Plagiarism: Selection, Detection, Correction, Definition, Prevention and Reflection
Back in the good old days, plagiarism had a price, even to those who didn't get caught. Plagiarising used to be hard work. Hours were spent at the library to find the correct passages to copy or paraphrase (Pean, 2000). Researching what to copy required almost as much effort as doing the job correctly in the first place and if students copied friends' research papers, they at least had to retype them. The plagiarist used to learn a lot while trying to get out of doing the work. With today's technology, enter a keyword and click, click, click, the research paper is in the printer, downloaded, or in the post.
Today's student has a choice of scholarly and pseudo-scholarly resources such as web sites that either give away or sell complete research papers on any topic required. Beware the assumption that because the sites are predominantly American, the market does not apply in the United Kingdom.
There are reasons that those sites have international order forms. If you are looking for a local flavour, try Finchley Law Tutors, selling essays on selected subjects for a minimum £30 fee. Plagiarism still has a price, and it has kept up with inflation.
In fairness to the online sellers of these works, they all share an abhorrence of any plagiaristic use of their wares with disclaimers describing the proper and improper employment of the purchases. This writer is sure that must help.
Not all students are affluent enough to purchase papers online. Others must revert to old-fashioned search methods such as http://www.dogpile.com, http://www.metacrawler.com, or http://www.ask.com. If they can't find the meat and potatoes for a research-based paper from those sites, then it doesn't exist. More cut and paste clicking and the paper begins to take shape.
Plagiarised work is usually not easy to detect, but, in certain instances, it has never been easier to detect. Following selected procedures when plagiarism is suspected may often lead to conclusive evidence of the misconduct. Using those same search engines as the students used to find the substance for their paper, drop in a few keywords from that substance, and be quickly led to the origin of the offence.
It is this writer's opinion that readers tend not to cheat and cheaters tend not to read. There are documented instances of this as academics have reported finding such statements as "thank you for using TermpaperMania" near the end of the papers that have been purchased from online sources and turned in as original work (Harris, 1999) (Senechal, 2000). The cheater did not read! Some student papers also have URL's and dates in the corners of their finished work, a sure sign that they were printed directly from a web page. Harris refers to this as "a smoking gun".
There are other glaring clues to flagrant plagiarism. If the student's written vocabulary suddenly surpasses the student's oral vocabulary, there is cause for suspicion. The reverse is also true. If the paper leaves out major portions of the original assignment, chances are it was copied whole from another source. As papers purchased online tend to be older, are the citations up to date? Consistent use of old reference dates tend to be a sure sign that the paper was copied (Harris, 1999). Are the references all from books not available in your library or all from another country? (Senechal, 2000).
Some detection methods may also be prevention methods as well, particularly if the student has advance knowledge of the assignments. For example, requiring an oral report on at least a portion of the student's written work may be a clue to the student's knowledge of the content of the assignment. If the student cannot pronounce many of the words or it appears that it is the first time the student has seen the content of the paper may be a clue to misconduct.
A meta-learning essay is an in-class assignment given immediately following the receipt of the major project. Answering questions such as "what did you learn from the assignment," and "what problems did you face and how did you overcome them?" gives the tutor an opportunity to compare writing styles, determine a student's knowledge of the assignment, and as an added benefit, it makes the student think about the learning processes of the project (Harris).
Essays that are inconsistent in content and may have paragraphs that do not flow from one to another, as if they have been "cut and pasted", are a telltale sign of misconduct. A final means of detection that is becoming more useful is commercial software. There are software packages on the market that claim to be able to detect instances of plagiarism without complete accuracy. Examples of these may be found at http://www.plagiarism.org and http://www.plagiarism.com (Harris).
Correction of plagiarism, or applying consequences to it may depend upon a number of circumstances, not the least of which is the degree of the plagiarism involved. So far this paper has only dealt with flagrant examples of plagiarism. The consequences to these offences are likely to be severe, though not always easily applied. Throwing the book at a perpetrator is often easier to say than to do.
What should a member of university staff do when plagiarism or other misconduct is suspected? At the University of Warwick, the University Calendar has procedures in Section 2 paragraph 12, "Regulations Governing the Procedure to be Adopted in the Event of Suspected Cheating in a University Test." The Calendar may be accessed online.
Thankfully, most plagiarism is not of the flagrant type. The most common type of plagiarism is the misuse of paraphrasing and quoting. This misconduct is often flagrant, but more often arises from ignorance. "Students do not enter higher education equipped with prior knowledge of how to attribute sources, i.e. to reference correctly. Indeed, not only do students not know what it means to reference, they will often have been taught that it is perfectly acceptable to copy and thinly paraphrase work from secondary sources." (Parlour, 1995)
Assuming that Mr. Parlour's assertions are even partially true, what correction should be undertaken to overcome this problem? It may be helpful to become reacquainted with the meanings of plagiarism.
Defining plagiarism is not as simple as one might think. Everyone seems to know it is wrong, including those who commit the offence, but few know how to completely define it. There are auto-plagiarism and self-plagiarism, substantial plagiarism and incidental plagiarism, and finally there is unconscious plagiarism or cryptomnesia, which seemingly would allow an excuse to all but the most obvious plagiarists.
Plagiarism is often simply defined as passing off someone else's work as your own. The keyword here is "work". That could extend from photographs or other graphics, musical compositions, documents that are published or unpublished, to a person's basic idea for a piece of work (Pean, 2000).
Auto-plagiarism is the failure of authors to cite themselves when using excerpts from their old work in a new and original work. As researchers tend to publish in sequence with their research, it would follow that most of it is serialised. Researchers would tend to refer to their previous work quite often. However, once published, the copyright no longer belongs to the author, but to the publisher, and any use of that material must be properly attributed (Rogers, 1998).
Self-plagiarism differs from auto-plagiarism in the sense that it is more to do with a student trying to use his or her own work as fulfilment of an assignment for more than one course, without permission. Substantial and incidental plagiarisms are of fairly obvious definition. However, unconscious plagiarism or cryptomnesia bears an explanation.
Cryptomnesia is hidden memory. A person believes himself to have had an original idea when, in fact, the idea came from the memory of an experience which he has forgotten (Carroll, 1998). Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and George Harrison are among those who are discovered to have been "victims" of cryptomnesia (Carroll, 1998) (Zwick, 2000). These victims plagiarised the work of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Margaret Canby, and the Chiffons respectively, but each offence was considered unintentional and a result of cryptomnesia.
Understanding plagiarism is a key to its discovery and prevention. However, if academics are not fully aware of the various types of plagiarism or its kissing cousin, copyright law, how can students in higher education be expected to understand it? They cannot. The best correction for plagiarism is not punishment, but prevention.
If Jim Parlour is correct and students are coming to higher education basically clueless about plagiarism, copyright, and their components, then who is responsible for correcting the problem? Universities cannot allow the ignorance to continue. A first-year course in research ethics and methods which includes the topics of plagiarism and copyright, could also be combined with a written policy in the prospectus and any other student handbook. Furthermore, this policy should perhaps be referred to in every syllabus produced by every member of a university's teaching staff.
In addition, when students, and many would advocate staff, are given access to a university's computing facilities, a code of conduct or acceptable use policy should be signed before issuance of access. These procedures would proactively eliminate the excuse of ignorance.
Some courses are more susceptible to plagiarism than others. Robert Harris of Vanguard University of Southern California, makes some excellent suggestions to prevent plagiarism which would be of particular value in those courses (Harris, 1999). Harris suggests that teaching staff would do well to make themselves aware of Internet sites that sell or give away term papers. Perhaps it would be wise to download and share some of these papers with students, showing them what they would be getting. Most papers are purportedly very poor in quality.
Students, particularly undergraduates, are not known for their excellent time management (Kleiner and Lord, 1999). The time between an assignment being made and an assignment being completed is inversely proportional to the degree of panic in a student. Requiring papers to be submitted in segments, as they are finished helps to eliminate misconduct, and makes for easier marking. Giving specific examples of proper and improper paraphrasing and being explicit about repercussions for misconduct are also barriers to the misdeed. Harris says to accentuate the positive in showing students how proper citation strengthens their writing, shows that they have done some research, and that they have an awareness of all sides of an argument.
There are yet few definitive resources for establishing proper style for documenting sources from the World Wide Web. One good source is the Modern Language Association of America.
The Internet and the World Wide Web have opened new avenues for research misconduct. They have also opened new avenues to discovery. Even the way course design is fashioned is changing daily to include new ways to promote learning and scholarly discussion using the Internet. Some argue that this will promote misconduct. Others believe that it will combat it. After all, plagiarising a paper that only has to slip by a single professor is a lot easier than publishing it to the web for all to see and getting away with it.
One thing is relatively sure. Until we are born with all we need and want to know, technology will continue to provide a means toward that end. As technology gives us newer approaches to teaching and learning, it also provides newer approaches to both the prevention and promotion of fraudulent practices in those areas. For the protection of those who do not cheat, higher education has a responsibility to maintain a current knowledge base of those approaches.
Copyright has been mentioned briefly in this article, but a treatise on copyright should accompany any treatment of plagiarism. For an excellent, plain language Internet article on copyright, see "10 Big Myths about copyright explained" by Brad Templeton.
Carroll, R.T. Cryptomnesia. The Skeptics Dictionary. 1998. March 20, 2000.
Documenting Sources from the World Wide Web. Modern Language Association. 1999. April 20, 2000.
Law Essays Bank. Finchley Law Tutors. 2000. April 20, 2000. http://www.knowledge.co.uk/lawessays/index.htm
Parlour, J. Thou Shalt Honour Thy Sources. Times Higher Education. 1995. Dec 4, 2010 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=97425§ioncode=26
Templeton, B. 10 Big Myths about copyright explained. 1999. March 18, 2000. http://www.templetons.com/brad/copymyths.html