Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Plagiarism: Why Does it Happen?

The Boston Globe's David Mehegan explores why, with all the scrutiny and the ease of searching text and tracking words the Internet provides, some writers continue to plagiarize. A good question, and good to see it addressed in a major newspaper constructively, instead of as just another story about the horrors of plagiarism and the need to crack the whip on plagiarizers. I'm particularly struck by this passage, early on in the article:
Why do they do it? With the Internet making it easy to disseminate and read virtually anything anyone writes, it has become that much easier to catch plagiarists. So why do writers continue to steal the works of others? There are many explanations: gnawing self-doubt, narcissistic self-confidence, haste, pressure from publishers and editors, unrestrained ambition, a self-destructive need to court disaster, and, sometimes, ignorance of what plagiarism is.

''There has to be some anxiety that motivates it,'' says Louise J. Kaplan, a New York psychotherapist and author. ''It's very much tied up with a person's uncertain sense of personal identity. Tricking people and convincing them that something untrue is true helps them conquer some other anxiety.''
I read this and can't help but think of students. I know self-doubt plagues many novice writers, which is what most of the students I teach are -- novice academic writers struggling to understand academic conventions. And too, many students are also ambitious, or narcissistically self-confident, sometimes self-destructive, and frequently ignorant of what plagiarism actually is. (They're also ignorant of the simple fact that if they can find something on the Internet, so can their teachers.)

So what's a teacher to do?

For me, I've been really struck, and really impressed, by the notion of voice and plagiarism, which is why this Boston Globe article strikes me as so useful. I think one central "anxiety that motivates" plagiarism in students is what Keith Hjortshoi explores in this PDF excert from his book, Transition to College Writing: "Theft, Fraud, and Loss of Voice." He writes,
Both deliberate and accidental forms of plagiarism often result from the central challenge student writers face, especially in research papers: establishing a voice and perspective of their own. I’ve already explained that if you have not established your own authority over the subject and a reason for writing, it will be difficult to identify the boundaries between your ideas and language and those of other writers. What you have to say will be what others have already said. Everything you write will come directly from sources and will seem to need citation.

Again and again I've had students complain to me when I worked as a writing center tutor and explained to them what they needed to cite, that then everything in their paper would get a footnote. They're shocked to realize that they're not there, in their own writings. No voice, no argument exists that they've shaped. Instead, they've merely repeated what they've researched.

And it's not that as writers they need to be original all the time. (Clearly, if you read enough op. ed's, you'll find the same arguments being rehashed on any given hot issue again and again. See Michael Kinsley's "Sympathy for the New York Times: Often plagiarized. Seldom plagiarizing." at, for a more developed explanation of argument and story idea rehashing.) But a writer does need to find their own voice and point of view on an issue. It can be a point of view and argument shared by others, but the writer needs to have confidence in their take, in their articulation. And in writing, one's take is expressed in words and those words need to be one's own. The trick for many writers is knowing when words they write are recalled formulations from words they've read, and when they're new formulations they've made.

Students, I've learned from Hjortshoi, often stumble into plagiarism (or rush head-long into it) because they either cannot find or do not trust the authority of their own voice.

And that often happens because teachers don't do enough to foster that sense of authority in their students. Yes, of course many teachers do all they can to help writers find their voice, and they devise smart assignments, and collect work in increments and do all kinds of things to teach writing well and to help students understand the complexities of plagiarism, and despite doing this, students still plagiarize. But very often, many teachers do not do these things and student writing is cast adrift, separated from the writers who produce it.

Helping writers to find their voices, to be confident enough to use their voices, to move beyond, in first year writing courses, which is what I teach, the information-dump-research paper, the read-and-regurgitate-research paper, is no easy thing. Many students got grades in the past by excising voice and opinion from their own writing. They don't trust that I'll trust their voice.

But I can't think of what else there is to do, but to work in the direction Hjortshoi urges. Helping students find their own voice, their own words, so that they can distinguish better their voices and words from the voices and words of the sources they research, hear, read, and that really, when you think about it, always already surround them, seems to me more and more, the best way to help students understand, really, what plagiarism is all about.

Friday, October 21, 2005

No Writer is an Island -- A TYCA-SW Presentation

This is a miscellany post, a collection of rough ideas and links for a presentation I'm giving today at TYCA Southwest :

No Writer is an Island; All Writing is Connected to Sources

Students know, on one level, that they need to acknowledge sources and use them wisely, but on another, they're also faced with being graded as individuals. Sometimes, in the push to meet criteria for their individual grades and finding their own singular voice, they lose sight (cite?) of the role source use plays in connecting their voices --and their arguments-- to a larger conversation. This talk will focus on strategies for helping students use internet resources more fully and richly.

From I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online by Frances Jacobson Harris, some key observations:
  1. Libraries are formal information systems/places.
  2. Students' habits are informal.
  3. Things do not have to be either formal or informal because the Internet, to which libraries are linked, is an example of an . . .
. . .Information and Communication Technology
Barbara Fister's (See from her vita this reference "Teaching Research as a Social Act" and Teaching the Rhetorical Dimensions of Research.) research shows that successful student researchers, those who get A's, often begin their research communicatively. She also argues that it's possible to create assignments that help foster this communicative role. And of course, as a librarian, she knows that balance is important. Students do need to know when and how to use the library. Her work with Diana Hacker on Research and Documentation Online, work which informs all of Diana's handbooks, offers a wonderful resource for helping students find that balance. They'll find things on the Internet. Some of them not always so good. The trick is for teachers to find things that they can use to steer students in better directions.

What Fister's work celebrates is this simple formulation put forth by Doug Downs in a forthcoming digital publication from Bedford/St. Martin's:
sources are people talking to people. Unfortunately, our students often don't see this because they're often writing papers --let alone research papers-- that don't talk to anyone (beyond the instructor and possibly classmates).

Further, research and other writing assignments often focus on the mechanics of the things, and those mechanics are tied to the grade. So that as students write and research, they carry the burden and weight of those mechanics, which burden makes it even harder for them to find a rhetorical purpose and voice that seeks to speak. Instead of thinking of what they want to say, and to whom, and why, and how, they worry about
satisfying this kind of rhetoric:
  • Two weeks after the semester starts, all paper topics are final.
  • The final paper will be at least 7 typed pages .
  • MLA format will be followed.
  • Plagiarism will be penalized with a grade of zero on the final paper.
  • The thesis statement of your paper must be in your introduction.
  • There is a minimum of six sources:
    • at least one print medium
    • at least one non-print medium
Or from my own teaching at one point, this kind:
The Emerson College Statement on Plagiarism in The Emerson College Student Handbook warns that "plagiarism is the use of the words and/or ideas of another as if they were one's own and without acknowledgement of their source" (63). Please familiarize yourself with this policy by reading this section of the undergraduate catalogue.

Intentional plagiarism will not be tolerated. Any student who plagiarizes another's work will automatically fail this course. In addition, Emerson College will take disciplinary action and an official record of such action will become part of your permanent file. Plagiarism can result in probation or expulsion from the College. Most importantly, you are here to learn and gain skills that will serve you during your entire career and life; to plagiarize is to cheat yourself of this opportunity.

I don't mean to criticize the instructor whose bulleted syllabus list I quote from. I'd be a pot commenting on the color of a kettle. But I use these excerpts --unfairly in the first case because it is out of the course context and we have no idea, really, how the instructor tempers this and coaches and teaches around it-- as examples of the kind of thing I've seen get to students. For my own part, I've found it useful to back away from such weighted prose.

The language is headlight-on-high-beam harsh; it means to be. It's designed to be firm and clear. Unfortunately, it can also turn students into startled deer, one of the best ways to make them academic road kill. And if it doesn't do that, it frequently makes the reading instructors have to do drudgery because the focus on those kinds of details gets in the way of writing into a conversation. Form trumps purpose and stamps out argument.

Worse, this kind of language inhibits voice.

And voice matters, as Keith Hjortshoj reminds us in "Theft, Fraud, and Loss of Voice" (excerpted from Transition to College Writing). Keith writes (emphasis mine):
Both deliberate and accidental forms of plagiarism often result from the central challenge student writers face, especially in research papers: establishing a voice and perspective of their own. IÂI'vee already explained that if you have not established your own authority over the subject and a reason for writing, it will be difficult to identify the boundaries between your ideas and language and those of other writers. What you have to say will be what others have already said. Everything you write will come directly from sources and will seem to need citation. In their effort to avoid these strings of citations, students who are writing directly from research notes often drift into plagiarism, closely paraphrasing sources without citing them, or “borrowing” exact phrases and sentences without quotation.
So what are some of the ways teachers are finding to helps students find their voices and to have something to stay? Harris recommends having students do what they're doing anyway, but with more guidance from teachers -- creating and putting content on the Internet. She reasons that if students see how easy it is, it will help them appreciate how it easy it is and why there is so much stuff out there and how possible it is for much of it to be less than accurate, useful, considered, or trustworthy.

Some instructors are using
Podcasts. Andrea A. Lunsford's program at Stanford has students creating radio essays as a way to publish their wordss Many instructors are having their students use blogs, and "Teaching Carnival" roundups, like this one I linked to from Scribblingwoman, are useful ways to gather ideas.

Matt Barton has his
students writing a Wiki Textbook, with of course, a section on research. And Penn State has a whole Wiki Farm.

Others are helping students mimic not just essays academics write, but collaborative behaviors we engage in,
such as asking colleagues for help and sharing leads and resources with one another.

The key to all these things is not the technologies per se, but the uses to which they are put -- Information and Communication Technologies pedagogically guided become tools for helping students to understand, quite elegantly, that sources are people talking to people (for all the reasons people talk to one another). When students write, they enter those conversations.
Helping them to converse first and to write second, is a useful way to get them beyond the mechanics and weights of assignments.

Monday, October 20, 2003

CQ Researcher: "Combating Plagiarism"

The CQ Researcher is a subscription only publication found in many libraries. However, there currently is a trial issue online, a free CQ Researcher report, "Combating Plagiarism." If you go to for a copy of the report. It's thorough, sober, and very useful. Reading it reminded me of how useful CQ Research reports are and why librarians so readily recommend them.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Converting Practices

In a Writing Center discussion list exchange, the issue of using as a tool in the writing center to help students see where they have uncited text came up. As much as I don't like, I found myself agreeing with the approach and the particular use of the tool in the Writing Center. Here's what I wrote:

The strategy of using (or, for that matter) as a tool to make source use visible is a good idea. One of the truths we know is that sometimes students do in fact lose track of what words are theirs and what words come from sources, especially when they're moving beyond the more novice step of simply dropping in long block quotes and they try to find their own voice, and thus use more summary and paraphrasing.

There's a difficult transition both in the mechanics of paper production --the principles and guides for when, why, how and where to place quotes, cites, and signal phrases-- and in the intellectual work of merging voices --the writers' and the sources they're using-- smoothly and coherently.

So a technology that helps writers see where text in their essays possibly match text in sources is useful.

As much as I don't care for Turnitin's practice of hoarding student work in their database, their marketing copy that emphasizes detection over teaching, and their overstated promise to solve plagiarism, it cheers me that people are finding ways to make useful if they're stuck with it. I'm not a fan of the program, and when I teach, I have students use CopyChecker, a small client side program that can be downloaded to their computer (When last I taught, it was free to students and may still be.).

With this, students can paste in one window their draft and in another window text from a source they are using. The program highlights matching and then students have a list of heuristics I give them: Is the match in your draft in need of quotations? Has it been cited? Should it be blockquoted?

We do an exercise as a class where they sticky-note/tab their handbooks so they have markers in the section of the book that will give them advice on answering those questions.

I require my students to have digital copies of any digital source they are citing. So for each source, they are required to save and download a copy (or copy and paste into the notes section of, a free for any student/teacher to use tool I like [reminder: I work for Bedford/St. Martin's] better than citationmachine and other ad-supported tools of that kind). Because students have copies of their source material, CopyCatch is great tool. It makes checking for matching text a part of their research drafting process.

However, in a writing center, where you don't have copies of CopyCatch, or if you did, you're likely not always going to have a student arrive with his or her original source in digital format, a WWW based search and match and compare tool is the only way to do this kind of thing.

If your campus has a and/or MyDropBox license anyway, one of the ways you can lead and teach good practice instead of police-state/drug-test uses of the program, is to proclaim the pedagogy and service you're providing. Advertise to faculty. Present it at faculty orientations so they see a model of better pedagogical use. Walk them through a use case, showing how a paper is uploaded, matches are found, and how a tutor helps the writer ask the right questions, shows them how to open a handbook for the right advice and guidelines, and helps them to learn from mistakes, helps them to learn revision, helps them to find their voices, and helps them to better frame an argument.

Because once you find these mis-uses of a source, you have a really good teachable moment that goes miles beyond the mechanics of where to place a quote and a cite. A demo of how you use it before faculty whenever you get the chance to advertise your center and to paint a pedagogical picture others can follow.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Teaching about Cheating

What some students forget is that if they can find an article to steal from, I can probably find it, too. When I edit assignments, I plug random quotes, clauses, and full sentences into search engines to check for similar word patterns. I look closely at poetic turns of phrase or quotes that seem too good to be true and verify the names of all sources and affiliations. If I can't confirm the existence of a source used in a story—say, she isn't on Google, Lexis-Nexis,, or Zabasearch—I tell the student to provide contact information, and I then call or e-mail that person."

From "Me Against My Students - How I use the Internet to combat plagiarists, fabulists, and cheaters," by Adam L. Penenberg, in Slate:

Here's a teacher doing the right things. He's reading his students' writing and getting to know their style and voices. He can use search engines as ably --if not more proficiently-- as can his students. He lets them know that he can. He's considered, but sees it as too blunt an instrument (which it is).

What this article is also about, however, is a journalism instructor acting towards his students as a good editor would act towards his reporters. That is, sources are confirmed and facts are checked. The editor/instructor reads closely, knowing their reporters/students. Ethics are stressed and practiced and steps are made to keep folks ethical --double checking, reading closely-- yet the methodology isn't heavy handed -- using something like blindly.

And patience. When you read Penenberg, you sense a good deal of patience and care in his prose and voice. I think that's key to successfully teaching students away from plagiarism.