03 February 2006

Plagiarism Redux

Thanks to everyone for the comments on my plagiarism post; none of them were shocking, but it's always nice to get a broader perspective. My own response was captured rather completely by Rebecca and tenaciousmcd. Sometimes a sentence can slip through accidentally, but if one takes an entire paragraph verbatim from a source that does not appear anywhere in the paper, then that's the line for me. So 1, clearly.

As for penalties, I think I'll be very harsh on my very good friends out there that suggest anything less than C. I respect your opinions and arguments, but I'll say to all of you what I just told my colleague here: you're working in an old paradigm. In the paradigm that characterized most of our college experiences, plagiarism was this unbelievable act of obvious cheating that involved finding a scholarly source in the library and copying from it. It was, I think, something that happened fairly rarely, and it was certainly something that required a great deal of work to accomplish. Overall, it was abnormal. In the new paradigm, cutting and pasting from websites is normal for a very high percentage of students. It's just what they do: they google for their topic, surf to a bunch of websites, cut and paste, and then rearrange and add a few sentences of their own. (Of the cases I've just found in the last two weeks, the average number of different cites from which the student had stolen was 5.) It is not an accident.

The NY Times ran a survey a few years back and found more than 75% of US College graduates admitted to some form of cheating when they were in College. They are cheating and they know it's cheating. It's just that cheating has become normal. There was also a study done by a rat choice political scientist (I know) that showed (I think convincingly) that if the penalty is anything less than C it is rational to cheat. For all the dozens of cases I catch, there are dozens and dozens more that slide through.

I've had students cry in my office and swear it was an accident, but I'm now completely convinced that it never is. To Mark: students don't copy from one another (it's too much work) and if they do, I probably won't catch it so it's sort of a moot point. To Dan: you have a wonderful heart to see this issue the way you do (mine, as all can tell has become hardened beyond belief through the wrenching interactions with the long, long list of students that cheated), but the 'meant to go back' is always a cover. When a student puts together 50% of their paper verbatim from someone else's words, there would be nothing to go back to. When you take an entire paragraph from another source, put it in your paper and don't put quotation marks around it, you've already decided to cheat (even if you haven't admitted it to yourself, and the 'meant to go back' is the rationalization you give yourself).

And Rebecca makes a good point here, one that I hope contributes to my case for a new paradigm: they are NOT stealing from good sources, they are stealing from crap summary pages on the internet that sound, often, a lot like something they'd write anyway. My hunch is that in the old paradigm students would steal to get an A, steal because they thought there work was B work but they wanted it to be perfect so othey steal from a journal article. Now, we have B and C students stealing in order to get B's and C's; it's not about getting better grades so much as it is just plain easier to cut and paste than it is to write.

And finally, students have no fear at all of the repurcussions. Their logic looks like this...chances are I won't get caught, if I do I'll probably get to rewrite, worst case scenario is a bad grade in the course, but then I can just retake the course and substitute the new grade. Tmcd is right: in practice, it's almost impossible to go beyond C, because university institutions are set up to make it almost impossible to do much to the student. Combine this with the fact that a large number of professors let dozens of plagiarism papers slide off their desk each semester, and I see it as essential that faculty start imposing the harshest penalties possible.

And it can't just be done on a case-by-case basis, because it really is too much work. I've spent about 60 hours marking essays and exams over the past two weeks. I've spent another 10 hours loooking for, and when found, documenting, plagiarism cases. Total essays and exams marked = around 170; total plagiarism cases that I worked on = 5. To give each essay a thorough search for plagiarism would quadruple the amount of time to mark them.

The counter-argument to my call for harsh penalties will be: you're going to fail someone who was just ignorant. I think the chances of that are surprisingly small. Students are so much smarter than we usually give them credit for. And those chances can be reduced further by clearly delineating to students the proper use of sources. If we tell them repeatedly what plagiarism is and why it's wrong, then I don't think there's any need to give them 'the benefit of the doubt'. (Again, students who cite sources but don't put things in their own words are not being failed here; we are talking about cutting and pasting from a source, not using quotation marks, and not citing the source or putting it in the biblio.)

Or, perhaps I'm just a big meanie.


tenaciousmcd said...

Nicely put, Sam. The incentive structures very clearly work in the cheaters' favor unless we impose tough penalties on the percentage we actually catch. I read that rat choice article too and was also convinced by its defence of my preexisting position.

Not that we don't have mistaken suspicions from time to time. (Mrs. TMcD once got pulled in by a prof b/c she could write complex, interesting sentences that demonstrated outside knowledge!) I've had cases where I didn't find a source, questioned the student some, and came away convinced the paper was OK. But if you find the source, and it's more than one stray sentence, it's the hammer.

dan said...

I understand that the motivation to not cheat is not there because the penalties are not severe enough. But I'm surprised to hear that students are willing to plagiarize in order to get a mediocre grade at the risk of failing, which is easily recovered by repeating the class and overwriting the F. The possibility of having to repeat the class that one obviously just wants to have done with seems like reason enough to get the mediocre grade by your own hand. Otherwise, it seems like one would plagiarize in order to produce a final product that he or she could otherwise not produce on his or her own. This would suggest that the student cared about the grade. Apparently students don't care about the grade, nor do they care about the embarrassment and shame of being caught plagiarizing and failing a class. If the only motivation is to get a passing grade and not have to do the work, then you're right -- you're working within a dire paradigm.

Do students think that this is what the internet is for? That it is free and anonymous information for the taking? Do they feel that it is both not cheating (it's free) and not breaking the rules (I don't have to cite -- there's nothing to cite!)? I think that they know that this isn't the case, but at the same time, ripping off an [semi] anonymous wikipedia contributor is not quite the same as cutting-and-pasting from a respected academic journal.

I wonder, too, how comfortable you feel as a professor "turning the other cheek." The burden is obviously on you; the work of finding these people out is, as you point out, significantly more than your job grading the paper as you receive it. My "benefit of the doubt" point was just not coming from my good heart. My thinking was that if it's crap anyway, and you give it the grade it deserves, then your work is done. That's kind of perverted, I realize, but you're working in a system that a) does not take very seriously the problem of plagiarism, and b) does not reward or motivate YOU in any way to spend extra time proving plagiarism. Disappointing, but then it’s really the student's problem, not yours.

However, in an upper-level class, where the students are more serious about the material and/or are majoring in the subject (thus taking on more responsibility for their own work) and are, in a lot of cases, in smaller classes where there's more student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction, then I feel like the assumptions made by your previous commenters (including me) that students are going to, in fact, be more motivated by the risk of failure or shame of being caught would hold true.

Again, none of this is based on my experience as a professor, because I am not one.

I think I'd take the tactic of giving very serious, threatening warnings about the risks of plagiarism; taking time in the first class of the semester to spell out what constitutes plagiarism; and vowing to take it to whatever extreme is available to me if I catch a student -- and then, to somewhat wash my hands of it. If they don't care, why should you?

I'm setting you up for the response that I was kind of expecting: to speak more to why this is a problem that affects the larger college system as a whole.

Mark Salada said...

The great extent of plagarism in my field is the verbatim copying of solutions between undergrad students... For example, two students will agree to "share" the assignment, one completing the odd-numbered problems, and the other the even numbered problems. In the final submission, each student has 'plagarized' at least 50% of the assignment. I've had to deal with cases where a group of six students split up a 12-problem assignment, creating a very complex web of cheating.

The effort is not for a better grade, nor is it out of ignorance. The effort (or lack thereof) is actually purely logistical. If students are to complete the sheer volume of work assigned among the often 5+ classes each semester, there would be zero time for "the rest of college." Meaning, engineering (and sometimes science) students watch their peers enjoy the culture of college while they themselves struggle to simply complete (even with cheating) every assignment. If a particular assignment is difficult to understand, then the crisis ripples to the other demanding assignments, and the crunch is very real and stressful.

As a consequence, the students perform poorly on the exam, and the professor concludes that more practice is necessary. The teacher then assigns more homework, and the students cheat more. It's a cycle that is hard to break. And a failing grade (let alone expulsion) is difficult to swallow considering the dwindling interest in the hard sciences and engineering. Why not join their peers in the liberal arts and attend that party this weekend?

I find that calling out the "group efforts" during class (public humiliation) usually reduces the cheating somewhat, but I admit I have no good antidote for those students who deem an assignment less worthy of effort than the rave, or the rally, or the student group meeting, or your first beer bong marathon...

Sam said...

Mark makes a great point: pretty much everything I've been talking about is confined to the phenomenon of plagiarism in the humanities and social sciences.

And Dan makes one as well, when he asks, much more eloquently than this, 'who cares'!?

Yes, you're absolutely correct, if they are writing mediocre to crap papers that will receive mediocre to crap marks, it's really not worth my time to go to all that effort to catch them cheating. And, indeed, MOST of my colleauges can't be bothered to do all this work, which is why I caused such a stir this semester by finding half a dozen plagiarism cases when no one had found any for years.

So why do I do it?

Can't give you much of a sophisicated logical response, but I can say this: because it's wrong, wrong, wrong, in such an important and fundamental way. People shouldn't get away with cheating, and we shouldn't allow them to normalise cheating. I don't care about the results, in this case; I care about preventing what I can't really describe as anything other than injustice.

Maybe it is I who am stuck in the old paradigm, then, but presenting someone else's words as your own is simply never OK.

dan said...

I actually do agree with you, Sam, despite my pushing. What's really wrong to me is that this occupies the time and energy of awesome college professors who have way better things to do. That's infuriating. Students should have enough respect for professors to not put this burden on them. But your right, it is wrong, so one is compelled to do something about it.

sageblue said...


Um, I've been...well, I've obviously not been reading the blog.


To plagiarize Sam, you're working in an old paradigm and you're going to fail someone who was just ignorant and cheating has become normal.

You elide the distinction between plagiarism and cheating (plagiarism as subset of cheating), but I think it's important since I am unconvinced that students see what we deem plagiarism as cheating. Thus, they are ignorant.

And, I do believe on the other hand that cheating as become normal. We see it everywhere in our culture, where hard work and honesty is given lip service, but instead we revere the lazy and lying. And as much as I too would like to join you in the Alamo or in the academic fraternity hazing students ("you have to do what I did, like I did"), I don't see an endpoint really.

More pessimistic?

So, much like Roe v. Wade, perhaps we should let everything just go to pot, and then perhaps people will wake the hell up. Maybe it just has to get ridiculously bad before academics and the rest of the culture say no to this kind of abasement of intellectual innovation.