Copy, Paste, Plagiarize

Illustration by Bruno Budrovic

A few years ago I taught a non-majors chemistry course at Vanderbilt. I wanted to make the class relevant, so I had the students write a paper about the application of chemistry to everyday things. Students wrote about Dead Sea salts, Gatorade, NASCAR tires, and the chemistry of love. It was exciting to read these nuggets. Some of the papers were so good that I wanted to use the material for future courses. So I googled the references, and there in front of me were paragraphs of plagiarized material. After three instances I began to look for the plagiarized material and was shocked at the enormity of the problem. Fully one-third of my class had handed in plagiarized papers.

What had I done as an instructor to make these students believe that the only way they could be successful was by cheating? What was my responsibility in this charade? Was the assignment clear? Was it meaningful? Did they really understand plagiarism? I was distraught because I felt that I had failed my students.

In its mild form, plagiarism is quite prevalent. Every student has a few sentences here and there that are inadvertently plagiarized or too closely paraphrased. However, it is widely believed that plagiarism is on the rise and, depending upon the institution, anywhere from 38 to 76 percent of students admit to the practice at least once during their college career.

As recently as 15 years ago, gathering research information meant physically going to the library and searching though antiquated card catalogs, flipping three-by-five-inch index cards for hours on end to find just the right book. As you searched for one item, you inevitably came across 10 more items that caught your eye. Getting information was hard work and required skills that had to be learned through trial and error.

Today every piece of information you can imagine is on the Web. Librarians and instructors have become tour guides of information. We are no longer the gods, the keepers of all information that is worth knowing and remembering. Our students now have access to all of the same information as their instructors. It is both wonderful and terrifying. One hour of Internet research is worth several days of old-style searching. Students now download papers directly onto their laptops, cutting and pasting important material into a Word document. The process is easier, more efficient–and more prone to inadvertent plagiarism.

At Vanderbilt we have begun using a tool called SafeAssign, an electronic plagiarism-detection technology available to all instructors. Students submit their work to the SafeAssign portal, and the technology crawls the Web in search of text that matches the submitted paper. The technology is not perfect, as it only accesses electronic material, not images and not books in print form. Several versions of SafeAssign are available, and each uses specific database search engines, so it is entirely possible that some plagiarized material will go undetected. An “originality report” is generated that shows any suspect material along with its source.

The question then becomes how to use the technology. We could be covert about it and attempt to catch cheaters by submitting their papers without their knowledge and then confront them when the report is generated. But students generally dislike this approach, and it promotes an adversarial relationship between the instructor and students. The best relationship between a student and instructor is one of trust, and this approach destroys that trust. On the flip side, others argue that if students are cheating, then they deserve to be caught, and it should not matter how they were caught.

What I choose to do in my Freshman Writing Seminar is to use SafeAssign as a teaching tool. I explain the purpose of SafeAssign to students at the onset of the course. We discuss its use as a deterrent to plagiarism, as a means to check for inadvertent plagiarism, and as a tool to teach about paraphrasing and the appropriate use of quoted work and referencing. Students submit their work to the SafeAssign portal and can then view an originality report and fix any problems without penalty. They resubmit their papers for a second and final time to the SafeAssign portal. If plagiarized material is still discovered in this version, students are aware that they will be penalized. We also rely on a rigorous, open peer review of each other’s work, which creates a sense that knowledge generation is a community affair. Students are critiqued on everything from grammar to argumentation skills. SafeAssign is simply one part of a community effort, which gives a very distinct form of feedback. Use of SafeAssign in this manner acts as both a deterrent and a teaching tool.

The students’ initial reaction to the technology was mixed. They welcomed the leveling of the playing field but were wary of the professor’s motives. To allay their fears that I was “out to get them,” our class had a discussion about peer review, the generation of new knowledge, and the unique way in which we can combine and interpret information. Lastly, we discussed the originality report for a paper that I was writing. In the end, students were very comfortable with the new system.

As the semester progressed, the amount of plagiarized material in each rough draft dropped dramatically. Students were beginning to learn good note-taking practices, proper paraphrasing and, more important, they were learning how to express their voice.

Nationwide, 40 percent of professors do not report known plagiarism for fear of poor student evaluations, lawsuits, administrative reprimands, or unhappiness with the outcome when the occurrence is reported.

Vanderbilt takes a two-pronged approach to academic integrity. At the institutional level, instruction in academic integrity begins during freshman orientation. The Honor Council speaks with students about plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty, and students are required to demonstrate understanding in an online quiz. At the instructional level, the education continues with a first-year writing seminar where faculty teach research and writing strategies.

Another way to deter plagiarism is to understand why students plagiarize and then develop a prevention plan. The most common reasons given by students are that they are afraid to fail, have poor writing skills or poor time-management skills, may not understand the assignment, or may see the assignment as meaningless busywork. In addition to discussing plagiarism, we must provide clear guidelines for writing assignments and use transparent criteria for grading. It has been demonstrated time and time again that the single most important factor in preventing cheating in the classroom is the clearly stated views of the instructor.

Nationwide, 40 percent of professors do not report known plagiarism for fear of poor student evaluations, lawsuits, administrative reprimands, or unhappiness with the outcome when the occurrence is reported. For others who suspect plagiarism, the time involved in tracking down references is prohibitive and the plagiarism is not pursued. At Vanderbilt if a case of plagiarism is detected, it is to be reported to the Honor Council for further action. The Honor Council comprises students whose charge is to uphold the Honor Code. If found guilty, the student could receive the minimum penalty of an “F” in the course or the maximum penalty of expulsion. Some professors still choose to deal with plagiarism quietly and one-on-one with the student, often allowing for a rewrite, additional work, or perhaps a zero on the assignment.

Vanderbilt is struggling with the same issues that every other university wrestles with when it comes to prevention, detection and action regarding plagiarism. Like many institutions, we are using the carrot and the stick approach. The carrot is prevention in the form of intense education concerning the creation of meaningful academic work; the stick is the threat of SafeAssign and tough punitive repercussions.

What happened to the students in my non-majors chemistry course? As a class we had an hour-long, in-depth discussion about plagiarism. Students were given the opportunity to resubmit their work. I took a long, hard look at the types of assignments I was giving, paying close attention to making them more meaningful. Paper assignments now come with grading criteria upfront, and we use SafeAssign. I am happy to report that I still derive great pleasure from my students’ papers and have had not one instance of plagiarism since that time.

Michelle Miller Sulikowski is senior lecturer in chemistry and director of education of the Vanderbilt Institute for Chemical Biology.

Explore Story Topics