The Problem of Plagiarism: Where the Educators Come In – Part 4 of 5

In my prior post, I took a look at some of the research behind what kinds of factors and situations might give rise to inappropriate use of sources in student writing.  The list of possible motivations to commit plagiarism in all its forms is complex and, for me, a little daunting.  There is a multitude of pitfalls and potential issues that accompany responsible source use; as our student bodies grow more diverse and our technological and digital access to resources grows more intricate and comprehensive, these issues continue to multiply exponentially.  Acknowledging this, the essential question is, what do we as educators do about it?

The effort from academic institutions and educators everywhere to fight what is commonly referred to as the “Plague of Plagiarism” is immense.  As Rebecca Moore Howard points out in her article, an entire industry based on retroactively catching instances of plagiarism has developed, with sites like Turnitin.com and Plagiarism.org regularly devising new strategies for catching the culprits.  Software is being developed, articles are being written, books are being purchased. Teachers everywhere are cracking down on plagiarism.

The problem with this mentality and one of the myriad of reasons it has been relatively unsuccessful is that this approach is fundamentally retrospective.  The instances of plagiarism are detected after they have happened, leading to a predominantly punitive set of responses that does not even attempt to address the reason the student plagiarized in the first place.  Keith Hjorthshoj and Katherine Gottscholk acknowledge that this problem has arisen from the overwhelming complexity of the plagiarism problem.  “Because it is impossible to prevent all forms and cases of plagiarism, teachers often devote their attention to detection and punishment, partly in the interests of deterrence” (Teaching English 119).

Another significant reason for the lack of success in recent efforts to combat plagiarism has to do with our modern understanding of what plagiarism is, which is something I get into in an earlier post in this series.  Howard touches on this when she says, “We like the word ‘plagiarism’ because it seems simple and straightforward: Plagiarism is representing the words of another as one’s own, our college policies say, and we tell ourselves, ‘There!  It’s clear.  Students are responsible for reading those policies and observing their guidelines’.”  This kind of simplistic, but well-intentioned thinking about plagiarism does indeed simplify our responsibilities as teachers, but at what would seem to be too high a cost.

It's not that simple! Courtesy of Creative Commons.

It’s not that simple!
Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Given the ineffectiveness of retroactive responses to plagiarism as well as a general sense of confusion surrounding what plagiarism actually is, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk suggest a better way.  They believe that a proactive approach to writing education has the ability to counteract many of the reasons students have for relying on inappropriate source use.  “To a great extent… prevention is possible and coincides with the goals of education” (Hjortshoj and Gottschalk Teaching English 119). For starters, this approach requires that educators take a moment to deepen and stretch their definitions of what constitutes plagiarism (feel free to use this post as a launch point) and consider the humbling possibility that some of the instances of plagiarism in their classrooms may have stemmed from teaching practices as opposed to student dishonesty or laziness.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk explain that, in order to successfully combat plagiarism in the classroom, “you need to understand what plagiarism is, in its diverse forms, why it occurs…, and what kinds of teaching practices make these violations of academic writing standards uninviting and unnecessary” (118).

The teaching practices that Hjortshoj and Gottschalk reference here as possible suggestions to head plagiarism off at the pass are not necessarily additional checklist items to squeeze into an already crowded curriculum.  Ideally, the kinds of practices that would help oppose plagiarism in the classroom would be the same ones that we would use to help students develop strong, flexible writing skills.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk state that, “most of the strategies we have recommended for orchestrating the research paper are also strategies for preventing plagiarism of all kinds” (Teaching English 119).  The Council of Writing Program Administrator’s statement on best practices concerning plagiarism supports this by encouraging classroom strategies that simultaneously support students “throughout their research process” and “make plagiarism both difficult and unnecessary.”  If educators could find a way to implement positive and rigorous academic writing instruction strategies that also directly undermined student motivation to misuse sources before that opportunity for misuse presented itself, the problem of plagiarism would shrink to a much more surmountable issue.  Student writing skill would grow, teacher anxiety would decrease, and the student-teacher relationship as it pertains to the issue of source use in academic writing could work towards a much more positive and healthy condition.

Howard aptly summarizes the crisis surrounding the problem of plagiarism by saying, “In our stampede to fight…a ‘plague’ of plagiarism, we risk becoming the enemies rather than the mentors of our students; we are replacing the student-teacher relationship with the criminal-police relationship.”  Her statement concisely captures my motivation in posting this series on plagiarism.  Through this blog series, my goal is to propose that we fight plagiarism in a different way than we have been.  My goal is to encourage and explore proactive approaches that mentor and coach students into a flexible ability and skill level with source use, making plagiarism in the classroom obsolete. My hope would be to move away from the criminal-police relationship that governs the way we handle plagiarism in order to replace that relationship with one of mutual understanding, respect, and generative productivity.  As a teacher with limited experience, I am sure I have nothing more than a tenuous grasp on the staggering magnitude of this undertaking; however, in my next and final post in this series, I’ll be calling on some much more experienced educators to help compile concrete ideas on how to practically bring this kind of an approach to plagiarism into the classroom.

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