Monday, February 17, 2014

Plagiarism—Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Plagiarism is the unacknowledged, intentionally deceptive use of another’s words or ideas. It is not easy to prove.

Those who seek to punish guilty parties—teachers, in particular—need to be aware of the difficulties of proof, lest they become guilty of committing injustices to their students.

The mere fact that a paper “looks better than it should be,” considering the student who wrote it, or “looks like it was copied from someone else’s paper” does not provide prima facie proof of wrongdoing.

In my early years as a professor, I read a paper by an international student. I thought is was too good to have been written by someone whose first language was not English. I told my chair and he immediately said, “Throw the book at her.” So, I did, and got vocal protests and tears in return. I went back to my chair who then suggested that the student write something in his office, which meant she would not be able to copy her words from another source. My chair read the girl’s writing and said, “Well, she could have memorized it.”

The verdict was guilty. A student review committee convened the following fall, but I had left the school in the spring to work in business. I never heard what happened to the girl and, as a result, have felt guilty every since! I hope she was exonerated.

In contrast to this case, I have caught two other, and only two, students red-handed with papers copied from elsewhere—one source in a book that I had in my office, the other a previous student’s paper inadvertently attached to the current (copied) one submitted to me for the assignment.

No, I did not turn the students over to any drill-sergeant morality board. I simply flunked them for the course. My experience with such plagiarism-police boards is that they share my former chair’s penchant for summary judgment: throw the book at ’em, punish ’em, draw blood. Evidence? It’s the board’s judgment against theirs. The board has PhD degrees and the student does not.

Such an attitude is old-fashioned authoritarianism in the classroom. Knuckles used to be rapped with rulers and disobedients were made to kneel on raw peas. Many teachers today still seem too trigger happy to punish, rather than to understand and teach.

When it comes to plagiarism, none other than Mark Twain wrote the following in a letter to Helen Keller about her alleged plagiarism of a short story (quoted here):

The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources . . .
And he is not alone in expressing this sentiment. Oliver Sacks eloquently addresses the role of a not always accurate memory in the process of creating. A Google search of the statement, “We are all plagiarists,” produces many a lively discussion of the topic of borrowing and excessive similarity (1, 2, 3).*

Intentional deception is still the issue and determining that this has occurred in the classroom is not easy. Throw in other little details about our modern educational system and one can see the difficulty of presenting a foolproof case. Like:

  • Our credential system, as I argued in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism (p. 166-67), encourages cheating. When the union card is what is important, the attitude becomes: do whatever is required to get the credential.
  • The cultural values and therefore attitudes toward plagiarism of international students can differ considerably from those of Americans, such as considering it a form of respect to repeat verbatim without acknowledgement someone else’s words.
  • The group project (1, 2) encourages collaboration but forbids copying from others. Seriously, teach? How exactly is that supposed to happen, especially when collaboration usually means discussing and editing each other’s words and ideas? On the next individual assignment, will the student understand that this means no discussion or editing of others’ words or ideas?
  • The Internet based plagiarism detection services, such as turnitin.com, are often used as clubs or threats, rather than as learning tools, as I and others have suggested they be used (1, 2).
Less fear and more education is the solution to the “plagiarism problem.” Teachers must take responsibility for teaching, not policing.

This was captured best by the Wall Street Journal cartoon, showing a teacher and little boy with an F on his paper. The boy says, “Ah, Miss Brimsley, I ask you: Which one of us has truly failed?”


* To avoid even the hint of plagiarism, one of my graduate school professors advised, “Cite cheek by jowl.” Hence, the many hyperlinks in my blog posts!


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