Whilst plagiarism checkers like Viper do a lot of good work in helping students identify accidental plagiarism, the real key for educators is in prevention. The task of preventing plagiarism entails examining its root causes and changing your students’ mindset. This article looks the approach of educating and supporting students, rather than focusing on catching them out.
To tackle plagiarism in the classroom, educators need to:
- be aware of the reasons why plagiarism happens;
- understand different types of plagiarism; and
- integrate plagiarism prevention methods and tools as part of their learning program.
Understand why plagiarism happens
There is no single reason why students plagiarise – and reasons are often multi faceted and complex. Common issues include:
- Looming deadlines, causing them to feel overwhelmed and stressed;
- Misunderstanding as to how ideas and material can be used in work;
- Sloppy note taking and management of course materials, making it difficult to draw clear lines between the student’s work and others’ work;
- Difficulty understanding the course and a feeling of little support or concern about approaching the tutor for more help; and
- Inability to properly use and reference others’ material (see ‘Reasons that drive students to cheat‘ for more perspectives on this topic).
What makes things far more difficult is that there is no universal definition of plagiarism or what is and isn’t acceptable. Back in Feb 2010 a story hit the NY Times about a 17-year-old German whose best-selling novel turned out to include passages lifted from another book. The story caused an uproar in Germany. First because of the plagiarism charge, and second because of the way Helene Hegemann, the writer of the novel, defended the charges. But perhaps the biggest reason why the story hit the headlines was that the book was a finalist for a major book prize – and the selection committee knew about the alleged plagiarism before choosing the novel as a finalist. This is incredible and on the face of it, begs the question of what message we are sending to students and would-be authors everywhere.
Speaking of the book, Volker Weidermann, jury member and book critic for German Newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine said: “Obviously, it isn’t completely clean but, for me, it doesn’t change my appraisal of the text; I believe it’s part of the concept of the book.”
Author of the novel Hegemann stated herself to be a representative of a different generation, “one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new” (New York Times, Feb 12 2010). She stated: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” The lines of plagiarism are blurred and it’s no wonder that students find this topic hard when even those that they look up to struggle to have a firm grasp.
Regardless of the difficulties in defining plagiarism fully, it’s necessary as an educator to understand how and why a student might land themselves in difficulty, and provide the support and resources to help them make the most of the research process without taking undesirable short cuts.
Don’t believe the hype
Sadly, many educators are preoccupied with catching the cheats, viewing the majority of students as wanting to do as little work as possible. Whilst finding and manipulating data on the Internet is a valuable skill, faced with a wealth of information available online, it’s true that some students feel that the creation of original analysis and interpretation is a lot of effort in comparison to finding something that matches the question set and ‘adapting’ it. Going a step further, for a minority, plagiarising papers can be something of a thrill in itself and even becomes a question of ingenuity.
But through polls, interviews and feedback, we’re confident few students really think this way. Tight deadlines and a difficulty grasping the course material tend to be the causes of intentional plagiarism, and unintentional plagiarism is far more prevalent.
Rather than focusing on the “cheats”, educators have a far more worthwhile job to do in helping students along the right path. It’s crucial that students learn the skills they need to help them correctly process the relevant material that they find – skills of note taking, planning, interpretation, analysis and referencing. The mindset they need to have is that anyone with some basic knowledge can find information on the internet – but the skill is in what they do with that information – and it’s for educators to inculcate that mindset.
Give your students confidence
When a student finds a journal or book that covers their exact topic, they may feel intimidated about the idea of writing something better. It’s important to reassure students that what interests you most is seeing how they understand the assigned topic, and how they develop their own style and voice.
Further confidence can be instilled by asking students to include their thoughts, opinions and experiences, which give them a unique perspective that may give them a far more interesting angle on the issues than those of the “experts” they found online. Of course, these are the beginnings of original arguments that are the hallmark of first class writing; and as the course progresses, you teach how these thoughts, opinions and experiences can be presented as original thought that builds on the research of others that they have analysed.
Avoid focusing on grades as an end result
Students often feel a huge amount of pressure from family, friends and tutors to do well in their courses, knowing that failure affects their opportunities for admissions in further education, and, of course, a worthwhile career. A high ranking degree is frequently regarded as a step along the path to success, rather than an active process that is valuable in itself. Students therefore naturally tend to focus on the end results of their academic work, rather than the skills they learn in doing it. This is a mindset that educators need to work to change.
Educators need to emphasise that students’ grades are irrelevant if they don’t have the skills to show for them. This is especially true when it comes to the exam, where few students will have access to Google and CTRL + C! Unless they have developed the ability to analyse a question and provide a meaningful response themselves, the exam will prove very difficult to them. Further, skills learned during their course are directly transferable to the workplace, and students are missing out if they don’t develop these skills which will allow them to perform better and advance in their careers.
Life at university is as much about socialising and partying as it is about studying. Any educator who doesn’t agree, really needs to get a grip with the reality. Accept that your students have other, sometimes more interesting, things competing for their time and help them with the planning process.
Looking at an assignment feels like standing at the bottom of a mountain and the hardest thing is taking the first step. If a student is really distracted with other things, tell them not to start the essay but just to sit down and make a plan of how they will do small chunks of work on it over their available time before their due date, taking into account other commitments, even if these are social commitments. Don’t try and stop them having fun altogether – just try and get them to find time inbetween.
Rather than setting a final due date, you can further help with the planning process by scheduling stages of progress such as the submission of reading lists/bibliographies, outlines, statements or drafts on specified dates before the final draft is due. Your responsibility here is to make sure they spend enough time on the work they have been set. They may not be aware of the extent of work involved and giving a realistic estimate of the time involved will help. It will also help them organise their time and make the task seem less overwhelming.
Provide tips and tools to avoid plagiarism
Students need to understand how to use other peoples’ material effectively. Spend some of your time with them doing a practical on plagiarism and using academic materials properly – there are some free plagiarism lesson plans here.
A further significant skill is organising their notes effectively as a lot of plagiarism occurs when students mix up others’ words with their own in their notes. Suggest practical ways for them to store their notes, such as by using reference management software.
Finally, introduce plagiarism checkers. Most students we’ve polled do not use plagiarism checkers to get other peoples’ material past their lecturer – contrary to what many educators think – they use them to help avoid accidental plagiarism. Viper is a free and effective plagiarism checker that can be used as a line of defence by students to check their work before submitting, to avoid accidentally mixing up other peoples’ words with their own.