Thursday, June 8, 2017

How I effectively stopped plagiarism in my classes

Last year, a significant proportion (about 20%) of the my third year genetics class submitted final lab reports that were plagiarized to different degrees (mostly cut and pasted sentences with  and without citations) This past semester I employed several techniques to bring that proportion down to ZERO cases.  I did it by first thinking about why my students plagiarized then implementing policies to directly address those reasons.
I think that students plagiarize because they either do not understand what plagiarism is or they see the risk as being worth the potential reward. The answer then must be to 1) educate them about plagiarism, and 2) shift the risk/reward calculation against deciding to plagiarize. Here are my specific actions and policies targeting these two factors that seemed to work:


1)      I took the time to teach the definition of plagiarism and assessed the students on their understanding of plagiarism. I made a concise clear handout that we went over in the labs followed by a quiz that students had to pass before I would accept any written work (handout and quiz below). I talked one-on-one to students who had any wrong answers and walked them through to the right answer. The most important concept that they had misconceptions about was the general idea that plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work or ideas as your own. Many students thought only in terms of specific acts (i.e. copying and pasting text, putting their name on another person’s paper, copying from a classmate etc.) instead of the general definition which covers all of the different variants.  I also found it helpful to approach it from the perspective of giving credit where credit is due. This more positive approach seemed to create empathy with the person who is not getting credit for their ideas.
2)      I kept a copy of the quizzes and told the students these would be used in academic dishonesty judicial proceedings if necessary. This removes the “I didn’t know” defense, increasing the risk of consequences if caught.
3)      I assigned a lower point presubmission of the most plagiarized section of the assignment. This was a presubmission of the introduction where students have to synthesize existing literature. The motivation to take a chance plagiarizing is lower for assignments worth fewer points resulting in no plagiarism. By doing a low point presubmission the students had a plagiarism free rough draft as a starting point for the high value final submission. This takes the pressure off in terms of points for the first submission and reduces the time pressure for the final submission.
4)      I told them I report all cases of plagiarism where I impose any penalties to the university. This is the number one most important key policy!  Negotiating penalties within your course reinforces the behavior by validating the students risk/benefit calculation. Such negotiations results in plagiarism becoming just another part of the academic game of manipulating the instructor to get the best grade possible.  I am convinced that serial plagiarizers depend upon and factor into their decision the opportunity to negotiate their way out of serious sanctions when caught. Any teacher who deals with plagiarism cases privately within their own class is harming their students and perpetuating a culture of sweeping the problem under the rug. The penalty that really has an effect is having it go on their record outside of your particular class (usually temporarily, at least in my institution). Your students may cry and sometimes fight it in whatever judicial review you have at your university, but this level of sanction alone is the only way to increase the risk to unacceptable in many students' minds. If every instructor did this from year one I am convinced that plagiarism would cease to be a problem by the junior year.

So if you want to stop plagiarism in your classroom, this is what worked for me.  Number four takes some courage and willingness to follow through, but that threat with the other mitigating actions should prevent most students from making the wrong decision. 

The Handout:

Plagiarism Policy

It is my policy to routinely report all cases of plagiarism where I have to enforce a penalty to the Dean of Students. If you decide to plagiarize then it is your decision and my responsibility to report you. You will have only yourself to blame for the consequences. There may be a negotiation on the grade penalty to ensure the advantage you gained is fairly negated relative to students that did not plagiarize, but whether or not to report the case to the university is non-negotiable.

Definition of Plagiarism: passing off someone else’s work and ideas as your own.

1)    Direct copying
a.    Turning in someone else’s work as your own. (from another student, bought essay, copied off the internet)
                                          i.    Blatant and deliberate academic misconduct.
b.    A good indicator: If you are using the “cut and paste” function to put something into your writing you are plagiarizing unless it is a direct quote with a proper citation.
c.    Easiest to catch with software and a bit of Googling.

2)    Rewriting someone else’s work
a.    Rewriting someone else’s work is plagiarism.
                                          i.    No amount of rewording someone else’s sentences or paragraphs is acceptable!!!
Actual case: a student once showed me an original sentence from a published paper and his extensive modifications and asked me if it was changed enough from the original to pass!!  Someone else’s sentence can never be changed enough to not be plagiarized if you are trying to reword someone else’s work to make it pass as yours.
Also see http://sociobiology.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/plagiarism-is-more-common-than-i-thought/  for a good explanation with a concrete example.
                                         ii.    The only way to avoid this is to do it yourself from scratch, with your own outline, then put in the citations later where you refer to or use other’s ideas.

3)    Referencing is not enough.
a.    You cannot take someone else’s writing or Powerpoints or any other work and pass it off as your own by just adding a citation. Otherwise you are just stating from where you plagiarized the material. This is called “cut and paste plagiarism with references” and it will not be tolerated
                                          i.    The criteria is simple:  Have you made it crystal clear to the reader what parts are your work and ideas, and what are the other person’s work and ideas?
                                         ii.    You cannot in anyway imply, directly, indirectly, or by omission that someone else’s work or ideas are yours.


The quiz (answers, 1a, 2e, 3a-e):

Name______________________    Date_________________________________

Plagiarism Quiz, You must get 100% before I grade your written work.

1) I read and understand the plagiarism statement.
a) Yes
b) No

2) What is the best definition of plagiarism (pick ONE)
a) Putting your name on someone else’s work and turning it in as your own work.
b) Copy and pasting material without citing the source
c) Copy and pasting material without direct quotes, but citing the source
d) Rewriting a sentence from a source until it passes a plagiarism checker with or without citation
e) Directly or indirectly implying that someone else’s work and/or ideas are your own

3) Which of the actions below will get you reported for plagiarism? (Mark all that apply).
a) Putting your name on someone else’s work and turning it in as your own work.
b) Copy and pasting material without citing the source
c) Copy and pasting material without direct quotes but citing the source
d) Rewriting a sentence from a source until it passes a plagiarism checker with or without citation
e) Directly or indirectly implying that someone else’s work and/or ideas are your own