How do you decide what is a serious enough offence to call plagiarism? Where do you draw that line?
The day Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech at the Republican National Convention was one of the best days of the summer, and I say that, as a Canadian, watching the whole American election circus from afar. It was a good day because the world was talking about plagiarism and where you draw the line — something I have to think about nearly every day as an academic. They were talking about what defines plagiarism, in particular, but more importantly they were talking about how plagiarism is about the context in which it is committed. I spent my time on social media that day rubbing my hands together with glee.
My title to this blog is not in any way to suggest that plagiarism is not to be taken seriously. I have seen plagiarism in action. I’ve had students hand in annotated bibliographies that are word for word from the abstracts of the published articles. I’ve seen students submit identical or nearly identical assignments. I’ve known of a student who stole another student’s work, unbeknownst to the student victim, by copying their paper from a computer when s/he left the lab to use the bathroom. I’ve marked countless papers with vast amounts of uncited information. I had two sisters hand in a paper on the same topic with the same reference list with identical errors, identical headings with different writing under each paragraph, but the citations in basically the same order. The latter was likely a case of inappropriate collaboration — or one sister wrote both papers — I will likely never know what went down there but it wasn’t honest writing.
This recent Chronicle of Higher Education article also concerns me. While I have no doubt that there are people making big money off student cheating, I refuse to believe that every student is doing it (otherwise these businesses could never submit an assignment on time, they’d be so busy). Maybe I’m naive. But for students who are hiring others to create custom assignments for them based on a course’s assignment guidelines, it would be nearly impossible, short of a confession, to catch it. I’m not going to waste time hunting these students down. In a practice based profession, I’m hoping they’ll manage to fail themselves out in other ways. A now retired colleague mentor of mine used to always say: Do we want spend our time educating, or policing?
Over 10 years ago when I was a junior faculty member, a couple of more senior instructors decided to become marking zealots. They began pulling students’ sources as they graded and searching for every point the student made in citation and low and behold they found many situations where students had copied word for word from sources. Should I be marking this way too? I wondered at the time. I could never bring myself to do it. It felt wrong, to me, to grade papers with this kind of mindset. It felt like viewing students as guilty until proven innocent. It felt like a witch hunt.
My preference for identifying plagiarism was, and still is, to rely on the subtle signs: poor awkward writing and grammar in this paragraph, high level language in the next always sets my alarm bells off. But there are others too: font type or font size changes, hovering a cursor over the text and seeing web links, misuse of pronouns, change in verb tense, change in person voice from third to second, and the more obvious, finding another student’s name mistakenly left unedited somewhere in the document. I frequently, when grading, pull sentences out of papers and drop them into Google just to be sure. I’ve never used Turn It In. I believe there is a fee to a program to access it and in these times of fiscal restraint, my department has just said no.
Uncited material that should have been cited is the most common type of “plagiarism” I see. About 10 years ago, we, meaning a sub committee in my department, set rules about when we would call it plagiarism — 4 or more incidences of a missing citation would be considered plagiarism. We would make the student take their paper back and add the citations. They would get a form filled out and placed in their file.
I’ve since had instructors, who weren’t around at the time we made the decision, say to me. Students will purposely leave three uncited sections in their paper because they know they can get away with it. What!? Wouldn’t it be easier to put the citation? It is way too much work to be that deliberate in your purposeful non-citing. Students who haven’t cited, really, haven’t thought much about it at all.
I would sit with these students, often facing their tears and soggy Kleenexes, in my office and point out the error of their ways and they would stare at me blankly not really sure what I was asking them to do when I asked them to fix their citation. I don’t think I took that from anyone, some of them would say in many varied ways, I just wrote that because I know it. I heard it in class.
And my thinking started to change. Most, if not all uncited work I saw in undergraduate student papers had nothing to do with intentionally or maliciously trying to steal the work of someone else to, I dunno, try and look smart? Most of it was as a result of poor research or not understanding the value in finding a source to support their rationale or argument they were presenting. I stopped asking them to go back and fill in their missing citations because most of them didn’t have a citation to fill in.
And besides, what is an “uncited section?” A sentence? A paragraph? What if they just put the citation at the end of the paragraph? Does that mean that everything earlier in the paragraph is uncited? Or did the one citation intend to cover the whole paragraph (insufficiently)? Now I just tell them it isn’t sufficiently cited and I move on.
And I started teaching my graders in first year to notice the signs of writing that was just a student rambling off the top of their head as if they were expert enough to make the point. Often those paragraphs were full of simplistic thinking, grand sweeping claims, and non specific statements:
Alcohol is a big part of our society. For young adults alcohol can be a big struggle when it is being introduced into their lives. It is very common for people to turn to heavy drinking, also known as binge drinking when trying to destress and have fun [sic].
This paragraph was the first 3 sentences of an introductory paragraph written by a first year student. There is so much wrong with it. It’s vague — how many people in society? What people? Who says there is a connection between binge drinking and de-stressing? And where are the citations to support the accuracy of these claims? The comment in the image to this blog, is what I had typed on this student’s paper.
Is this plagiarism? No. This is a student writing what she knows about binge drinking off the top of her head, maybe as a summary of what she read or from her own personal experiences with it. Her following paragraph(s), detailed and cited many of the points made here. So my feedback to her was to delete the whole first paragraph. It wasn’t plagiarism. It was poorly written and redundant. A waste of words in a 3-page paper.
I once dealt with a suspected case of plagiarism where the student had copied one paragraph of her paper from a website. Her paper was about urinary incontinence and the one paragraph, maybe in the 50 to 100-word range, turned out to be a paragraph from a website about fecal incontinence. She didn’t copy the paragraph word for word. She did make some inconsequential changes so there is no doubt that what she left unchanged was somewhat deliberate, or at the very least, lazy. On top of it all, she put an incorrect citation. The citation she put was not the website she copied from. She also had a couple other spots in her paper where she had used or poorly paraphrased 5 or 6 words in a row from one of her sources. Her grader had even highlighted spots where she had used two words in a row from a source. The vast majority of her paper, however, was paraphrased. The intent to paraphrase was clear in every spot but this one place. From reading her work, my sense was simply that she didn’t give a damn about the assignment or the quality of what she was handing in. Maybe she spent a couple hours writing the paper and submitted it as it was. Maybe she wrote it at at 4 a.m.
Not academic misconduct, I told my team leader and the instructor. Arguments ensued. The one paragraph, the one from the fecal incontinence website: Bad. Stupid. Dumbass even. The student deserved to be hauled in and given a good slap on the wrist. Certainly a reduced grade was in order. She didn’t deserve to have academic misconduct stamped for life on her transcript.
To be honest, if I hadn’t been cued to check. I doubt I would have caught that case of plagiarism to give her that slap on the wrist. I’m not sure, and I’ve wondered since, if that matters. The paper was very poorly written and not cohesive. It was a difficult read. A poor grade would have been the outcome anyway. I’m not sure that the instructors, in this case, would have found that paragraph either except that conditions made them check. The instructors had found one incidence of plagiarism in one student and decided to go back and check the entire class, as if one case meant a giant conspiracy to pull the wool over their eyes, to take them as fools, was underway.
Here is the crux: if you go looking for something. You will find it. You may even begin to redefine it, to prove yourself right. To solidify your case. In order to indict someone, no stumble, no matter how minor, can be left unmentioned. Finding one sentence that is 90% copied from a source suddenly then means that every time the student uses the same terminology as an original source, even medical terminology which shouldn’t be changed, you will mark it as plagiarism. Suddenly, one word, two words, three words in a row, can count as plagiarism — if you have declared it should be so and if it justifies your anger over that one sentence. You may even feel a little giddy while doing this because you’ve caught them. Now you can solidify your case that plagiarism is rampant among students and the student with the one sentence or the one paragraph is now a villain. Call yourself a hero now, maybe.
But I call it witch hunting. Policing. Confirmation bias.
I found this sentence in one of my student’s papers last year: how powerful losing weight can be. Six words in a row from the original. Common words, common idea. I highlighted it in the student’s paper and left it. The rest of her paragraph was well paraphrased. Put that phrase into google with quotes around it and the student’s source pops up as the first item along with 2 other media sources that picked up the article. Not plagiarism.
This scenario, which came under discussion on Twitter the other day, however, is very much plagiarism.
Melania Trump likely used less words of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech than my fecal incontinence student used in that one paragraph. Did Melania Trump plagiarize? The bulk of her speech was “her own” or written by hired speech writers, so at the very least original in wording, if not original thinking. You bet your buckets she plagiarized. Melania’s words were being delivered to millions with the intention of influencing them. She stole the words (and one can argue, the values) of another woman making a speech in the same context 8 years earlier and those words had helped Michelle Obama’s husband get elected as President of the United States, something Melania, perhaps, also desires for her husband.
My student wrote her paper for an audience of one in a learning environment. Her teacher. Context is everything.
There are so many reasons why a student may paraphrase poorly or not cite. Is it really helping the student with this occasional mishap or bouts of lazy writing to crucify them with the label of academic misconduct? Or would talking to them and understanding why it happened help you understand their writing fears and their feelings of low self-efficacy and the fact that they are just trying to survive a gruelling nursing program? Maybe what you have instead is a teachable moment? I’m a great believer that finding ways to look students in the eye while they’re in their paper preparation phase is the best plagiarism prevention of all. Some “plagiarism” is just bad writing that needs to be corrected. We need to be sure we know the difference.