How to Teach “Generation Plagiarism” About Plagiarism

If you value originality and authorship, whether philosophically as ideals or merely in practice, it can definitely feel like a dark time. As an article in the New York Times earlier this month discussed, students are seemingly placing less and less value on originality and are viewing plagiarism as a less serious offense.

In a survey cited in the article some 40 percent of students admitted to having copied at least some content without attribution in their studies and only 29 percent viewed copying from the Web as “serious cheating”, down from 34 percent a decade ago.

While it is easy to dismiss this talk as the standard alarm pieces that usually pop up as schools get ready to let back in, it is clear that there is at least some shift and academics, authors and artists all have cause to be worried.

Even more odd, all of this comes at a time when the technology to detect copying is at an all-time high both in terms of ubiquity and capability. Also, the punishments for plagiarism are also increasing, both in terms of severity and frequency.

With so much at stake, many are wondering what to do. Teaching plagiarism “generation plagiarism” is a major challenge but one that academics and artists have to reach to.

Searching for an Answer

Much of the answer may lie in another New York Times op-ed piece, this one written by Stanley Fish, a professor at Florida International University.

According to Fish, the philosophical arguments surrounding originality are moot in the subject of plagiarism. Whether or not there is a such thing as original work, plagiarism, once again according to Fish, is not a construct of a great societal moral code, but rather, is an “insider’s obsession” similar to the rules of a game or profession.

This is similar, in his view, to how there is a great philosophical debate whether or not there is such a thing a truly free speech yet we have free speech regimes that we value dearly. Originality is no different.

To illustrate this, he highlights how different professions have different standards of what is and is not plagiarism. For example, academics have a much more strict standard than attorneys, who often copy and paste freely. The standards are less about what is right and wrong, but the rules that the profession needs to survive and thrive, thus why those inside it take them so seriously.

And that, at least in theory, is a big part of the problem with students and many who post online. They are not part of the profession nor do they even consider themselves hobbyists within it. Students are part of the academic profession buy they are there by force, usually on their way to other careers, and those who post online are usually more interested in maintaining their presence on the Web than art, literature, etc.

That makes this “insider obsession” very foreign to them. They don’t understand it, don’t see why it is a big deal and don’t feel compelled to follow it. These “casual” plagiarists, which are opposed to “dedicated” plagiarists who are in the system and violate the rules anyway, are essentially playing by a different set of rules and see no reason to change.

One Minor Rebuttal

For the most part, I agree with Fish’s theories. There are definitely different standards of plagiarism across different professions, a factor that greatly complicates my plagiarism analysis work, there is also a universal element that is overlooked.

When you turn in something with your name on it or post a work online on your site, you are claiming to have created those works and, when you haven’t, it is a lie. It may be a lie to an instructor or the nameless/faceless masses on the Web, but it is a lie nonetheless.

Though plagiarism, may not have the same kind of cultural ubiquity as stealing, as Fish points out, lying is still not a socially accepted practice and, for the most part, is treated seriously. However, obviously, there is a growing belief in some circles that, at the very least this lie, is not a serious infraction.

Reaching Out

So this raises the question of how do we teach plagiarism to those who might not want to hear it. It’s a difficult question.

What is clear is that the current techniques don’t work. Ramping up punishments and explaining what plagiarism is doesn’t achieve the results. Instead of not plagiarizing, students (and others as well) just work harder to avoid detection and instead focus on doing the minimum needed to skate by and avoid problems.

Instead, there needs to be a focus on how plagiarism is taught, especially in schools, and a few things that can be done immediately.

  1. Focus on Why: Students often say they don’t understand what is and is not plagiarism, but part of that is because they may not understand why it is important. When students understand the purpose behind plagiarism enforcement, what is and is not plagiarism becomes easier to understand, making them better able and more likely to follow the rules.
  2. Tweak Assignments: Focus on creating plagiarism-resistant assignments. Not only does this force students to do their own work, but teaches them how and why to do it as well. That has the potential to also help encourage original work on assignments that might be more easily copied.
  3. Treat Plagiarism As An Educational Issue: Plagiarism, as mentioned above, is about learning the rules of an industry. Though it can be a disciplinary issue, such as when a student buys a paper off the Web, it is more often than not an educational one. The same as you don’t punish new baseball player for running straight to third on a hit (though you should punish him for using a corked bat), you shouldn’t punish students for what is clearly an honest mistake.

Obviously, these are just some initial steps, there’s a lot of work to be done in this field and there will be no quick fixes. But unless academics can begin to teach plagiarism students will not only find themselves ill-equipped for the working world, where they will be expected to always do their own work, but many will find themselves at a loss when they enter fields, even as amateurs, that have higher standards for plagiarism.

Bottom Line

There is much more to be done, of course, in my work with schools and with academics I see that there is a lot of tension between students and teachers but, more importantly, I see a lot of interest in plagiarism issues from students. It almost borders on curiosity but is usually tinged with fear and when they have someone they can ask, whether an outsider like me or just a trusted teacher, there’s a lot they want to understand.

So, it seems to me the first thing that teachers can work to do is reduce the climate of fear around plagiarism. Treat plagiarism as a serious offense when appropriate, but the “us vs. them” mentality many instructors have taken is counter productive, causing students to question and hate the rules placed upon them, seeking out philosophical arguments against them and justifications for violating them.

If you want students to understand plagiarism, they have to be comfortable talking with you about it. They can’t fear you. Though you have to discipline those who knowingly cheat, the climate of fear has to end.

Note: For the record, I don’t like the term “Generation Plagiarism” but since the NYT articles it has sadly become slang, making me want to reach out to those who feel lost in trying to talk with those students.

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