The plagiarism crisis, or “why can’t I copy and paste this?”

October 17, 2012

According to this cool infographic, plagiarism on the Internet has grown to 44%, up from 25% in 2009.  Plagiarism.org states that “…a survey by the Psychological Record [found that] 36% of undergraduates have admitted to plagiarizing written material.”  Is this plagiarism laziness, or something else?

The ease of plagiarism and the misunderstanding of its consequences was brought home to me by my 11-year-old son.  In working on some homework, he was looking up definitions in the library’s database, and then cutting and pasting the answer into the homework sheet.  Believe it or not, it was pretty difficult to explain why that was not allowed (after all, he was to look up the definitions.)  However, I took it as a learning experience, and explained that just cutting and pasting the “answer” is not ethical, and that information had to be put into his own words, to show understanding and comprehension of what he read.

I would bet that our students, who are now dubbed digital natives (those of the new generation who have grown up with computers and the Internet as a fact of life) also get confused with the problem of using a cut-and-paste mentality.  Much of what is produced online is simply shared, via Twitter, Facebook, or other social networking, and is not unique.

So, in relation to the plagiarism question, where is the communication breaking down between teacher/librarian and student?

In this paper from Project InfoLit, this group analyzed handouts given to students, and explored the impact of the information shared with the students.  One finding was that only 35 of 191 handouts submitted even mentioned plagiarism, and 86% of those gave only a brief overview of the topic.  In the follow-up interviews, instructors even acknowledged that students had a “superficial” understanding of what plagiarism is. Clearly, there is a need to define what plagiarism exactly is with students.

An excerpt from Barbara Fister’s article, The Plagiarism Perplex, is telling:

I suspect a large part of the problem is that we send such mixed messages to students. You may hate group work, but it will prepare you for the reality of the workplace – but when we tell you to work alone, don’t discuss the test or homework problems with anybody else or face severe punishment. When you write a paper, your work must be original – but back up every point by quoting someone else who thought of it first. Develop your own voice as a writer – but try to sound as much like us as possible.

Students need practice and guidance in how to appropriately read, research, summarize, paraphrase, cite and, yes, THINK.  They need to learn how to synthesize the information and critically think about what they have read, taking research to the level from just reading and re-writing what others have posited to developing their own point of view and hypothesis and then defending it.

Instructors and librarians can partner together to make students UNDERSTAND and AVOID plagiarism.  Here are some ways we librarians can start:

  • Conduct a plagiarism workshop in the library for faculty to show them ways to use already published tools (such as the Purdue OWL site) to inform their students.
  • Show the idea of a “flipped classroom” concept to instructors, putting the responsibility on learning onto the students and reinforcing it in the classroom.
  • Introduce plagiarism into the one-shot Information Literacy classes.  Even a rudimentary exercise in “what is/what is not plagiarism?” can help reinforce what is allowed when researching/writing/citing in their papers.
  • Follow up with faculty mid-semester with a brief “define and avoid” email about plagiarism resources for their students–something that could be passed along to their classes and remind everyone while they are in the midst of their research.

I think that there are infinite ways that faculty and librarians can support each other in order to clarify for the students.  We shouldn’t just think that students are being lazy, or that they understand.  They are coming from a completely different background that we did when we were in college.  They are learning.  By giving them the tools to recognize what plagiarism is, we are setting them up for success rather than failure.

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