We state it ("don't plagiarize"). We rationalize it ("because you should give credit"). We treat it as a disease ("how to avoid"). We point to our school's policies and tell cautionary tales. However, much as teachers want to ignore it, "stolen" words persist—in essays and exhibits, on animations and infographics.
The reality is that students don't know what they don't know, so it's difficult to teach plagiarism. Since they feel no confusion, they have no "need" to understand. Given this premise, practicing plagiarism is probably the most engaging way of learning how it actually works: what it looks like; when it is likely to occur; and why it's more complex (and more interesting) than it seems. For years, Kenneth Goldsmith of the University of Pennsylvania has taught classes on "collage"1 writing in which "students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism"2
By sharing and discussing their own inauthentic work, students become aware of the range and complexity of the challenge. Intuitively, you might believe that this prepares them to cheat even more expertly. In practice, just as reading a poorly written novel provides both the motivation to read and a better appreciation of masterful writing, practicing unoriginal writing crystallizes for students both their need for, and interest in doing, authentic work.
Students can tell you that plagiarism means that they've reused another creator's words, visuals or ideas without attribution. It's been labeled ctrl-c plagiarism: no citation, no quotes.3 Based on one taxonomy, which conflates cheating with patchwriting, ctrl-c plagiarism "contains significant portions of text from a single source without alterations."4 These classifications muddy intentional cheating with what could actually be a technical error, an accidental omission, or the absence of cognitive processing. The latter, of course, is reading comprehension. The student doesn't understand what the source says, doesn't self-monitor exactly where and why this confusion occurs, and isn't using relevant strategies to repair the reading comprehension problem.
Comprehension Repair Strategies
Reread more slowly
Pay closer attention to the specific words or phrases that are troublesome, so that you can decide what exactly is confusing and what you might do to understand better.
Oral and written language skills are interrelated. When used together, they can complement and amplify your understanding.
When you reframe what you don't understand as a question, it pinpoints what confuses you. By attempting to find an answer, you are creating a plan for clarifying your comprehension.
Read sentences around the text or continue reading the paragraph
Context clues, or even a subsequent direct explanation by the author, are ways to use the text itself to clarify something you don't understand.
The student can also get stuck on how to capture the meaning and spirit of the author's prose. One instructional response might be to focus on sentences, showing students how to swap out synonyms and move nouns or phrases to another position. While the result may look acceptable, we are still focusing students on relevant but isolated paragraphs. They have not yet understood each source, made connections among them, and synthesized their own responses in personally original language.5
One method of developing this interpretive voice is to practice restating an author's thesis and reasoning in pairs. As they repeat this with multiple partners, inexperienced writers gain confidence in clarifying an author's position and responding in their own authorial voices.
A micro version of oral restatement, "speed paraphrasing,"6 begins with a short, meaty quote you've selected. Working with a series of peers, students explain their interpretations and, finally, construct a joint paraphrase. Later, when you ask students to select a difficult but key passage from one of their sources, change your directions prior to each round:
- Paraphrase your author's logic;
- Explain the author's reasons;
- Persuade a person who might not agree with its merits.
Next, suggest that students orally vary the tone of their explanation: informed, cynical, arrogant, inclusive, and so on. Finally—and this is key to source use—ask students to reflect on what they plan to "do" with this passage or claim and which tone matches their objective.
Perhaps you're wondering at what age you should start? A robust body of research on deception among children and teens reveals that, by the time they're four, most kids will have experimented with lying. According to Victoria Talwar, kids grow into lying, not out of it. If we wish our children not to lie frequently, then we need to address it.7 The age of intervention is much earlier than you might think.
Intervention, not punishment. At an international conference on deceptive behavior that I attended, Talwar described a series of experiments designed to reduce lying. One of them involved testing young children's truth-telling after reading aloud one of these stories:
- The Boy Who Cried Wolf
- George Washington and the Cherry Tree
- The Tortoise and the Hare (control story)
Which story do you think cut back on lying and why?
The first two are cautionary tales in which lies get punished. Turns out that when kids fear punishment they just learn to lie better. Simply saying that lying is wrong and even removing the threat of punishment doesn't make a difference in their behavior. What works is modeling honesty and praising it when you see it in students. In Talwar's research, the first two stories increased lying. Only the story of George, whose father was proud of his son, significantly reduced the children's lying in the experiment that followed.
Recount stories that describe a person who tells the truth about a transgression and is rewarded for being honest. Acknowledge that telling the truth about something you've done wrong is tough and that we all get confused at times. Give credit to students who are truthful. Valuing honesty is a powerful message!
Neither plagiarism nor patchwriting are effectively dealt with through threats and punishment. A more effective message is to help the student revise the work and develop a plan for next time. As educators, our "focus should be on the production of texts that accurately represent reading material rather than on punishing those who fail."8
We tend to believe that teachers will recognize and address student plagiarism as well as we do. While everyone in the school shares instructional responsibility, we must recognize that even adults have periods of apprenticeship.9 Time constraints and other factors may shape our teachers' instruction in ways that reinforce rather than mitigate plagiarism. There's nothing to gain by berating them for ignoring poor citation practices or conflating a student's similarity score with plagiarism.10 Empathy and education, not indignation and impatience, should continue to be the norm in a community of learners.
Council of Writing Program Administrators. "Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices." Council of Writing Program Administrators. Last modified January 2003. http://www.wpacouncil.org/positions/WPAplagiarism.pdf.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Jamieson, Sandra. "Is It Plagiarism or Patchwriting? Toward a Nuanced Definition." 2015. In The Handbook of Academic Integrity, edited by Tracey Bretag, 1-13. Springer Science+Business Media, 2015. https://sandrajamieson.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/jamieson-is-it-plagiarism-handbook-of-academic-integrity.pdf.
———. "One Size Does Not Fit All: Plagiarism across the Curriculum." In Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies, edited by Rebecca Moore Howard and Amy E. Robillard, 77-91. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2008.
Lowe, Alexandra. "Speed Paraphrasing." TESOL Blog. Entry posted February 27, 2015. http://blog.tesol.org/speed-paraphrasing/.
Monash University. "Ctrl-C." Last modified May 2018. https://www.monash.edu/rlo/research-writing-assignments/referencing-and-academic-integrity/academic-integrity/ctrl-c.
Russell, David R. "Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis." Written Communication 14, no. 4 (October 1997): 504-44. doi:10.1177/0741088397014004004.
Talwar, Victoria. "Social and Cognitive Correlates of Children's Lying Behavior." Child Development 79, no. 4 (July/August 2008): 866-81. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01164.x.
Turnitin. "The Plagiarism Spectrum." Last modified 2016. https://www.turnitin.com/static/plagiarism-spectrum/.
1 Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011), 3.
2 Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, 8.
3 "Ctrl-C," Monash University, last modified May 2018, https://www.monash.edu/rlo/research-writing-assignments/referencing-and-academic-integrity/academic-integrity/ctrl-c.
4 "The Plagiarism Spectrum." Turnitin. Last modified 2016. https://www.turnitin.com/static/plagiarism-spectrum/.
5 Sandra Jamieson, "Is It Plagiarism or Patchwriting? Toward a Nuanced Definition," 2015, in The Handbook of Academic Integrity, ed. Tracey Bretag (Springer Science+Business Media, 2015), 1, https://sandrajamieson.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/jamieson-is-it-plagiarism-handbook-of-academic-integrity.pdf.
6 Alexandra Lowe, "Speed Paraphrasing," TESOL Blog, entry posted February 27, 2015, http://blog.tesol.org/speed-paraphrasing/.
7 Victoria Talwar, "Social and Cognitive Correlates of Children's Lying Behavior," Child Development 79, no. 4 (July/August 2008), doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01164.x.
8 Jamieson, "Is It Plagiarism," in The Handbook, 10.
9 David R. Russell, "Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis," Written Communication 14, no. 4 (October 1997, doi:10.1177/0741088397014004004, quoted in Sandra Jamieson, "One Size Does Not Fit All: Plagiarism across the Curriculum," in Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies, ed. Rebecca Moore Howard and Amy E. Robillard (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2008), 78.
10 Council of Writing Program Administrators, "Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices," Council of Writing Program Administrators, last modified January 2003, http://www.wpacouncil.org/positions/WPAplagiarism.pdf.