By their very nature, schools are supposed to be a place of education. Students, whether they are young children or retirees, go to schools to learn and grow as human beings.
However, on matters of plagiarism, that seems to be less the case. Educators have been quick to consider plagiarism a cheating issue, which it certainly is, but either ignore or pay inadequate attention to the fact that it is also an education one.
Simply put, no one is born with the ability to understand the difference between paraphrasing and original work, how to properly cite sources and when citation is necessary. These are all things that have to be taught and learned and anything that must be learned must be learned through some trial and error.
Unfortunately though, schools have created zero tolerance policies on plagiarism. While these policies are well-intended, they actually do more to create a climate of fear among students and that, in turn, creates not a desire to play honest, but a desire to try and defeat the systems that check for plagiarism.
In short, educators have accidentally created a plagiarism war and, rather than educating their students in how to cite sources correctly have, in many cases, encouraged them to learn on their own how to better get away with plagiarism.
This is creating real consequences for both the education system and for content creators outside, problems that are, in many cases, avoidable.
The Biology of Plagiarism
In more ways than one, plagiarism is a bit like a virus (or more appropriately a bacteria) in that it is an unwanted item that damages a healthy system. Like a virus, it can grow and spread, often as students teach one another about plagiarism or help each other commit the acts, and infect other parts of the system.
However, most importantly, plagiarism evolves in response to the environment. In that regard, we can think of anti-plagiarism software as being similar to an antibiotic. Useful for detecting and stopping plagiarism initially but, through overuse, becomes less and less effective.
The problem is that plagiarists have not responded to anti-plagiarism checking software by playing it straight and doing their own work, they’ve responded by changing how they plagiarize and where they plagiarize from.
Though my evidence is merely anecdotal, it comes from talking with students and administrators alike at various schools. When I talk to administrators about plagiarism, most want to know about how to detect it more effectively, not how to prevent it. When I talk to students about plagiarism, most want to know about how to beat the tools that detect it (often through very sneaky questioning), not how to actually cite sources.
In my experience, only the most inept or lazy students get caught plagiarizing trivially. Most are aware of the detection methods used and will either plagiarize from a source under the radar, such as a bought essay from another student, or by modifying it heavily enough to avoid detection, which can only be done with great effort in most case.
In short, students who want to plagiarize can do so with little fear of getting caught. It is just a matter of increasing the effort put into it. However, with anti-plagiarism tools available, no student should want to plagiarize at all because the effort and time required to avoid detection is equal to or greater than the effort of creating an original work.
It seems illogical for students plagiarize but many still do. With either fear of getting caught or a difficult task staring down at them, one would expect students would respond with honesty. However, that is clearly not always the case.
The Climate of Fear
I remember when I was in college, one of my English classes had a very tense day. The instructor told the class that she could not return the papers from the previous week as plagiarism had been detected in one of them. The teacher invited to the student involved to come forward, assumedly to receive a lighter punishment.
The students, all 30 of us, wondered who it was but were more worried that it was us. Many of us began to talk openly about that fear saying things like “I didn’t plagiarize but… I hope it wasn’t me.” The conversation then shifted to specific quotes, missed citations and other mistakes, wondering if that triggered the alarm.
We were informed the next class that the student had come forward and the matter had been handled in private, much to everyone’s collective relief, but I realized that, as students, we were not aware as to what constituted plagiarism. Discussions about citation had been limited to the various styles and we were all unsure where the lines were drawn.
This was the climate that existed in the late 90s. Now, things are much worse as anti-plagiarism systems have become more prominent and are used by more and more schools. However, teachers don’t seem to be any more dedicated to instructing students on issues of plagiarism, at least in many schools, and that is creating a very real sense of fear with the submission of every assignment.
What Teachers Should Be Doing
The first thing educators need to do is focus on actually teaching about plagiarism. Currently, in many schools, the “education” about plagiarism is limited to a few paragraphs in a student handbook.
Writing courses, which are mandatory, need to teach more than just the mechanics of writing a good paper, but also how to cite sources, paraphrase correctly and be a good researcher. It seems simple but there seems to be a divide between what is taught in writing classes and what is useful when creating actual assignments.
Also, instructors need to focus on crafting assignments that are resistant to plagiarism. This includes topics that can not be easily copy/pasted and including in-class portions that test knowledge away from access to outside sources.
Finally, there needs to be a recognition that there will always be a plagiarism problem and that it can not be “stamped out”. The same as there are viruses and bacteria in even the healthiest person, there will always be some cheating, even in the most honest school.
If you accept that and deal with the cases that are caught, you’re much better able to ensure that honest students don’t turn to plagiarism further down the road.
Strict plagiarism enforcement without solid plagiarism education doesn’t make better students, it makes better cheaters.
If schools are going to deal with the epidemic of plagiarism, they need to treat it more like an actual infection and focus on all-around health rather than pumping in more quick fixes. The current path only makes cheaters more resistant to the methods that are used to catch them and creates a climate of fear that is both counter-productive for learning and can actually encourage cheating, since many students feel as if they are being treated as such anyway.
Even worse for copyright holders is that these better cheaters, after graduation (or while in school) often show a high level of disrespect for intellectual property of others. Though not every file sharer or Web plagiarist is/was a plagiarist in school, or vice versa, there is little doubt that rampant plagiarism in an academic environment erodes the respect one has for honesty and other people’s work.
For the sake of academia and the creative world at large, it is crucial that school shift the way they deal with plagiarism and find a more product approach to the problem.