraid. They perceive plagiarism to be standard practice at their college. They believe that any means to a good grade are legitimate.

What's most astounding, though -- and most insulting -- is that students plagiarize in ways that are so easy to catch. They cut and paste without thinking to cover their tracks. They copy from the most obvious sources possible. They find and replace words and then do not proofread to ensure clarity.

Do they think we're stupid? If they're going to plagiarize, why can't they at least do it in a way that acknowledges that their audience is intelligent? Don't they know what the big framed diplomas on our walls mean?

I think that student plagiarists are often poor plagiarists because they don't realize that it's even possible to be a savvy reader, that it's possible to read a text that has been cobbled together from multiple sources and determine where one source's contribution ends and another's begins. Those students don't pay attention to diction, syntax, or tone when they read, so they can't possibly imagine that someone else might.

If that is, in fact, what goes on (or, rather, doesn't go on) in our students' minds when they are copying material from the Internet, then we may have run into an example of a broad human tendency to take our individual selves as the standard by which we judge everyone else.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach noticed that tendency, explaining the difference between two bad poets like this: "He who, having written a bad poem, knows it to be bad, is in his intelligence, and therefore in his nature, not so limited as he who, having written a bad poem, admires it and thinks it good."

If Feuerbach is right, then by showing our students what good work is, helping them discover what makes it good work, and explaining how we can very clearly tell the difference between good and bad work, or the relative differences between two authors, we are not only improving their minds, but improving their "natures." That is a lofty word, one that even humanities professors (maybe especially humanities professors) hesitate to utter. But maybe we can agree at least that we can try to broaden students' perspectives and raise their standards, so that they can be better critics -- and better self-critics.

Students can't entirely be blamed for the narrow-mindedness they come to college with, but they absolutely can be blamed for persisting in it in the face of their colleges' best efforts to expand their horizons.

Plagiarism is, therefore, not only dishonest; it is also a sign of students' shamefully entrenched satisfaction with their limitations.

I no longer see cases of blatant plagiarism as personal insults. They are, instead, the pathetic bleats of students who think they know enough -- maybe all there really is to know -- about how to read and think and write.

The paradox of plagiarism is that in order to be really good at it, you need precisely the reading and writing skills that ought to render plagiarism unnecessary. If my students could recognize what differentiates their own writing styles from those of authors whose work they find online, then they should also be able to perform with ease all the tasks I require for their essay assignments: to read texts carefully, to determine the relative importance of textual evidence, to formulate a clear thesis, and to defend it convincingly.

I'll grant that my hypothesis that students plagiarize so obviously because they are unable to imagine someone noticing does not cover all cases. I have caught even students whose other work and class participation exhibit exactly the skills that ought to obviate the perceived need to plagiarize. Maybe I should be insulted by those students: They know better and still try to fool me.

I believe in relentlessly exercising my students' critical abilities, but I also believe in punishing plagiarism. A student who plagiarizes refuses to be educated. There shouldn't be room in my classroom for that kind of student. Indeed, that person is not really a student at all.

Jacob Parks said...

As someone who plagiarizes a paper at least once for every philosophy class (is he joking???), I'll give my take on what goes on.

It's not likely that any one explanation can cover even most of the cases of plagiarism, but I think this professor, Malesic, tends to believe that the core cause comes from a lack of knowledge about writing technique; people plagiarize because they are unable to imagine how they will get caught if the copying is not exactly the same. We poor plagiarists don't know what we got ourselves into.

I think this is over-condescending to the intelligence of the student.

In my experience, plagiarism is gambling. It's gambling with a grade, with the professor's propensity to catch it, and if they do sniff it out, a further gamble with how she will handle it (will she just fail that assignment? Ruin the student's college career?). Oftentimes, we don't know how capable or vigilant our professors are at stopping plagiarism. Maybe they're very sharp, but maybe they... aren't. It's becoming more rare that teachers and students actually know each other, given larger classes (at least here at Tech).

Besides, I think it's true that often little thought goes into plagiarism, but this likely can be attributed to the nature of copying something off the internet twenty minutes before the assignment is due, handing it in with crossed fingers: "Please don't be a zero, please don't be a zero."

Some people like to gamble.

Others, the most numerous I imagine, don't really want to be in college. Social norms, parents and posters starting from the day students enter high school tell them to go, though, so they do. The education system (and the standard ethics that come with it), while important to scholars and Malesic's 'real' students, doesn't seem valuable to them. The value of academic integrity looks very important for people seriously planning to make a future in academics, but not so much for someone who doesn't know where their future is headed. It's understandable that plagiarists feel morally lackadaisical to academia.

I'm just kidding about me plagiarizing. I'd be much too paranoid about getting caught that the work would be too stressful and practically the same as writing a real paper anyway, as Malesic noted. I could just be saying this to cover up, though. The best plagiarists want to be caught!

Clint Peters said...

Wanted to offer a suggestion as to helping students understand what quality writing is. It seems Jonathan Malesic touches indirectly on the idea of presenting and defining quality to students at the beginning of the semester. I believe professors should because as Malesic says, many students believe they know everything about writing a solid paper, and that the low grade that the professor assigns and discourages them is the fault of the professor for being a hard-ass / incompetent / whatever. Hence another reason why the gamble seems attractive, if it appears there is no other recourse (and when combined with poor time management). I think it may be true too that certain professors feel different approaches are successful in papers. This is where paper examples come in. At the beginning of the semester, one professor of mine handed out three anonymous examples to every student, one good, one so-so and one mediocre. We spent a half-class period going over how each paper was successful or unsuccessful. This helped me understand how the professor was defining “quality,” and solidified in my mind what kind of style I should be writing. I think also having dialogues like the one we are having in the classroom might help dissuade plagiarists. I wonder how many would-be plagiarists would change their tactics after reading Malesic’s article.

Lindsey Simmons said...

Since I have been in high school (and even junior high) I have never plagiarized. I find it pointless. In order to make sense out of the material, I need to put it into my own terms, and that is precisely how I write my papers. I think that those student who do plagiarize just do not understand the material (which is probably evident from the lack of conformity and unity within the writing). I feel like students plagiarize so that they know they are on topic and without showing that they do not understand the original writing. USing the words of someone else who sounds smarter than they are I guess seems like a good way to get brownie points with the professor (although these people are too dense to realize that it is as obvious as daylight). So again, I feel there is no need to plagiarize on my behalf because I make sure that I understand the text before I write my paper. Whether this be re-reading the piece or approaching the professor with numerous questions, I make sure that I know what I am writing about so that I can put it into my own words. Not to mention I love my writing style (yes, a bit conceited I know but maybe that is what it takes). So for me to use someone else's words without giving them credit for me seems to cheat me out of credit for what is actually mine and that angers me a bit. So I guess I also feel like students who openly plagiarize do not honor their own writing and find it weak, but this too may be obvious. Anyhow, those are just a few of my thoughts and I need to pack so that I can go visit my family in New Mexico. I hope your holiday goes well and I will see you in the New Year.

Lindsey Simmons
Philosophy Major

Anthony "Silly Pants" Putnicki said...

Probably tangential to this discussion, and yet:

"So for me to use someone else's words without giving them credit for me seems to cheat me out of credit for what is actually mine and that angers me a bit."

It's interesting that the source of this anger is not derived at some injustice of someone using another's thoughts/ideas without credit, but simply because you might feel that your work would be undervalued. Why is that? What about our educational system is so inherently cut-throat that you're not upset that someone is not learning important ideas as they ought to or cheating themselves, but simply that you feel cheated out of the proper impression that you seem to deserve as the 'smartest' student in the class? Because shame on those students that they are "using the words of someone else who sounds smarter than they are" so that they can "get brownie points with the professor". Why don't they suck up the hard way like everybody else?

Perhaps this is the source of why people feel the need to plagiarize. Instead of admitting to not understanding the material or not having put forth enough time to turn in their own work, students are pressured to steal from others so that they don't fail. Like Jacob pointed out, it's a toss of the dice. There's definitely going to be one point where throwing the dice is more advantageous than turning in a guaranteed failing grade of your own work. That seems to be the problem: students are afraid of failing.

Anonymous said...

As a high school student, I often find that I am loaded with work, and cannot get it done in time. Plagerims is about "gambling your grades" as suggested by Jacob Parks. I was caught twice for plagiarism. The first time was a stupid mistake that I've made, and I truely did learn from that mistake. I never again did use the Internet as a source to help my paper. The second time was a total accident. I accidently attached a paper I took from the Internet as a source to write about plagerism for the school newspaper club. The school did not give any chances and asked me to leave because if you lose their trust the first time, you will no longer regain that trust again. I felt betrayed because I've worked so hard all year, and because of a stupid accident I was asked to leave. What I am getting at is that students do understand the risks of plagiarism, but they do not understand what will happen if they are caught. If they are able to learn from their mistake, I believe that they should be given a chance. Although this is an academic dishonesty, people cannot judge them because of this mistake, they have to look at the student's point of view and determine the student's characteristics.

Anonymous said...

Interesting information. I believe plagiarism is a serious problem.