Help a future cheater to never exist
December 14, 2007 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Resources to help a young person understand plagiarism and why it's bad.

I am a TA in a general biology course at a large university, and one of my students has submitted a lab report that contains verbatim exerpts from 4 uncredited sources. My judgement, which I will not explain for brevity's sake but which I hope you will accept when answering, is that she doesn't understand how this is dishonest because she's come from schools teaching to standardized tests and her generation has always had the power to paste and doesn't always have teachers explaining why it's not good scholarship. I believe that a well reasoned article or two will turn her around. What resources exist online or in print or whatever?
posted by Eothele to Education (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't mean this to be unhelpful, but:

This is not your job.

At the most, identify the concern and punt it to whoever is the listed instructor for the actual course. He or she arguably gets paid to deal with shit like this. You don't.

In any case, plagiarism isn't about convincing her that it's improper. That she doesn't understand that it's dishonest is not important. That she come to understand in her heart that it's dishonest is not particularly important. What is important is that she not do it. Punishment, even punishment that is forgiven, should get that message across pretty clearly.

Why is plagiarism bad? Because when it is discovered, it is usually punished very harshly. Career-destroyingly harshly, sometimes.

If you want examples, find examples of people who lost good jobs because of plagiarism, even plagiarism that was decades old. Whathisname in Colorado, for example; she doesn't need to know the subtext that he was an annoyance. Or find examples of people who had their degrees revoked years after the fact.

That said, my first reaction might be lenient. If this is the first time, and if the stuff that she used isn't central to anything -- if it's not stealing conclusions or analysis -- then my first reaction would be to write this in her report:

If you use other works in this way, you must cite them. Any further plagiarism, of any degree, will result in an immediate F on the assignment (or in the course, or for the lab section) and referral to The Dreaded Plagiarism People.

Or, if this is more accurate,

In this course, you are not permitted to use other works, even if cited (which you did not). Further violations will result in an immediate F blah blah.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:57 AM on December 14, 2007

Why is plagiarism bad? Because when it is discovered, it is usually punished very harshly.

That may be a disincentive, but it's not a reason. The reason is that it's not in the student's long term interest, for the same reason that one can't learn how to sing by lip synching.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:09 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who was accused of plagiarism in graduate school and almost did not receive her Masters as a result. In my conversations with her about the situation, she defended herself by saying she did not know it was plagiarism. While she had been taught the word, she had never really been taught the operative definition. I am the daughter of two college professors, so the idea that someone could reach graduate school without this knowledge surprised me. This is the sorry state of ethics in our educational system, and by extension in our society. Expedience trumps ethics, if you can get away with it.

ROU_Xenophobe seems to emphasize the getting away with it part, when he/she writes "Why is plagiarism bad? Because when it is discovered, it is usually punished very harshly. Career-destroyingly harshly, sometimes."

Plagiarism is bad because it is wrong to represent another's ideas as one's own, not because there are bad consequences if one gets caught. Would you write that robbing a store is wrong because you'll go to jail if you get caught?

I believe that, as an educator (even if only a TA), the OP is right to want to teach the student why plagiarism is wrong. I also believe that the student should suffer consequences for the first infraction.

I don't have any specific links to recommend, but I felt compelled to comment on the comment.
posted by ljshapiro at 10:15 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here is a great article about it: The Unoriginal Sin. Here is another on academic plagiarism. Ask your student if she has any clever or funny stories that she likes to tell others about her personal life; if she does, politely listen, then tell her that you are going to have a large dinner party and tell that story of hers as if it were your story. If you can, find someone in the hall our office to tell immediately, in front of her. Ask her how seeing you steal "her story" or her clever turns of phrase makes her feel. Stealing a turn of phrase or a thought is exactly the same as stealing someone else's property, only much more personal. How would she feel if someone came and took her pet? Her baby photos? Her parents? Best friend? Your words and ideas, and the talent to put them together in such a way that they would entice another person to steal them and represent them as their own, is just as personal as a pet, an emotion, a relationship, a memory. Whether it's a dry, academic paper or a bon mot easily rattled off at a party, the ability to capture an audience in just the right way is a gift.

She needs to understand that it is a very personal violation to take someone's work that way; make her feel the personal invasiveness of it herself, and she will not do it again. The punishment needn't be anything more than a sense of personal violation. Hopefully that will do the trick.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:29 AM on December 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

The university where I was a librarian for a while tried a different tact. In one of the programs we tried to de-emphasize that 'plagiarism bad' aspect. Instead they thought that explaining why ALL researchers need to correctly acknowledge other research. We tried to emphasize the positives. Anecdotally, the honey method seemed to sink in a little better than the big stick scary method.

Don't get me wrong, we still emphasized there were repercussions to plagiarizing anothers work, but that there were also postive reasons for doing it. (sorry for the over use of 'emphasize', bit of a Xmas chocolate hangover today)
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 10:39 AM on December 14, 2007

Please do not let this slide, regardless of what else you do she needs to get an F on this assignment, if you want to give her a chance to re-write it from scratch for a diminished grade that is up to you, but you need to impress on her the seriousness of what she has done.

Reasons why plagiarism is bad aside from that fact that at the very least if caught a responsible educator would fail the assignment if not the course and I do not think it is unjustifiable to remove that student from the school:

It is theft, there is no arguing this, taking someone else's ideas and presenting them as your own is absolutely theft.

It is unfair to the students who actually bothered to do their own work, it can mess up curves, and it diminishes the accomplishments of her fellow students when they are competing for graduate school positions or jobs later on.

It is lazy and defeats and a waste of her/her parent's money, why is someone paying many thousands of dollars a year for her to just steal someone elses ideas when she is supposed to be developing her own?

Again, please do not let this slide, I am probably more earnest about this then most as I had it drilled into me over and over again in high school and college, but I take it very seriously and she will not do that unless he learns there are consequences, she will thank you in 10 years if you do the right thing here.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:53 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you could arrange for an information literacy session with the science librarian at your university. Make a request for special attention on plagiarism. They can use tutorials similar to this:

It seems dumb, but a lot of kids really don't understand it, and oftentimes don't really understand the research process at all. This leads to desperation which can then lead to plagiarism.
posted by unknowncommand at 10:58 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think the student might just need to learn the proper format for a research paper. It can be hard to understand what aspects of your written text need citation, and what kind of citation. A lot of times students are asked to put someone else's research "in your own words" but don't have any clues on how to do this when the original is already clearly and simply stated. (I remember hearing you had to change every third word in order to make it your own.) Students may not know that they're supposed to source-cite even if they're not quoting. They might not know that they have to source-cite things that they already knew before writing the paper. They also may have been graded down in high school for using "too many" quotations (as though they were padding out the paper).

I had a great class in Research Methods that covered all of this stuff (and included written examples). We were given guidelines for each topic we wrote about, so we knew many books and articles would be reasonable to use to write the paper well. Our papers were then graded according to a clear point scheme (-X points for each source not cited, -X points for not titling the sections properly, etc.). I also remember an ethical reading we were given: the chapter "How To Be Fair With Science" MARTIN, DAVID W. Doing Psychology Experiments. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company: Monterey: 1985. I found that just now because the professor was impeccable about citing everything he gave us, of course.

It might also be a good assignment to have people trade papers and see if they can compile each other's source material based on the way they are cited. Some students are lazy and make up citations, so it might be useful to show them how that practice would screw up other researchers down the line.
posted by xo at 11:18 AM on December 14, 2007

How is this not the TA's job?

I think you should skip the origin issues and just mark the paper with "it's important to cite all sources" and maybe give the student a chance to resubmit the paper.

There's no need to take on the job of counseling the student about this; just mark it as an error, be gentle and assume (since it sounds like this is the 'first offense' with you) that it's an oversight, and convey the expectation that all sources must be cited.
posted by caitlinb at 11:32 AM on December 14, 2007

How is this not the TA's job?

The TA's primary job is to get his own research done, and the TAship is an excuse to give the TA money to support himself while doing this.

The TA's secondary job is to grade stuff and manage labs -- making sure nobody is getting hurt, nobody is breaking stuff, and that one group isn't interfering with another's ability to learn. All of which is contingent on satisfying the primary job.

Educating students about biology, where it falls into place naturally in the course of managing a lab section, is a tertiary job.

Educating students about plagiarism is the job of the student's teachers prior to admissions. To me, this falls into the realm of determining appropriate accommodations for disabilities, or teaching students what good study habits are or about good note-taking strategies -- someone else's job in an environment that thrives because of highly developed specialization. Other people know this stuff, and the student should make use of them.

Dealing with plagiarism, for the students that didn't catch this earlier, is the listed professor's job, not the TA's. The TA's responsibility should end at "Prof, I caught this student doing this thing," after which it is emphatically his or her problem.

The right response here is to punt this to the professor and reapply nose to grindstone. Not to try to save the student from her own purported ignorance, or to get into a long-running dispute with the student over what constitutes plagiarism or about her grade for the lab section.

Now to reapply nose to grindstone...
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:51 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Or rather,

Punting it to the prof, or writing


Might well be within the TA's job description.

Educating the student about academic ethics is very emphatically not. If I had discussion sections, I would tell a TA doing this to hand over the fucking problem to me and get back to work.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:56 AM on December 14, 2007

While I think that ROU is a little harsh concerning a TA's priorities, above, I agree with his general sentiment: this is not your responsibility. As a TA, your function is not to evaluate the students, it's to better enable the professor to evaluate the students; this is an important distinction. If this instance could be egregious enough to affect the student's grade, then the professor needs to know about it, as it's his/her decision to make.

You are allowed to plead for clemency on behalf of the student, of course. You can tell the professor exactly what you told us, in the hope that he or she will take pity on this poor defenceless plagiarist. But in the end, he/she needs to be well-informed on anything significant happening in the class, and this is certainly significant.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:51 PM on December 14, 2007

Personally, I think referring her paper to the academic dean and having her pulled in for a little chat is what is needed. They think they are so slick no one is going to notice, and if it is noticed, that they can talk their way out of it. At some schools it would get the kid kicked out but having to defend herself to an authority figure outside of the department might hit the message home.
posted by 45moore45 at 1:10 PM on December 14, 2007

Why is plagiarism bad? Because when it is discovered, it is usually punished very harshly.

That may be a disincentive, but it's not a reason.

Plagiarism is bad because it is wrong to represent another's ideas as one's own,

She needs to understand that it is a very personal violation to take someone's work that way

If I pass Mark Twain's writing off as my own, I'm not violating him. I can't violate him. He's dead. (Unless you think it's possible to violate a dead person. If you do, that's fine, but that's a religious -- or supernatural -- belief. And it's unfair of you to expect others to share that belief.)

If I plagiarize Tom Clancy, you may have a case. MAYBE Clancy will be violated -- or feel violated -- by my actions.

But I think it's pretty hard for a student to understand how she's hurting Tom Clancy by claiming ownership of his work. And getting back to Twain, if I were the student, I'd ask, "So is it okay to plagiarize a dead person?" I image the answer I'd get is "no," and if I continued asking "why," I'd be told "because it's just wrong." Which is a non-answer, but it's the sort of thing people say all the time, when they don't want to delve into something too deeply.

To me, the honest thing to say is this: "This university has a policy against plagiarism. As an employee of the university, I required to turn you in if I find you plagiarizing, and I'll do so. You will then face serious consequences, so you may want to think twice before doing so."

This way, you're simply explaining the rules without pushing your personal ideology/morals on someone else.

I think it's fair game (but not required) for you to add, "I also happen to think plagiarizing is wrong." And if you feel like you can make a logical argument for it being wrong, you can say, "And if you're interested, I can tell you why I think it's wrong." Otherwise, you can say, "I can't defend that. I just think it's wrong. But right or wrong, I will uphold policy."

it's not in the student's long term interest, for the same reason that one can't learn how to sing by lip synching.

If I do something that's not in my own interest, that's not "wrong," it's "my business." You my find my way of living my life stupid, but that's your problem.

A professor should feel free to say, "In your shoes, I wouldn't do it because it would rob me of a chance to learn." And the prof can enforce policy (that the student agreed to follow by choosing to go to the school). But it's condescending to tell someone else what to do with her life; and it's condescending to impose your moral values on someone else.

It's honest and non-condescending to enforce rules.
posted by grumblebee at 2:34 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Are you telling me I can't be condescending if I bloody well feel like it?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:07 PM on December 14, 2007

No, I wasn't talking about you. You go right ahead.
posted by grumblebee at 5:23 PM on December 14, 2007

I don't know if it's especially applicable to lab reports, but I've been having my students read Writing With Sources for a few years. It explains what count as plagiarism and why very clearly.
posted by buriedpaul at 6:39 PM on December 14, 2007

Whew. For a minute there I thought you were imposing your moral values on me.
So where do rules come from, grumblebee?
What kind of societies value enforcing rules over moral suasion?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:40 PM on December 14, 2007

I'm not sure what kind of societies value anything, since societies don't have values. They don't have values, because they don't have brains. People have brains. People have values. In my society (US, New York), many different people have many different values.

Rules come from all sorts of places: people in power imposing their will, people trying to fix a problem, and (the one you're looking for?) people trying to force other people to stick to some moral code.

I don't see what difference it makes to someone who is part of the system but didn't make up the rules.

I take your point that I brought up my values while suggesting someone else not bring up his. The difference is that this was a discussion ABOUT values. One in which several people had already revealed theirs.

On the other hand, had I started lecturing someone about values in a different context -- in a English Lit class or a History class -- I would have been seriously out of line and condescending.

Yes, it's impossible to escape values. Several people here values that state "When you think something is wrong, you have the right to lecture people about it, even when they haven't asked for your opinion." My value is the opposite. I don't think you have the (moral) right. So I said so in a discussion about values. Had I been in a classroom and overheard one student lecturing another, I wouldn't have spoken up. It would have been none of my business.
posted by grumblebee at 7:05 PM on December 14, 2007

If you can get the prof to handle it, great.
If not, you can decide if you want to spend your time. I always did in cases like this, but it meant a lot of time.

I would call the person in to my office and have a sit-down. I would begin the sit-down with something big and bad: The paper you turned in is partly plagiarized. Here's the university's academic honor code. The consequences for plagiarism here range from an F in the course to expulsion. If you want to graduate college you need to understand and live by the ban on plagiarism.

I'm not going to give you an F, I'm going to give you a chance to rewrite the paper. [If you suspect it wasn't an "honest mistake", then put a note in the student's file with the dean, along with copies of the materials.] Let's talk about what's acceptable and what isn't. Now, here are the parts that are copied -- I've highlighted them. Let's work through how we can get these ideas into the paper appropriately in a few different ways. (etc)

Plagiarism is bad - the ultimate academic sin. But appropriate citation is great; much of your college career revolves around learning from published research, or taking ideas from various sources and figuring out how to put them together into new shapes. You need to know how to handle these ideas and how to indicate where your own ideas fit in among them.

As for the reasons: plagiarism is lying. It's presenting an idea or wording as your own, when it isn't your own. It's intolerable among people who take their intellectual lives seriously. It's also cheating, because you're breaking the rules to get a grade advantage over honest students. It's lying and cheating. What's not to get?

If she just wants a pragmatic reason to avoid it, here are two: academics take it very seriously and will nail you for it. Also you're in college to get smarter -- this is like hiring someone else to go to your expensive personal-trainer sessions at the gym, it's self-defeating.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:20 PM on December 14, 2007

I usually explain this in terms of evidence. When you hand in an assessment, you are trying to give evidence that you actually understand what is going on. By copying from another source, you are failing to provide this evidence, all you are doing is providing evidence that you can look up keywords and copy vaguely related sections of text.

This framework provides a way of tackling one of the most common reasons for plagiarism: the student will often comment that there is no way that an explanation in "their own words" can match the explanation in the textbook. Using the idea of "evidence of understanding" makes this clearer: we aren't looking for the clearest explanation in the world, just something that provides sufficient evidence that you understand.

It also clears up some confusing aspects of the university learning process that promote vagueness about what is and isn't plagiarism. Why, for example, is it acceptable for a professor to give a lecture illustrated by copious illustrations from the textbook, whilst we might insist on the student creating their own illustrations in an assessment? Again, this is to do with evidence. The lecture is about learning the material, it is not a presentation of evidence to prove that the professor understands the material. By contrast, the assessment is a presentation of the student's evidence of understanding.

Also, misunderstandings about the structure of academic writing are common. For example, some students believe that citing a paper in the references means that you can take phrases from that paper and incorporate them into your own text without marking them up explicitly as quotations. I would check that there are not any misunderstandings of this kind in this case.
posted by Jabberwocky at 3:32 AM on December 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

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