Scriblerus, thanks for the note to the last. While I was working out my presentation tonight for this Thursday, I found myself writing the following paragraphs, which I thought I’d share with the blog, to see if others have had similar reactions to their student plagiarists. Thoughts, anyone?
In an academic setting, plagiarism, or the use of unacknowledged sources in one’s own writing or research, is damaging because it undermines one of the foundational compacts between teacher and student: that the writing evaluated by the teacher represents the student’s own work. Not only does an act of plagiarism undermine the trust necessary for any sustained pedagogical relation, but it also mocks the teacher’s own investment of time and energy spent evaluating, –and presumably, improving–a student’s written performance. For this reason, plagiarism is a species of fraud that, when discovered, provokes powerful feelings of personal betrayal, followed of course by urgent desires for really punitive treatment of the guilty. The feelings provoked by plagiarism are so embarrassingly raw that we tend to deal with it either by negotiating with students one on one, not the best approach to serial plagiarists, I’d argue, or by moralizing plagiarism to the point where we no longer feel threatened by it.
Yet plagiarism deserves serious reflection, and study, and thoughtful responses, precisely because it is an important indicator of our students’ ability (or inability) to handle the information they need in an academic setting. Its ubiquity is a sign that, for whatever reason, considerable numbers of students, though they may be inside our academic institutions, still remain outside academic discourse, and are either unwilling or unable to make that internal transition. And though our retributive fantasies tell us that we should simply expel anyone and everyone capable of such fraudulent behavior, the low probabilities of detection tell us instead that the best institutional response to this kind of shortfall remains better teaching, to bring the maximum number of people into genuinely academic discourse. And this means teaching people about information: how to acquire it, how to assess it critically, how to integrate it with one’s own understandings, how to use it, and how to make sure that one’s uses of information remain honest and ethical.
It is this last sense of information literacy that I will focus upon in this presentation, because I think that the benefit of talks like these is not from focusing on the punitive aspect of plagiarism, meaning issues of detection, policy, and so on, as important as these are, but to show that dishonest or unethical uses of information defeat the social or communicative aspect of knowledge-production. In other words, we can use the ubiquity of plagiarism as a way to teach ourselves, and our students, something about the use and abuse of information in an academic setting.
Let me give you an example that I found in a librarian’s writings on this subject: a footnote, when properly handled in a scholarly essay, is not just a token of the personal labor that went into writing that essay, but represents a specific point of entry into an existing scholarly debate, and an invitation for readers to join that writer in engaging that intellectual debate. This is as true of the properly footnoted freshman paper as it is of the scholarly monograph. The citation is a communicative act, and many senior scholars acknowledge this when they say that they no longer read essays, but go straight to the footnotes, if they wish to see what contribution a piece of scholarship makes.[See John Russell’s http://historylibrarian.wordpress.com/2006/05/02/the-fifth-pillar-of-information-literacy/]
Now the act of plagiarism, meaning the missing or artfully garbled footnote, or the footnote that is designed to lead nowhere, or to mislead the reader, is a profoundly un-communicative act. It is a closed door, with nothing behind it but the bad faith of the writer. Neither the writer nor reader can learn anything from such a piece of writing, and this is one of the reasons why academic responses to plagiarism are so much stronger and more negative than responses outside the academy.
How to run a plagiarism-free classroom (Some hints, with thanks to respondents at the Long Eighteenth):
- Clear Statement of Plagiarism Policy in Syllabus, accompanied by appropriate definitions, information (common-place problems), and demonstration of commitment. In other words, teach the policy, and teach the rationale behind the policy.
- Assignments: switch them up, make them more specific, and inflect them with secondary criticism or specific texts to require less “generic” responses. Go to paper mill websites, and see what kinds of topics are popular on those sites: avoid those topics.
- Use some regular method of detection: Google, Turnitin.com, whatever. Random or specific. Watch for sudden changes in vocabulary, strange syntax, or out of sequence footnotes, for indications of web materials abruptly introduced into their prose.
- Take the time to teach methods of research and citation in all your courses, at every level. Reinforce the message, and be sure to take students to the library, so that they understand how important their handling of information is to their writing.
- Teach the differences between quotation, paraphrase, and summary, and how those are to be incorporated into their own writing.
- If you suspect a case of plagiarism, investigate until you have evidence one way or the other. If you detect a case, report it. Serial plagiarists will do it in every class, for the rest of their college careers, until they are caught. Plagiarism is also an important indicator of what our students either do not know or what they are not willing to do.