What can I do about plagiarism by international students?
February 19, 2012 8:35 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to decrease plagiarism? Snowflakey details inside.

I teach in a professional but research-y American social science MA program at a big name university. Every semester, I have huge plagiarism issues from international students. What can I do to help them and myself?

Relevant, because at first I was willing to cut them a little slack because of cultural/language barriers:

- all students in the program get 3+ hours of academic integrity training.
- all international students students get additional training in academic integrity.
- students from this country, with a reputation for academic integrity issues, get additional training from the university.
- The admin assistant, my chair, and the dean assure me that these students are taught exactly what plagiarism is and is not.

- International students are a huge money maker for the university and I believe that it is possible that the U does not want to rock the boat on this problem. (But that's my opinion...)

So, last semester I had 4 papers (all from students from 1 country) 3 of which were over 60% copy and pasted from 1 or 2 empirical studies. It was clear upon first reading them that it wasn't original work (it was of the quality of an advanced PhD student at worst). I ran them through turnitin.com and they were all majority plagiarized. (I ran the rest of the class and it was under 8% - just random phrasing that showed up in other papers, mostly.)

The admin assistant told me to submit it to the proper administrative channel (and explicitly said that professors are NOT TO TAKE MATTERS INTO THEIR OWN HANDS) so I submitted them to the administration. All the processes went through and all the students were found guilty of plagiarism but were not punished because "the assignment guidelines left room for interpretation." (And I swear to you, they did not.)

It took months for these cases to go through, cost me tons of my own time, made for a somewhat uncomfortable seminar, etc. etc.

In the meantime, the students have threatened "my reputation" because I gave them 0 points on that paper (hey, they were found guilty of plagiarism) and blah blah blah. How annoying.

So here we are, another semester and more international student plagiarism, again in the 50%+ on turnitin.com.

WTF am I to do about this?

Things I have tried:

- Being much more explicit on the syllabus about academic integrity.
- Having my assignment rubrics/guidelines being even more explicit (this is a grad class, ffs).
- Allowing students to submit drafts first - where I question them about meaning of advance concepts (that was plagiarized).

An idea that I just had:

- Say to class: "Hey everyone. I noticed that in some of your first drafts, it didn't seem like your papers were completely original ideas. Maybe you might want to run your paper through a plagiarism checker before handing in final draft?"


I am not going to be at the university for much longer and although this plagiarism really pisses me off, I don't want to have to deal with all the bullshit of filing plagiarism charges against these students.

What to do?
posted by anonymous to Education (50 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For the sake of us poor folk who might have to collaborate with these folk in some other class and bite the bullet and file those plagiarism charges. Please, for all of our sakes.
posted by fuq at 8:41 PM on February 19, 2012 [23 favorites]

Is it possible to modify the assignments so they lend themselves less easily to plagiarizing? Can you give more weight to in-class work/ exams?
posted by oceano at 8:42 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oceano, it is a graduate level course that the OP describes as a seminar. In my grad school experience, nearly the entire grade was based on papers in such courses.
posted by k8t at 8:45 PM on February 19, 2012

It seems they get a lot of training on what plagiarism *is*, but is it made explicit to them what the consequences will be in your class? For example, that you will give a 0 for a plagiarized paper.
posted by cairdeas at 8:45 PM on February 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

Also, this might be a weird question given they are in an MA program, but is it possible that they don't actually know how to write papers? Is it possible that in the country where they come from, undergraduates don't write the sorts of papers that students write in your program?
posted by cairdeas at 8:48 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

These students come from a educational culture where plagiarism is the norm, and they've probably never had to compose such a long original work. If you truly want to help them, you need to pretend you're their middle school teacher and really walk them through the process. Set specific deadlines for finding sources (you can have a required # of books), gathering quotes, submitting an outline, etc. You should also have a grace period-- a week before the paper is due, have them submit it to turnitin, explain their score, and give them a week (and the # of a writing tutor) to fix it.
posted by acidic at 8:51 PM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Can you have them explain plagiarism to you and give examples? Rote copying/plagiarism from international students is a pretty common theme and my understanding is there are significant cultural differences in what constitutes plagiarism and how big of a deal it is (i.e. slap on wrist vs. being expelled).

If they are explaining it to you, then you will both have in writing that they understand what plagiarism means and an opportunity to clarify its nature if they have any misconceptions. Perhaps do this at the start of every semester, have students write a short paragraph or two on it. Yes, more work for you, but it sounds like the classes are pretty small and it might save you headache later on.
posted by Anonymous at 8:53 PM on February 19, 2012

I have no idea how kosher this may or may not be in your situtation, but could you add to your syllabus that all work submitted to you will be checked for plagarism on turnitin or where ever, and that anything with a score of 50% or more will be an automatic zero?

This integrates your late breaking ideas with a more stringent, cogent set of plagiarism guidelines up front, which can be checked in advance on their part. If this is a grad level course, they really have to sink or swim on doing the work... I don't think further clarification of plagiarism is necessary. They just don't know how to do the work themselves.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:54 PM on February 19, 2012 [13 favorites]

For the sake of the students with integrity, please don't ignore this. As oceano mentions, in-class assignments (and not group assignment where one person ends up doing all the work) early in the semester will let you get a baseline on their abilities and identify students you can refer back to the department in charge of those integrity training.

Do the students have access to Turn-it-in? (It has been a few years since I used it). I thought there was a part where the students hand to hand in the Turn-it-in report along with their paper so they are actually acknowledging they have plagiarised their paper. If Turn-it-in is wrong it is incumbant on them to prove their work is original. And if you don't already, make it clear on the rubric that anything over [number you are comfortable with] on Turn-it-in gets an automatic 0% with no re-write. Ask for the administration's help in phrasing this a way they will support.

It sounds like it is an administration problem though. You are dealing with adults that have been given adequate education and training and if they chose plagiarism then do as your administration asks and leave it in their hands. I wouldn't worry about what they are saying, other students know who is plagiarising and who isn't much more than you do and know any grumblings from them are sour grapes over being caught.
posted by saucysault at 8:56 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Take about a half hour early on to describe plagiarism. Explain the differences between fair use and copyright infringement (intellectual property) and plagiarism (intellectual honesty and attribution). Find five examples of things you consider plagiarism. Show them on the ELMO or board and say, "This person is paraphrasing correctly. This person is paraphrasing incorrectly, but citing. This person is PLAGIARIZING. 0 for the assignment. F for the course. Letter to their dean!" Then make them take a quiz assigning the appropriate grade to other examples of each. Let them retake it til they get 100%.

Tell them that if they feel overwhelmed or aren't able to make the deadline, to email you before they plagiarize--that you'll work out some kind of deal for late turnins and help.

If your U uses Turnitin, let them see first reports, and allow retractions / amended turnins up to the due date.

After that, pursue it to the last ditch. The remaining folks are impervious to teaching and dishonest.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:56 PM on February 19, 2012

@Cold Lurkey, I read something recently that undergrads at schools that have automatic turnitin.com scanning of all papers are becoming experts at reworking their papers to get under the line.

(But otherwise I agree with your idea.)
posted by k8t at 8:56 PM on February 19, 2012

All the processes went through and all the students were found guilty of plagiarism but were not punished because "the assignment guidelines left room for interpretation." (And I swear to you, they did not.)
This bothers me and I'm sure it bothers you. Perhaps you should ask the administration how to phrase your guidelines so they don't "leave room for interpretation" in their eyes.
posted by demiurge at 8:59 PM on February 19, 2012 [24 favorites]

Require that all students submit their own papers to turnitin and supply their match reports when turning in the assignment to you.

Ask the administrators who found your guidelines to be vague to give you feedback on how to clarify your policies.

Construct exams based on the submitted essays, require your students to pass the exams in order to receive credit for the essay. They should, of course, be able to easily pass an exam based on their own, original work.
posted by oddman at 9:01 PM on February 19, 2012

By the way, I wouldn't recommending tying fails to particular scores on turnitin, since turnitin can catch things that are correctly quoted. Have a policy where 5 or more words direct quoted without " "'s, or any ideas or match without a Works Cited entry and attribution in text (or somesuch) will be an autofail.

Admittedly, anyone with 50% turnitin, even with great quotation and attribution probably didn't actually write a paper under all those Frankenstein parts--but someone can plagiarize with a fairly low score.
posted by LucretiusJones at 9:01 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

If they're claiming that you weren't cleat about plagiarism being unacceptable, I'd state it more bluntly... with a quote from the student handbook on what the consequences are (expulsion, loss of federal student loans... can foreign students be deported over something like that?) and a reminder that all students are expected to demonstrate academic integrity.

There's no valid "I didn't know any better" excuse, especially at the grad level.

Once there's a very clear statement in your syllabus/rubric/etc, they don't deserve any second, third, or twelfth chances.
posted by myShanon at 9:10 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Cleat is supposed be "clear"

i'm going to bed :)
posted by myShanon at 9:10 PM on February 19, 2012

Administrators have nothing to lose by passively accepting plagiarism and collecting international student money except the reputation of the school's name. Especially if you are on your way out and in a position to rock the boat a little, please consider publishing something in the student newspaper quoting your syllabus and quoting the administrative response to its 'lack of clarity'.

This is a shameful response to a problem that stabs to the heart of what academia is, you can shame them into taking it seriously.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:20 PM on February 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

Also, turnitin scores are not really strongly diagnostic in and of themselves, all turnitin can do is help point you towards sloppy plaigarism. If you know how turnitin is non-trivial but not impossible to defeat with a thoroughly plagiarized paper, and high scores are also very easy to get with an entirely appropriate paper.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:23 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think there's really much more you *can* do. If your syllabus says that plagiarized papers get a flunking grade, then that's how it's got to be. If you treat the people who are cheating differently than the rest of the class, you'll just be opening yourself up for a ton of potential trouble. Students who cheat are much more likely to be ruthless in protecting their own interests. That admin person was right - don't take matters into your own hands, let the administration take the lead, even if they're wrong.
posted by facetious at 9:43 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The problem is not so much them not knowing or understanding what plagiarism is, it's that there's a dual lack of understanding of how to get around plagiarizing (i.e. the basics of how to write in their own words) and also the lack of punishment for doing so - why on earth would someone who finds it difficult writing a paper take the time to write the paper without plagiarizing when there are no repercussions for their plagiarism? Few are going to ask for help because at that level it is embarrassing and few feel the need to ask for help because there are no real repercussions.

- Say to class: "Hey everyone. I noticed that in some of your first drafts, it didn't seem like your papers were completely original ideas. Maybe you might want to run your paper through a plagiarism checker before handing in final draft?"

I think that's probably the best you can do in this situation. You'll need to be explicit about the "original ideas" thing though. Really drum it home - what it means, how to do it - really try to reinforce it.
posted by mleigh at 9:44 PM on February 19, 2012

Oh for pete's sake, I loathe the culture excuse for plagiarism amongst international students. They went through the training and read the syllabus. There is no room for doubt or misinterpretation. Provide a set of examples that will get a student an automatic "0" on the coursework and how many times it takes to get an automatic "F" in the course with no excuse.

Hell, I make my student sign off the syllabus' policy points and I keep them for later issues. Handily taking care of, "But I didn't know" or "I misunderstood". There is NO excuse for abusing the intellect of the instructor nor the strength of the discipline. Its crap like this that causes suspicion on the quality of graduate degrees and of institutions.

Make your syllabus radioactive and lethal to administrative tampering. Such as, no administrator without looking like a douche would intervene for the student. Further, are you on a campus with a faculty union? If so, do the consultation because this could be a larger problem than you.
posted by jadepearl at 9:45 PM on February 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

nth-ing doing something proactive to stop this. I would start with a statement of what plagiarism is and why it is wrong, and a statement on what the consequences will be. I would include a list of specific examples of plagiarism you've caught, as well as a list of non-exhaustive measures you will take to catch plagiarism.

I would make sure before presenting this to the class that your administration will support you, so that you can add that your administration supports you 100%. Get clarification on what guidelines look like that do not leave room for interpretation.

Alternatively, you could place the ball in the students' court by giving them the zero and making them grieve the grade, though this option will depend upon the politics of your institution. If you're making the charge, then they have no choice but to offer a defense, but if you leave it up to them, then they may not realize there's an administrative channel they can utilize. Students who are so ignorant of the rules for plagiarism that they violate them may also be ignorant of their due process rights and not dispute the grade.

Roll out the old "room for interpretation" chestnut if your administration tries to start a conversation about protocol. But my guess is that whoever let the plagiarizers off the hook doesn't want this sort of issue on his/her desk, and that's a sword that will cut both ways, with the person who tries to put it there getting sliced. A gutsy, "fuck-you" sort of hardball move, but one that's worth consideration.
posted by alphanerd at 9:52 PM on February 19, 2012

Can you ask each student to sign a form that their submitted work is their own and that they understand what plagiarism is and that they accept a score of zero if they ate found to have plagiarised?

Also, a small multiple choice test...five questions filled in and attached to each submission proving they know what plagiarism is..... whatcha think?
posted by taff at 9:53 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not really clear from your question whether or not you're doing first-draft checks, which I encourage you to do. Set a deadline to turn and work through a draft with either you or a writing tutor (if your campus or department has them?) This gives you a way of catching the problem early on, as well as a way to help students who genuinely want to put in the effort, but lack confidence/writing skills/understanding of plagiarism.

Misunderstanding of plagiarism is a huge issue, and it's hard for a lot of people coming from the pedagogical side to realize that there's a lot of dimensions to it that have as much to do with education as with honesty.

And, uh, I almost hesitate to say this but I don't feel good leaving it unsaid in a thread where someone's already said that these students come from "a culture of plagiarism" (even though the OP didn't specify what culture they were from): treating it as "a cultural issue" is really, really problematic. It may be in the sense that your domestic students are more used to the concept have learned not to do certain kinds of plagiarism (i.e., the kinds that their high school and undergrad instructors could easily recognize), but it's not like that makes them automatically more honest or masters of the complex ethical and pedagogical issues surrounding plagiarism.

Finally, resources that may help:

Plagiarism and Patchwriting

Role of technology, cultural perspectives, studies on student understanding of plagiarism

Contextualizing Plagiarism
posted by kagredon at 10:11 PM on February 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

In my experience — both as a student and now as a TA — people cheat when they're in over their head, don't want to admit it in order to get help, and can't think of another way out. I doubt you're really dealing with MA students who don't understand what plagiarism is. If I had to guess, I'd guess that you've got students who don't know how to write, or how to do research, and who are frantically trying to keep from being "outed" to the other students and teachers in your program.

If you really want to help these guys turn into good academic citizens, you need to figure out where the gap in their skills is and push them to get remedial help. If you're lucky, you'll find out that they really do want to learn to write well (or whatever the problem happens to be) and are just afraid to ask for help. If you're unlucky, you'll find out that they have absolutely no interest in filling in the skills they're missing — in which case all you can do is what you're already doing: give them a failing grade and move on.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:28 PM on February 19, 2012 [13 favorites]

Dear lord. They're graduate students. They're adults. They should be treated as such and should be responsible for their own actions at this point. Fail them and move on.
posted by astapasta24 at 10:45 PM on February 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

If you can stand it, the world will be a better place if you school these lazy students. They will be someone's collaborator or coworker soon, and blatant copying could hurt many careers beyond their own.

You say that you won't be at the university much longer. You might be the only person in a position to hold feet to the fire, because anybody shooting for tenure will not rock the boat of an administration that clearly values money over honesty. Anybody with tenure probably wiggles out of teaching these seminars.
posted by SakuraK at 11:09 PM on February 19, 2012

I'm not condoning what these students are doing, at all, but it might help you to know that in some parts of the world (mine not least) plagiarism just isn't taken seriously. I know for a fact that several of my classmates copied and pasted together, literally, several assignments in many different classes. And this did not happen only in my college.

So basically you have a bunch of students who go into graduate school not knowing how to write a paper. Seriously, they don't know. Not how to research, not how to organize their thoughts, not how to read source materials and then sythensize and rewrite that information in their own words, not how to cite sources. Seriously. Nothing. And these are otherwise intelligent students.

So before you do anything else, maybe have a meeting and find out if they actually have the first clue how to do proper research? Like nebulawindphone said, it might be that they plagiarize because they literally don't know any better.
posted by Tamanna at 11:19 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

If they're at graduate level and don't know what plagiarism is - don't even know what plagiarism even is - they don't deserve to be at graduate level.

And they should not be.

Quite. But the University sees them as "cash cows" so lets them in anyway, and then ties the professors hands behind their backs so they can't enforce the rules properly. This is happening all over the place and because of how widespread it is and how it affects students from one particular country, it's clearly a problem with the system, not with individual students. A professor is expected to solve problems with individual students. The university is expected to solve systemic problems. But it's not in the university's best interests to deal with this stuff because the cash would just go somewhere else if they do. Therefore the professors and classmates of these students are left to suffer.

By far the majority of professors turn a blind eye. I know because in my graduate program there were a huge number of international students who could barely speak English, let alone write an academic paper. But they all passed. It meant the quality of the graduate program really suffered for the rest of us, as professors had to teach at a basic level to even have a hope of being understood by many of the students. Nobody benefitted except the university's pocketbook. And this was a quite prestigious university in the UK. It sucked.

So, what to do about it? Well, I'm not sure, to be honest. I guess the main thing is that you have to decide whether this is your battle to fight. Then you have to decide who you're fighting - the individual students or the university or the entire university system in the US and UK that look the other way and allow this to happen? I'm not sure what I would do, myself, but I know that failing a few students in your class as examples isn't going to make a difference.
posted by hazyjane at 11:47 PM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Some ideas: Meet one-on-one with your students a couple times during the semester to discuss their progress on The Big Paper. Make these conferences count, both grade-wise and feedback-wise. If you don't already, require in-class writing so you can start to hear your students' writing voices and see deficits in ability. Require an early draft about halfway through the semester; conference with them when you've read it; explicitly address plagiarism in their work at that time; explain that not only does it show academic dishonesty, it also shows they have not thoroughly digested the material and are unable to synthesize ideas from writers with ideas they've gathered elsewhere, thereby earning a lower grade, even were plagiarism not cause for a big fat F. Since this is a major US university we're talking about, I would have to assume it has a writing center. If it's a good one, you have no stronger ally. Contact them; lay out the issues you're seeing with plagiarism. They have undoubtedly dealt with the issue themselves and may be able to recommend ways for you to stop it before it starts in the next semester. Send students you perceive (from conferencing, in-class writing and early drafts) to the writing center for help.

If you are clear with your students what the outcome of plagiarism will be, it certainly should not be a surprise to them when those outcomes come up and bite them in the face, you know? So many professors just shrug and say, "Well, it's no use anyway; what's the point?" and just assign grades as if the students did the work, but all students rely on professors to hold the line; otherwise the value of the credentials they earn are eroded.

Thank you for giving a shit.

And good luck.
posted by miss patrish at 11:48 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, is there an undergraduate ESL program on your campus? If so, get in touch with them and see what they have to say about ESL students, plagiarism, etc. It could be they might have some really solid suggestions to make, maybe even recommendations for "brush-up" English courses for international students who are still struggling with fluency, or they might have tutors available.

Also, I understand what hazyjane is saying about trying to fight the whole system--I agree, but the thing is, you don't have to, really. You just have to maintain your own integrity. You may or may not end up being part of a groundswell of faculty holding the line, but you will at least retain a sense of honor.
posted by miss patrish at 12:01 AM on February 20, 2012

One time I was at a bar with a professor having a discussion about plagiarism. He had a paper come across his desk that he vaguely remembered reading. He went through all the turnitin sites and searched high and low for the source. He even asked colleagues if they had read it before. No one had seen it, it was above the level of the student that submitted it and had to be unoriginal. He said it haunted him for weeks; kept him up at night even. He described it like hearing a tune in your head and not being able to remember the band. He was setting the reading list for the next semester when he figured it out. It was his own masters thesis. Someone had taken the time to ILL and copy his own paper. He was baffled by the stupidity, and yes the student flunked.

While plagiarism is a university issue, citation is a professor level issue. I would start adding huge point incentives to keep the citation proper. Instead of paper work with the university just flunk them on not using proper citation. It can be clearly outlined before they turn in any paper. If anyone complains you can say that its either a citation issue or a plagiarism issue, they choose.
posted by Felex at 12:21 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Come over here and ask: chronicle.com/forums/
posted by LarryC at 12:30 AM on February 20, 2012

"This bothers me and I'm sure it bothers you. Perhaps you should ask the administration how to phrase your guidelines so they don't "leave room for interpretation" in their eyes."

Given that foreign students pay full freight, I'm going to guess there is no possible phrasing of the assignment guidelines that doesn't "leave room for interpretation."

OP, we had a similar problem when I was in grad school. Everyone was graded on a curve; we petitioned the administration to put the foreign students on a separate curve from the U.S. students, since the administration made it quite, quite clear that even really blatant academic dishonesty from foreign students was going to go unpunished. (Like, conferring about answers out loud DURING THE FINAL IN FRONT OF 150 PEOPLE blatant.) The administration didn't do anything. But my point is, our concern as students, once it was clear there weren't going to be any consequences ever, was that our curve not be set by people who were cheating.

Like jadepearl I make my students sign a statement saying they read, understood, and agree to the syllabus and I highlight in the statement a couple of specific things (dates for the tests, rules about plagiarism). Also I fail students completely for plagiarism, but my administrator backs me up. If your administration won't, I don't know that there's a lot you can do.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:58 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you tried talking to other profs about this issue? I think going to the administration about it would have a better chance of succeeding if a group of you went together.
posted by parrot_person at 1:39 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a language problem? If you're not comfortable with English, it must feel safer to reproduce a sentence you know is grammatical than to struggle uselessly just to say it worse. So maybe you do it once, and then again 675 times. If that is the issue, rather than culture or confusion about what plagiarism is, then you will probably still just need to apply your consequences and fail some people - but if you could help your students get in touch with whatever language and writing services exist at your institution, that would be kind, constructive, and probably helpful for motivated students. Or, if you're willing, it might be better for you to make compromises on language quality (within reason) for international students (and let them know that), than to compromise on academic integrity the way your school is expecting you to do now.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:22 AM on February 20, 2012

I'm incredibly sad that we've had this many comments and not one "contact your library and set up an instruction session" answer. :-(

When I was an instruction librarian, I designed and taught a class on copyright and plagiarism for students that was based on music sampling as the example-set....most of the students got it, because it was relevant to something they were interested in. Most academic libraries have someone who does this sort of work specifically for students...contact your local Reference/Instruction librarians and ask for help.
posted by griffey at 3:45 AM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I start the year with a discussion of plagiarism and what it means, what I expect it should mean to them when they submit work to me.

"Plagiarism is the use of someone else’s words or ideas without acknowledgment. That is, a work is essentially copied. You must, therefore, acknowledge the source of any information or ideas that are not your own when you prepare an assignment. This means that each piece of work submitted must include references in the body of the text, and must be accompanied by a detailed reference list which includes both print and non-print material. If you are in any doubt about the referencing process please see me or your librarians for clarification.

Plagiarism of the vocabulary, information and ideas of others is a serious matter. A finding of plagiarism will be given a zero, and will be referred onto relevant disciplinary panels..."

After I have explained the definition above, I provide question time, ask if they all understand and then ask each student to sign a form acknowledging that they have had the rules about plagiarism explained to them and that they understand that their work will be carefully scrutinised and given zero for non-compliance.

And every time students submit work to me they have to sign a plagiarism disclaimer at the front of their submissions:

I ______________________________ declare that the following essay is all my own work and that I have fully acknowledged in my bibliography both print and non-print sources for ideas, vocabulary and information used in my arguments. I recognise that plagiarism is a serious matter which will be treated as cheating and penalised accordingly.

Date _________________________

Signature _____________________

This makes it absolutely clear to the student and the disclaimer with signature is not unusual in colleges I think?
posted by honey-barbara at 3:47 AM on February 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

I noticed that in some of your first drafts,it didn't seem like your papers were completely original ideas

Wait -- I don't think you should use the term "original ideas". My experience in the social sciences (undergrad, masters, doc program) is that a large part of it is regurgitating someone else's ideas. You're not asking them to build theory are you?

I'm not being facetious. Its very confusing to students to be told to do a lit review but be original. And its a difficult skill to report back what some other writer said, but to state it in a different way. And quite often, when asked to draw one's own conclusions, the prof is really looking for the same conclusions someone else came to.

Maybe acknowledging this and being very specific about where you're looking for originality would be useful. (But again, original thoughts based on "evidence" pitches people back into having to rely on someone else's conclusions...)
posted by vitabellosi at 3:59 AM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

One problem might also be that they might not know how to cite their sources properly. From talking with a friend who teaches at the graduate level this might also be a factor.

Maybe hand out a one-page primer of how to cite sources at the beginning of the semester and see if that changes anything.
posted by Bearded Dave at 5:25 AM on February 20, 2012

Having seen this before, but with an administration which refused to enforce their own policies, I'm quite sympathetic.

One way to decrease plagiarism involves restructuring the class a bit. I'm going to give examples in a completely different field (molecular biology) because I know nothing about social sciences MAs.

At the beginning of the semester, each student is assigned a specific protein (or they're given a list to choose from). As each topic is covered in the class, the students are required to complete written homework assignments applying the topic to their protein. Each student is also required to do an in class presentation on their protein toward the end of the semester. And then finally turn in a single long paper that incorporates what they've learned in each of the homework assignments.

This discourages plagiarism - it was not the way the course was taught for the years when I graded for this class.

In my experience, standing in front of the class, explaining what plagiarism is, going over a handout that explicitly explains it, and telling the students that I'm going to catch them and they're going to fail .... DOESN'T WORK. I'd love to spend some time telling stories about particularly blatant plagiarisms (don't use a book chapter from 1965, or a whole slew of references in German, or use google translate to translate an article from your home language, or forget to change font for the copy-pasted bits), but the only thing I saw even vaguely work was when the professor just gave the students involved incompletes. They would start showing up at his office the following semester and he'd make them write a new paper. Which was then scrutinized (we didn't have access to turnitin), and if it passed they were given a grade for the course. If it didn't, they wrote another paper.

Language as an excuse? I took classes in another country in a language I learned as a teen. It was hard has hell. I got help from some classmates. There were no "writing centers" available. I'm sympathetic, but not too sympathetic.

And if these students get three hours of instruction on how not to cheat, they'd darn well better not cheat.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:31 AM on February 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

To follow on with HazyJane, this is a big system-wise problem.

When schools admit international students (who may have cheated to get in), yet don't have the infrastructure in place to help them -- writing center or whatever -- the burden falls on the professor.

Things I've heard from friends who are professors:
"I don't do group projects anymore. It takes away from the class, but what can I do?"
" I only do multiple choice exams now."
posted by k8t at 5:41 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chronicle forums on this exact issue
posted by k8t at 5:44 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

"In my experience, standing in front of the class, explaining what plagiarism is, going over a handout that explicitly explains it, and telling the students that I'm going to catch them and they're going to fail .... DOESN'T WORK."

I agree with that it doesn't stop some students plagiarising, but I do think it helps with the OP's stated problem that admin said that "the assignment guidelines left room for interpretation" leading to an additional burden on her/him to prove that using bulk chunks of work from others/plagiarism was not explicitly discouraged. It also reflects my own experience dealing with the administri-vialisation aspects of a department's handling of this frustrating issue. Making this requirement absolutely explicit and acknowledged by students helps in the follow through.

I think also, sciencegeek, that you are right about the kinds of tasks that you can give students to promote more interactive, deductive responses to class material like the example you give here.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:48 AM on February 20, 2012

I'd add that at some universities, there is a huge legal-y culture about all of this. Emails are subpoenable, syllabi are like a legal contract...
posted by k8t at 7:27 AM on February 20, 2012

I'm also going to point out that while we're carefully stepping around the issue of the nationality of students associated with higher incidences of plagiarism, I've actually seen a fairly broad spread of nationalities involved in plagiarism. The school with which I was associated had an extremely diverse student population.

I think that the OP mentioned that the instructions were clear and did not leave room for interpretation, "And I swear to you, they did not." This indicates that the administration is unwilling to hold students to its own rules. To answer this part of the question, I think that perhaps the administration might be asked for some nice paragraphs (which would, of course, be properly attributed) that they feel explain the policy clearly, offering no room for interpretation, that they would be inclined to back up.

If there is no central code concerning academic honesty, the university is not doing its job.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:38 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Particularly once students get to graduate school, they are adults who are capable of doing immense damage to anyone who trusts them. Plagiarism absolutely needs to be a capital crime in relation to the careers of academics, which these student now are, because it is to easy to get away with, the skills necessary to avoid it are to prohibitively difficult to learn once behind the curve, and the damage it can cause is way to great. Your institution owes it to wherever these students go next to at least document their dishonesty and make sure it follows them.

If your institution is as incapable of fulfilling such a core academic responsibility, it absolutely needs to be called out on it.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:35 AM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

If someone has not been educated about plagiarism, then you have to educate them, not just punish them. It can be incredibly daunting to be working in another language and be told that your ideas must be original without the corresponding, "here's how to use sources" discussion. Framing it as cheating increases the pressure, but doesn't necessarily solve the problem.

In some senses, it's really easy not to plagiarize. Just quote and cite the heck out of your sources. When you've been told to be original, it's not always obvious that quoting and citing fits into that, like others have said.
posted by idb at 10:30 AM on February 20, 2012

In general, there are two penalties for plagiarism, a failing grade from the instructor and disciplinary measures by the administration. There is nothing stopping you from giving the students zeroes for their papers within the expectations of the class. What the administration decides to do with regards to academic discipline is not actually your problem. And if you find the administrations methods lacking, then why even bother including them in the discussion? Giving the student a failing grade is not "taking matters into your own hands," it's doing exactly what you are supposed to do as an instructor, i.e. grade assignments based on their merit. You should have final say on all grades given in your class. Just give the students zeroes and move on.
posted by grog at 4:27 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

You have 2 plagiarism problems - 1 with the university administration, 1 with the students.

Deal with the Uni. Admin.: Revise assignments to be extra-explicit about fair use. Be extra-explicit about how papers are written and graded, and the consequences. Ignore the threats, other than to forward comments to your chair, as a CYA. The chron.com forums are also likely to be useful, for both sides of the problem.

Deal with the students: Meet with someone from the International Education program to discuss ways to assist international students in understanding academic/cultural norms and assisting them with producing good work, and earning their degrees. And, yes, definitely get help from the librarians. I think an in-class demo of finding unattributed, beyond fair use work, might be better than talking about it. I love the idea of having them submit their own work to the plagiarism checker; maybe the library could facilitate? Do some in-class writing assignments. Identify students who need academic assistance and refer them. Maybe change the assignments to do more reflection on the research, so you at least know they read it.

Also, students with adequate resources can buy original work. This is not a simple problem.
posted by theora55 at 5:41 PM on February 21, 2012

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