Plagiarism and Learning

Reading “Why plagiarists do it” by Jack Schafer puts me in mind of the work of marking piles of essays, writing assignments, and exams.

One of my students plagiarized in a way I haven’t yet seen. I could tell almost as soon as I saw the text — without reading it, even — that it was copied from somewhere. How?

One of the simplest clues is that when someone plagiarizes text from the Net, he usually isn’t the most engaged person. He’s not the kind of person who gets to know a lot about technology, learns how to use software, pays attention to formatting, things like that. There’s a wonderful thing called the curly quote, and the reason it’s wonderful is that when you copy and paste it into most word processors that are popular in Korea today (mostly Hangeul), it doesn’t get handled well. Most people don’t know enough to paste in the text using a Paste-Special function, or to at least edit the punctuation, end up leaving a BIG sign of their theft. Almost all the plagiarised text I’ve seen in Korea, I’ve found a space inserted after every apostrophe.

Of course, reading the text shocked me. It shocked me because it was almost sensible. This was shocking for two reasons: firstly, this student doesn’t normally write understandable text. It’s just beyond his abilities, and I take that into account and try to focus just a little more on his ideas and interpretation of his subject since the class is a content course and not a writing course. But this thing was mostly full of good sentences. Reading it closely, I could see exactly which sentences he’d carefully cobbled together himself — they were almost sensible, but then again there were only four or five of them — and which ones he’d gotten elsewhere.

Then I googled specific phrases, and it got even more interesting. It turned out that I had to google five different phrases to come up with all of the different sources he’d gone through. He’d read five different articles, and then pastiched them all into something that almost fit the assignment — a rather unusual assignment at that.

And the thing is, I have to say, for him, it was probably a learning experience of a kind, for him. I mean, this guy has to read a lot, understand it, and synthesize it. And after all, copying can be a very powerful learning experience — if one doesn’t simply copy and paste. (And even so, the amount of reading and synthesis he did to produce the two-page writeup is, in retrospect, beyond what I would have imagined he could handle.)

Of course, I’m not tolerating this plagiarism — the fact that he handed it in with his name on it, hoping to deceive me. But I’m not going to punish him this time. I’m going to tell him to do it again, and NOT copy this time. I’m going to ask him to write about a different movie, and NOT copy anything from anywhere. Now that he knows how to write a project like this up, he can do and actually do it. It seems to me almost an appropriate warm-up exercise for him, and maybe would benefit others if they tried to do this too.

But I think I will also announce to the class that I will not tolerate plagiarism again. From now on, if someone tries it, the assignment will be graded an F.

I also think I may give my writing class a plagiarism assignment sometime — a text for which they have to find all the sources. Just to show them how damned easy it is to catch someone out for copying text, now that we have the Internet at our fingertips.

UPDATE: This student, the one I mentioned above? He’s enrolled in two of my classes, and I discovered that the other assignment he submitted was plagiarized, too. This, after I asked him, “Do you plagiarize in your other classes? Have you plagiarized in any of your other classes this year?”, and he insisted that no, he does not do this habitually.

Well, last night I told him he could have another chance, and that he would have to rewrite the thing at double the original length. But cheating in two of his classes at the same time, he’s blown that leniency. It’s F on both assignments, and probably minimal feedback on anything else he submits. I frankly have little time for someone who lies to my face and tries to sneak something past me that’s so obvious that it takes zero thought to catch — twice in the space of a week. I mean, it was the first damned hit on Google when I searched a line of his stolen text. What, do I look too old to know what the Internet is?

UPDATE #2: And now, another plagiarist. I mean, how friggin’ hard is it to write a recipe on your own, when you have pretty decent ability in a language? I don’t hold it against someone if they consult with a recipe to see how it’s actually done, but when one copies and pastes, adds in the structural words I was asking for, and then adds a sentence or two, it’s still cheating. And on what’s a relatively easy assignment, since I’m not looking for perfect recipes, just the demonstration that one has tried to use the structural techniques we studied in class.

Though I won’t do it, probably, the very angry part of me wants to post links to the koreainfogate website where several students (two so far) plagiarized their recipes. To, you know, shock and them and get everyone thinking about how stealing material from the Web is both wrong and, really, strategically quite foolish.

UPDATE #3: If I had known about this guy before the midterm, I would have seated him right in the front, alone. But of course, in the course of marking, I got to that particular class’s assignments only after all the midterms had all been written. So guess what? His &%^#?%@ in-class essay has exactly the same basic arguments as another student’s. Now I shall have to give them both consequences, even though I’m sure that he copied from her, given his history of copying. I mean, a person has to be pretty #%@&! stupid to think that I’m not going to notice his essay has all the same basic talking points of another student’s essay, especially when it was handed it at roughly the same time. Really, man. It’s like he’s asking to get caught.

And now, I’m going to just turn off the “I care” function in my mind. If this guy doesn’t take his education seriously, I won’t take his education seriously either. I just wrote zero on his paper and I’ll have a talk with the two students in question next class. With my “I’m your pissed off teacher and you &#^[email protected] up bad!” face on.

16 thoughts on “Plagiarism and Learning

  1. I always give an F no matter what type of plagiarism though this guy is unique. I am very clear about it when I present the assignment in class and on the handouts and on my web site.

    I do like your idea of a plagiarism assignment. I just might do that if I get a writing class in the future.

  2. Frankly, since most of the class performs at such a high level, they simply don’t need to plagiarize. One guy I caught kind of paraphrasing a sentence, but he only changed half of it. It was pretty obvious, though, because it was from quite a famous series of advertisements. Still, he did a passable impression of a dedicated student for the first few weeks, and I’d told the students that imitation was okay, which introduced some uncertainty as to where the line was; I figured it was important to establish trust and took responsibility for the uncertainty. Instead, it established his disrespect, because I didn’t come down on him hard. He’s since stopped with the act and shows up late or not at all.

    I think what I’ll do with plagiarism is say, “Now you must write me an ORIGINAL report, of DOUBLE the length, and if you plagiarise again, it’ll double again, and if you default out, it’s F for the class. Either the person will learn a lot, or flunk. It seems a little more like a chance to learn something than a straight-out F.

    I’m also considering having the guy email apology emails to the original authors, CCed to me. The shame might wake something up in him. And again, it requires him to write something in English.

  3. My worst case of plagiarism was when a student copied an article word for word from a rock magazine on Limp Biscuit (or however they spell it), complete with slang that I didn’t even know. I googled it as you did and handed his assignment back with a big fat red zero and the original stapled to it.

    What made this the worst case was that the joker then claimed that it had been a mere coincidence that the two pieces were exactly identical! All I could think of was a hundred monkeys with typewriters and Shakespeare.

  4. Wow. I kept the student after class tonight, showed him the printouts of the originals, and informed him that copying and pasting a pastiche of other peoples’ writing is NOT okay, that he would be writing me a review of the Matrix (his chosen film) of double the length of the original assignment, and that I considered the act a way of saying “Fuck you!” (in not so many words — I used a “flipping the bird” gesture to illustrate my meaning) to both me as his instructor, and to his classmates as non-plagiarizing students… as well as to the original authors. I may yet tell him to send an apologetic email to the people he stole from.

    He did,in his favour, seem abashed and apologetic. But I told him that I didn’t trust him and suspected he was less sorry about cheating than about being caught. I also told him I knew it was plagiarized within a minute of seeing it, and that most teachers would.

    If someone told me that an identical piece was that way by coincidence, I would probably fail them for the class if I could. Not out of spite, but out of a deep need to respond to such a lack of respect for honesty, learning, education, and truth. If I couldn’t flunk him, I’d copy and paste comments from the internet — random blog comments — as feedback and then explain that it’s “coincidence” that my comments have nothing to do with his assignments.

    By the way, I kept his paper. Just in case he tries to contest the fact that it was 95% plagiarized.

  5. This semester, I instituted a particular type of mid-term test. One of the questions requires the student to improve the grammar, word choice and argument structure of a poorly written introduction (a real one that I received some years ago). I do this because the poor students CANNOT improve on the original. This then provides a gauge for potential plagiarism.

    The reason I did this is because one of my students was getting someone else, presumably a Korean-American friend, to write her essays! The only evidence that these essays were not her work was the terrible result she got on the mid-term. This discrepancy alerted me to the possibility that the essays were not hers. But a Google search obviously revealed nothing.

    The second piece of evidence was to ask her to add a sentence or two to the essay, which she did thankfully without checking with her friend. The result was very different. For example, she regularly left off the “s” in third person forms: “She let” rather than “She lets”. The Korean-American who was writing her essays never did.

    I confronted her about it, and she finally admitted to the help and I gave her a D-. I figure that this tells everyone what happened. She can either repeat or take the grade into the big wide world, as she likes.

  6. Sounds like a good argument for in-class writing during major exams.

    Most of my own midterms and finals during undergrad (and even during grad school, for some courses) included essay questions to be answered in lo-tech blue books, by hand. The proof is in the pudding: the student can’t BS his/her way through an in-class essay without relying on mainstays like cell phone trickery and good old whispering. In a small class, both tricks are nearly impossible to pull off.

    I haven’t had the chance to teach an out-and-out writing class yet; my classes so far have been either reading or conversation. Students in the reading classes have written short essays, but I’ve been very lenient in grading them, as I’m not about to turn a class about one subject into a class about another. Students get their essays back covered in red, but their grades primarily reflect content, not style and mechanics.

    I’m mindful of these posts about plagiarism because there’s a chance I’ll be teaching writing in the coming months.

    Thanks for a great post. Did you see Dr. Hodges’s series of posts on plagiarism from a while back over at Gypsy Scholar?


  7. Kevin,

    I’ve always found that a writing sample on the first day, plus a midterm written in-class, is the best way to get a sense of a student’s actual ability — and weaknesses. It’s hard to fake those, as you point out. One other thing I do is withhold the right to use a dictionary for in-class writing, either completely or for the first 75% of the exam time. My rationale is threefold: first, students walk into exams knowing at least the set of topics from which they will be expected to choose, so they can prepare vocabulary lists for themselves in pre-exam preparation; second, using a dictionary in an exam tends to disrupt the student’s thought process and flow, and tends to result in a worse essay; and third, I’m not 100% convinced that some of these dictionaries, which sometimes also handle Personal Organizer functions, may also be used for cheating if a student realizes she or he may enter large blocks of text to be copied out later.

    There’s another neat trick I used to make cheating difficult on my Elementary composition midterm this semester: I gave the students topics so they could prepare ahead of time, but on the test, they were required to write paragraphs that met certain specific criteria from what we’d studied up to that point. For example, Paragraph 1 might have to include two compound sentences, one using the conjunction “and” and one using the conjunction “or”, plus a list of items (ie. “dog, cat, and mouse.”). There were enough potential combinations with only three conjunctions and two types of lists to choose from that while preparation was possible — mind mapping, lists of vocabulary, free writing, and even creating a topic sentence for the subject’s paragraph — that preparing a whole paragraph ahead of time was pretty much impossible.

    Another useful thing, this time for out-of-class writing assignments — is to require they include all preparatory materials along with the essay itself — or, even better, to assign various parts of the preparatory process as for-credit homework: have them submit their outlines and bring their incomplete first drafts to class for peer critique. Faking process is much harder than faking product alone.

    My writing class students also blog, to different degrees depending on class level. I’ve set up class blogs for them, and while I’m not a major feedback-giver, the point of the thing is more about them making a constant effort to keep writing. The point is more about practice, and reading others’ posts. It’s hard to get them to accept that, no, you won’t be posting grammatical corrections to every post they make, but some of the classes have really gotten into the blogging and seem to be having a great deal of fun with it. I mean, as much fun as is possible with homework.

    I also have courses where I cover the submissions in red ink, but don’t particularly penalize an inability to write well. In my Media English class, for example, a student who writes an essay at a C or C+ level can still get an A if his or her ideas and approach to the media content is sufficiently imaginative, thoughtful, and interesting. The only point at which grammar and style become an issue related to grades is when the text becomes incomprehensible because of such problems. (In fact, this describes one or two of my students quite well — C+ in writing courses, but A-range grades in content courses.) But while the smaller assignments in a class like that are usually written, I’m also experimenting with non-written homework, to be fair on those who feel stressed about their writing. Presentations, and a creative final project, can help even this out. I’m very curious to see what the final projects will look like: students can choose from just about anything: a formal academic presentation on some piece of media, a written essay of about 5-10 pages on the subject, the creation of a piece or series of pieces of English-Language media (a series of advertisements, a rock music video for a song they can get rights for, a TV-styled interview they film themselves, a podcast, or any number of other things).

    I haven’t seen Hodges’ posts, but would like to. I’ll go have a look, once I’m through with midterms.

  8. Gord,
    re: comment #7

    When I was teaching writing I also insisted on students turning in brainstorming, and outlines and first drafts. As you said it’s pretty much impossible to fake it all. Though I did get the occaisional student who tried. But once they got busted on the first draft for internet copying I made them choose another topic and told them to rewrite and that their maximum grade was now 50%. But that was back when I was lenient, now it’s a strait F all the way.

    Iceberg & Katolik Shinja that’s bloody hilarious.

  9. Shinja,

    From your website?


    Yeah, I’m still lenient. I also hadn’t spoken about not plagiarizing to my Media English class, because of course I’d told them that the quality of the writing was of less concern than the thinking that went into the project.

  10. Gord, no, the culprit didn’t copy from my website; it was more blatant than that. He copied from a sample essay I had given them in class. It wasn’t just copying structures, which I would have had little problem with. This guy copied whole sections word for word.

    Even funnier is when students write something in Korean and then put it through some translation program like Babelfish. The results are absolutely meanigless but grammatically correct, like Chomsky’s famous sentence: “Coloress green ideas sleep furiously.”

  11. The Babelfish translations I just laugh at and hand back unread with a note that computer translation is not writing (and usually with an F). Sometimes I include a Babelfished translation of the same text into Korean, just so they know how ridiculous the result looks.

    I take plagiarism more seriously since it’s theft; I usually tell the student that most professors can pick it out in seconds, and that it’s a grave insult to the teacher, and a grave offense against the original author, plus an attempt to screw over all of the classmates. Because of the latter, it’s very hard for me not to inform the class that so-and-so cheated and he tried to make you look stupid for being good students who do their homework. I don’t do it, but I also suspect that not doing it enables the cheater to try again in another class.

    As if the guy who hasn’t spoken one full sentence since the beginning of semester is going to produce a paper with perfect English, suddenly. How stupid can a teacher look? I’m even considering giving him a three-strikes policy: one more attempt and he gets Fs across the board in the classes he’s taking with me, and can stay home the rest of semester.

    As for someone copying the sample essay… that’s moronic. Does he think you didn’t read the sample? I would have definitely given an F for that.

    Makes me wonder, though, whether these guys get away with this sort of thing in other classes, too? You would think that they do, which is why they try it again… I hardly imagine a 4th year student is trying this for the first time now.

  12. I had a guy whose writing was piss poor and who couldn’t speak a word of English give me a perfect paper in a non-credit CBT Writing class. I think there must be something about “saving face” to all this.

  13. Probably. And what’s sad is that some people will collude with these people so as to help them save face. I asked this guy who I’ve been complaining about how much it costs him to go to school for a year. He didn’t know. I asked him what he wants to learn. He didn’t know. I asked him why he is a student. He didn’t know.

    By the way, there’s yet another update on this post. If you can imagine. This guy is SO gonna flunk my classes.

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