Teachers: You’re Handling Plagiarism Wrong

School Closed ImageRecently, I had the good fortune to be interviewed for and quoted in a recent article for Inside Higher Ed. However, the issue on hand was a thorny one, especially among teachers and professors: WriteCheck.

WriteCheck is a service that lets students submit a paper and have it checked for grammar and plagiarism. While there are many such services, this one is powered by iParadigms, the company that makes Turnitin, the most popular plagiarism checker for academic institutions.

This caused many to feel that iParadigms was, as one instructor put it, “warlords who are arming both sides in this plagiarism war.”

But while I can certainly understand this feeling of betrayal and this concern that students might use WriteCheck for the purpose of skirting plagiarism detection systems, perhaps using it to vet a purchased paper or to make sure their efforts to hide plagiarism were adequate, it is a misguided fear.

However, this is a fear that stems from faulty logic when it comes to fighting plagiarism and, sadly, the logic seems to be getting more pervasive as time goes on.

I’ve already talked at length about how schools are hurting the fight against plagiarism, but, as this WriteCheck controversy proves, schools have yet to really understand the issues involved and what they need to do to keep students from plagiarizing.

Stopping the War

As I mentioned in the previous article, there’s a pervasive climate of fear when it comes to matters of plagiarism. Students are threatened with severe punishments over an act that is often poorly explained and seemingly decided by a computer that they never see. Even honest students can be afraid of getting caught plagiarizing and that, in turn, does no good for the academic climate.

But as the “warlord” comment points out, many instructors feel that they are at war against plagiarists and that iParadigms and similar companies arms dealers of sorts. This turns catching a plagiarist into a victory and one escaping a defeat, an attitude that doesn’t bring about any progress or understanding.

The truth is that every plagiarist caught by Turnitin or a similar automated checker is a failure of the system and a miserable one at that.

Yes, that line of defense is necessary and it should be there, but it is the absolute last resort and, despite the impressive technology, the least effective as well.

Consider the many opportunities to stop a plagiarist BEFORE they are caught by an automated detection system:

  1. Education: Educating students about what is and is not plagiarism, from a practical standpoint, is important for helping them avoid accidentally plagiarizing and understanding why it is important not to do so deliberately.
  2. Assignment Building: A well-crafted assignment is virtually plagiarism proof. Building good assignments that are original, test the student’s knowledge and can’t be trivially copy/pasted is a huge step forward in the fight.
  3. Academic Resources: Schools need to make academic resources available, such as assignment assistance programs, to their students where they can ask questions and get help as a means to dissuade plagiarism and eencourage a useful conversation on the topic.
  4. Instructor Connection: Though not always practical, in many classes an instructor should know their student reasonably well and be able to detect when they are struggling, enabling them to reach out to them and provide greater help.
  5. Instructor Intuition: Once again, if an instructor is familiar with a student’s writing, they should be able to detect plagiarism without having to run it through an automated system.

In short, with so many ways to stop or detect plagiarism BEFORE it reaches an automated checker, every case that gets that far has to be seen as a failure, a breakdown in the chain before that point.

Granted, some of these shortfalls have more to do with the education system at large, which often puts far too many students into a class, dividing up instructor attention too many ways.

However, others are more case specific, calling on the schools and instructors to think about plagiarism in a different way and shift their focus from “winning the war” to actually educating and dealing with the issue.

Moving Forward

The simple truth is, the developers of plagiarism detection system, iParadigms in particular, never intended themselves to be the plagiarism police. Obviously, that is going to be part of their function but such tools hold a great deal of potential to make students better researchers, something that WriteCheck can also do.

While there will always be hardcore cheaters who will “write” papers via copy/paste in hopes of getting a good grade or just get out of an assignment, they still are far outnumbered by the legitimate students caught up in the climate of fear.

However, it’s that climate of fear that may actually be encouraging plagiarism. Since many students feel they can’t control if they will or will not be accused of plagiarism, they feel they might as well be a plagiarist.

Warped logic, to be certain, but further proof of how relying so heavily on the last line of defense can actually make the plagiarism problem much worse.

The way forward is to end the war on plagiarism, open up a dialog about it and focus the punitive efforts solely on the hardcore cheaters.

This approach much better serves the bulk of the students and limits the “arms race” discussion that’s taking place now.

Bottom Line

Will this shift in attitude be easy? No. Teachers are angry. They feel a lot of their students are trying to cheat their way to better grades both by lying to them and stepping over honest students who worked hard.

This anger is understandable, but it’s rare that good policy comes from an emotional response.

If schools and instructors look at plagiarism as a practical problem, the issue becomes much more clear. Over-reliance on plagiarism checking technology isn’t solving the problem, but creating a climate of fear and producing smarter plagiarists.

In short, WriteCheck isn’t the enemy, but the hatred of it is a symptom of a much greater problem and one that has to be addressed now lest the situation go completely out of control.

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