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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 &#^!@ed up bad!” face on.

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