This weekend I was looking through my “Stuff to Read” folder. This is the folder into which I dump all the interesting articles, blog posts, and papers that I come across and don’t have time to read. When I have time I go through the folder. It has been a couple months since I last reviewed this folder and in it I found a couple interesting pieces on plagiarism that I wanted to share. This may be old news to some.
The first is an article that ran in the February 11th New York Times titled “Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism”. The title caught my eye because I can hear a teenager saying this to justify unethical behavior. While I am not tolerant of plagiarism and find myself frustrated with students who don’t “get” why it is wrong, I understand that it is my job and the job of every other instructor to teach them why it is wrong then teach and reinforce the proper behaviors and punish the bad behaviors. What struck me about this article was not that the author, Helene Hegemann plagiarized, lots of people do it and she isn’t the first to get caught doing so, but the fact that she was essentially being rewarded for it. Even after the plagiarism was uncovered and made public, her plagiarized work was still nominated as a finalist in the fiction category of the Leipzig Book Fair and became a best seller. Thankfully she didn’t win if I’m reading this page correctly. Even though she didn’t win, what kind of message does this send? That it’s OK to plagiarize? That it’s no big deal? I hope not. I hope that Hegemann’s views on plagiarism are not typical of her generation and/or her culture but that she is an outlier.
In a world where information is accessible from so many sources and it only takes two mouse clicks to plagiarize, how do we get our students to understand that plagiarism is wrong? My experience is that many students just don’t know how to appropriately cite references and therefore plagiarize out of ignorance. These students can be taught how to do things correctly. It is the students that knowingly plagiarize because they are lazy, think they can get a better grade, or waited until the last minute that I worry about. How can we teach them to do things correctly? Do they already know? If we can’t teach them not to plagiarize, how can we prevent them from doing so?
One way is to use Turnitin. Sometimes just telling students that you use Turnitin is enough prevention. If not, the Originality Report is a useful tool. While Turnitin doesn’t tell an instructor if something has been plagiarized, it does clearly mark out textual matches to other sources. If there is a match there should be a reference and if there is not a reference then it is likely plagiarism. Once the matches are identified it is much easier for the instructor to determine if the student is plagiarizing and take action. Sometimes action means educating the student, sometimes punishing. SNHU has been using Turnitin since 2002 and has had it integrated into Blackboard since 2006. In the eight years that we have used Turnitin, approximately 53,800 papers have been submitted for review. Since we have such a long history I was curious to see what our Turnitin statistics looked like. I ran reports for each of the past four years (since the Bb integration for fair comparison) and this is I found. The Y-axis represents the Originality Report score. The higher the score, the higher the likelihood of plagiarism. Remember, the Originality Report still reports on properly referenced text so it is up to the instructor to make the final determination. Most papers submitted fall between 0 and 24% match on the originality reports. This means that between 0 and 24% of the paper matches other sources. Since the generally accepted rule is that around 10% of a paper can be cited material this is the category I would expect most paper submissions to fall into. I would like more granularity in this category but alas, this is the way it is reported. Smaller numbers of papers fall into the higher categories which is what we’d like to see as the higher categories indicate higher likelihood of plagiarism. The data shows that the counts have remained relatively static over the past four years. While the number of papers that score in the 75-100% match category (indicating blatant plagiarism) have dropped by a percent, the 50-74% and 25-49% categories have remained constant or gone up slightly. Are we making progress against plagiarism? I’m not sure but we don’t appear to be losing ground. I’d be curious to hear how others interpret this data. While Turnitin is a good deterrent and identifier of plagiarism, we can also create assignments that are more likely to discourage it.
We can discourage plagiarism by giving assignments that aren’t as easy to plagiarize. Term papers or other “traditional” papers are easy to plagiarize. Why not give “alternative” assignments? The Tomorrow’s Professor Blog posted some interesting examples in the post Plagiarism and Assignments That Discourage It. Maybe some of these ideas may help.
I would like to hear your thoughts on plagiarism, the Turnitin stats, and even assignment ideas. Please leave a comment.
If you would like more information on Turnitin please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and take a look at our Turnitin Training Resources.