The Plague of Plagiarism

Something that has been bothering me a lot lately are the constant wails I hear from some teachers about plagiarism. Obviously, plagiarism is a bad thing and we need to help kids learn that it’s not appropriate, but I keep seeing incidences of plagiarism lately that I find very hard to blame the kids for. One has to wonder that if kids are blatantly copying and pasting large chunks of stuff into their assignments then perhaps we need to think about how we can be smarter as teachers by asking better questions in the first place, and create tasks that are simply not so plagiarisable to start with.

Just to clarify, when I talk about plagiarism I’m referring to the idea of kids copying slabs of information out of textbooks without thought, or of kids copying work directly from their classmates, or of kids using wording and information from books without citing their sources. The issue of citation is a slightly different issue and I’m not so concerned with that one… that’s usually just a matter of educating the kids to acknowledge their sources. It’s the other types of plagiarism that bother me, because I think that we teachers are largely responsible for them.

I once worked for a company that wrote training notes for Microsoft Office applications. We had a set of instructional notes that we developed for Word, and for whatever reason we decided to sell those notes to another training company. Of course, having sold them the rights to our notes we could no longer use them ourselves so we had to rewrite a new set for our own use. Which we did. We took all the screenshots again, and we rewrote the instructions again. But guess what? They were essentially the same training notes. We took out the old screen shots and we replaced them with nearly identical ones. We rewrote the instructions. And the end result was very similar to the ones we sold. Now, some would say that we plagiarised our own notes. We simply reproduced what already existed into a product that looked essentially the same. But when you are dealing with basic, low-level, instructional information, how many different ways can you say it? If the first step in the instructions is to “Click the File Menu and select New…”, then there are only so many ways you can say that. Does that make it plagiarism?

Using the same logic, think about some of the tasks we set for kids. Anytime you set a “research task” where you ask a student to “find out about…” or “research about…” some topic, think about how that “research” might be done in a way that takes the kids beyond just finding out about the information and extend them into ways that they can use and manipulate and be creative with that information. That’s how you avoid plagiarism.

I once overheard a colleague loudly lamenting the fact that a student had plagiarised an assignment. She was quite indignant that a student would simply regurgitate information from a website and transfer that information directly into their assignment. Sure, a few sentences had been changed here and there, but for the most part the student had taken large slabs of text and re-presented that text in her assignment. Other colleagues joined in the witch hunt, Googling sentences out of the text and finding the original online sources. There was much talk about how this student should be punished, and whether they should be given a mark of zero.

The thing is, when I asked to have a look at the question which was set for this task, it turns out the student was essentially asked to “Research one of the following major world religions.” She chose Buddhism. She did the obvious thing, she went to Google, typed in the word Buddhism, and found some information. She then retold that information in the assignment. She used a couple of different websites and chopped a few bits out of one and a few bits out of another, changed a few sentences here and there to glue the bits together in some sort of logical fashion, and there was the assignment. Although you might cry plagiarism, based on the question set for the task the teacher certainly had no real right to accuse the student of not doing what was asked, and on that basis a mark of zero seemed a bit rough to me. Now, while this was a probably a pretty lame attempt at research on the student’s part, I thought it was an even lamer attempt at a question on the teacher’s part. Research Buddhism. How many ways can you answer that? If the goal of the assignment was just to get the student to read about Buddhism (or whatever the topic might have been) and report on it, then mission accomplished. They got exactly what they asked for. Trouble is, they really didn’t ask for much.

Of course, we all know what the teacher really wanted. They wanted the student to really learn about the topic, to engage with it and internalise it and expand their understanding of it. They wanted the student to come away with a deeper understanding of what Buddhism was all about.

But that’s not what they asked.

They asked a simple, mono-dimensional question, and of course they got a simple mono-dimensional answer. An answer where plagiarism was not only to be expected, but was probably the only real way to answer the question.   Without reading about Buddhism in a book and then paraphrasing what they read, what was the teacher expecting?  The best way to “research Buddhism” is to actually become a Buddhist and talk about what it was like, but that’s not likely to happen.  So essentially, this becomes an exercise not in learning about Buddhism, but about seeing who can paraphrase the best.  And what about the kids who “didn’t plagiarise”? What did they do? Did they learn about and internalise and engage with the topic in a deeper way? Or were they just better at rewording what they read? Did they actually learn something, or were they simply better at covering their online tracks?

I say if we want our kids to think more, then we have to get far better at asking good questions. What sort of response would we have gotten to this assignment if, instead of saying “Research one of the following world religions” we had said “If you were to change your current religion, which of the following world religions would you prefer to convert to, and why?” Same basic question. Totally different experience to develop an answer for it. And much less likely to be simply copied from a website.

One person who has done a lot of great work in this area is Jamie Mackenzie. His website over at www.questioning.org has tons of great ideas for developing better questions. Read his stuff to help develop deeper, more relevant questions that not only engage kids in a much more rewarding way, but will help you develop questions that make plagiarism harder to do, and basically negate the need for it in the first place.

The bottom line is that we have to stop blaming our kids when they copy and paste stuff into their assignments. Sure, every school should have a plagiarism policy, and every student should be made aware of the inappropriateness of copying other people’s work. But the buck needs to stop with the questions being asked in the first place. If you ask dumb questions, you’ll get dumb answers. It’s not about having cleverer tools to try and catch out kids who plagiarise. It’s not about coming up with punitive measures for dealing with plagiarism once it happens. We just need to get much, much better at building real thinking exercises for our kids, based on questions that are deeper, richer and more relevant in the first place.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 The Plague of Plagiarism by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

4 Replies to “The Plague of Plagiarism”

  1. Great post Chris. I think that we as teachers quite often neglect to look at our own questioning/task setting when students do not provide us with what we are expecting. The term mono-dimensional questioning is an excellent way of describing something that I have been guilty of in the classroom. Thanks for the link to Jamie Mackenzie – to enable us to do something positive about our own questioning which in turn must be of positive benefit to our students as well!

  2. This is something I can relate to.

    When you’re in an advanced class it’s often hard (being a kid still) to find words to capture your understanding of a more abstract topic. Turning to the internet as a resource I find is very helpful as it puts what you’re thinking into intelligent sentences. Nobody wants to sound like an idiot in an assignment, right?

    I found myself in this situation in an advanced science class where we were studying things like advanced isotopic graphs and geochemical readings, and the only way I could really explain what I understood was to put it in plain ‘kid speak’, which I often did to help out struggling friends.

    When assignment time came, as I dreaded, the task was to write a ‘half decent’ (meaning about 4 or 5 pages worth) of research and justification into what we learned. Of course subliminally in that question the teacher was actually also asking to put it in scientific language, in adult ways of describing what we learnt. In reality, that whole past term my teacher didn’t find a problem with my teenage explanations, so how come this time was different?

    Nevertheless, I turned to the internet for some help on the topic. Of course, I already understood the concepts mentioned in the assignment, I just needed a way to get it out properly. Unfortunately for me the topic I learnt wasn’t widely broadcast on the internet, so I had to look hard. When I did find something, it explained exactly what I was thinking, and reading it thoroughly, it was precisely what I was after.
    Now I had to get what this article into my assignment somehow without looking like an idiot, so I tried my best to reword what the author said into my own words. The reality though was that you couldn’t put those words into any other way. It was advanced language, and if I translated it into teen speak, I’d get marked down for bad use of terminology, What could I do?

    So I went on and tried to translate as much as I could, but really this source was so good, that if I reworded any part of it, it wouldn’t be correct information anymore. Aware of how heavily I used this source, I referenced this source in my appendix, among others that helped me decipher some of the more difficult language.
    I did okay, right?

    wrong.

    Three weeks later, I get a zero for plagurism. Yet, had my teacher not spotted a sentence and googled it, much like you mentioned, she would have given me full marks. Go figure.
    I do not encourage plagurism out of sheer laziness (and it happens a lot), but to penalise a student (with an otherwise clean record) for trying to lift the standard of their language by consulting a professional article, when there really is no other way to word something, is (in my opinion) questionable.

    But students must follow the rules in our dictatorship-style education system, or we pay the price. No matter how readily information is available now, it looks like we’re penalised for using it.

    My apologies for making a novel out of this.

  3. Thanks Sam. It’s great to hear a bit of perspective from the student (or now ex-student) side of things. You’re absolutely right about the idea that if your teacher had not “spotted it”, you would have gotten away with it… not only gotten away with it, but probably lauded as having done some really good work.
    What I’m more interested in is the question or task that you were asked to do. I’m taking a shot in the dark here, but I’m guessing it was a “skinny task” that was all about regurgitating facts rather than a “fat task” that got you thinking about applying what you learned.
    Anyway, thanks for your comment… I like it.

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