The Problem of Plagiarism

This past semester I taught first-year writing, and I asked my students to work through multiple drafts using WriteLab. Shortly thereafter, one student came to office hours and told me the following:

"I used WriteLab to work on my paper, and I added a paragraph from the internet, and I accidentally pressed submit before I put quotes around it. And then the system gave me suggestions about that paragraph, and I thought, 'Why is the system asking me to revise this? I mean, it's from a published source. Shouldn't it be perfect?' And then I thought, 'If I have to revise this guy's writing, I might as well just write it myself.'"  

Two things came to mind: one, my student probably didn't forget to insert the quotation marks, and, two, if you focus on the decisions your students make through multiple drafts, you take plagiarism off the table. Why? Because when students need to write multiple drafts, plagiarism becomes not only risk, but risk plus work. They might as well just do the work.

Students plagiarize when they feel they have no intellectual connection to an assigned topic. These students believe that the topic does not relate to their own experience and intelligence, and they panic. Most institutions and instructors do not address the root causes of plagiarism, but, rather, they try to eliminate the problem by paying for software that searches for plagiarism in student writing. Savvy teachers workshop papers with students, having them work through outlines and multiple drafts. In effect, these teachers encourage writers to build the confidence that eliminates the need to plagiarize.

As teachers, we first need to understand our role in relation to our students. The most important questions are 1) When do I intervene? 2) And when I intervene, how should I do it? The model I find least effective for students is one in which I don’t intervene at all, appearing only at the beginning and end of the writing process, as shown below.


Value: Punitive

1. The teacher assigns prompt and due date.

2. The student researches a topic the night before it is due.

3. The student experiences several false starts.

4. The student feels stress that the paper is due, and she has few or no ideas.

5. The student decides to look up papers already written about this topic.

6. The student determines that using someone else’s writing is worth the risk, so she copies the prose without citing it.

7.  The student gets caught.

8. The teacher confronts the student, eliciting a confession and determining punishment.

Suppose the student gets away with it. Despite software that exists to check for plagiarism, many students will not be caught, such as those who can afford to purchase an essay from a paper mill. Such mills run their papers through the best plagiarism software to ensure that the student does not get caught. But even if a student gets away with it, she'll still feel like a cheat. Deeper and perhaps more unconscious than any feeling of guilt will be a feeling of resentment for an institution, process, and culture that set her up to fail by not providing the conditions in which she could be successful.

Suppose the student gets caught.  What does this do for the student or the instructor, besides further separate them from each other and exile the student from feeling academically adequate?

What can we do to ensure that we rarely, if ever, encounter such a circumstance? Surely if an assigned topic does not activate a student's intellectual curiosity, the assignment is meaningless and can lead to plagiarism. So how can we activate a student’s intellectual curiosity, if the initial prompt doesn’t already do so? I propose the following workflow as one option.


Value: Preventative


1. The instructor designs the topic.

2. The student looks for associations that resonate with her own experience and intelligence.

3. The instructor creates a peer review exercise where students can review each others’ outlines.

4. The instructor has the student submit an exploratory first draft focused on developing her ideas.

5. The teacher reviews the draft with the student in office hours, focusing on the decisions that the student has made.

6. The student learns not only how to write a paper, but also how to manage a project, how to break complexity into its smallest subparts, and how to achieve big goals by increments.

My students and I have benefited immensely from this second workflow, and it has pleased me most to see students go from seeing writing as a necessary evil to a chief delight in their lives as thinkers, storytellers, and creators of culture. Students need to experience writing as an opportunity to explore possibilities. They will then trust the observations and inferences they make and will practice communicating effectively with others. As teachers we can help ensure that they have this opportunity by engaging in dialectic with our students; by encouraging them to make decisions and take intellectual risks; and, perhaps most importantly, by leaving feedback that will lead them not only to revise but also to internalize that where they have not succeeded previously, they can and will be successful.

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