Approaches to Plagiarism

When I began teaching, I assumed that I would probably see a case of plagiarism once in a few years. I mean, how often could this happen? This presumption was based on my own undergraduate experiences. The thought of plagiarizing was almost unfathomable, and not simply because I believed my professors when they said they WOULD spot it. I must admit that it was thrilling to call upon scholars in my essays, to link my developing ideas to their established ones. I wanted to share their ethos as experts. Later, as an undergraduate student sharing space with graduate students and faculty at conferences, I became acutely aware that my credibility as a researcher and the ‘soundness’ of my argument depended in part (small or otherwise) on the sources I could call upon. Plagiarizing was counterintuitive in this context.

Hence, as a new Teaching Assistant, I had three thoughts vis à vis plagiarism:

1) I assumed that my students would not risk plagiarizing

2) I had zero faith in my own ability to spot plagiarism

3) I was briefly comforted that UF’s E-learning system had an option to automatically screen essays through Turnitin.com

This last option was the first to make an exit. Within a few weeks of class, I began to question my use of authority in running these essays through Turnitin. My students did not have a real option to opt-out of this system, unless they dropped my class. I had particular qualms about Turnitin adding these student essays to its database, and its “playing both sides of the fence” (Harrington). I also recalled the one instance in my undergraduate career when a professor had required us to use Turnitin. The classroom is a space of mutual trust between instructor and student, and in my mind, this requirement indicated that the professor did not trust me.

Having abandoned the Turnitin option, and given assumption 2, I was left hoping that my students would not plagiarize. I was surprised when it turned out that I was also wrong about assumptions 1 and 2. Over the course of last year, I realized that the most common kind of plagiarism in my classes occurred when students forgot to provide in-text citations for images. I believe that this was a mistake, rather than a deliberate attempt to plagiarize. Perhaps they have been so attuned to watch for textual plagiarism in other classes that the images swept under the radar. This kind of plagiarism also had a very low rate of recurrence because the students were more vigilant in the next assignment. When I spoke about plagiarism in other classes, I also began to emphasize non-textual forms of plagiarism. This turn in conversation helped to open new avenues for discussion: students began to ask how to cite images (or asked me to repeat prior discussions on this matter!), how to attribute screenshots demonstrating how a program works, and whether scientific formulas were common knowledge.

Perhaps what surprised me the most was that in cases of textual plagiarism, I was, in fact, able to spot plagiarism even when I was not reading for it. The disconnected writing styles in a plagiarized paper were too glaring to go unnoticed in a careful reading. Not only did diction, tone, and organization vary within the essay, but also they were at odds with the overall writing style of that student in other writing assignments. My Professional Communication students turn in 7 assignments during the term and I have ample opportunity to observe their unique writing style. It seems that my professors were not simply scaring us all those years after all!

Despite abandoning Turnitin, I decided not to assume that each paper had been plagiarized and my job was to find proof of potential plagiarism. This seemed like a violation of trust too. I also stopped fretting about how many cases might go undetected. The debate over gut instinct vs. automated checking rages on, but as Turnitin’s sister site, demonstrates, the latter is not fool proof either. Of course, this did not mean that I took a lacksaidal approach to plagiarism. I discussed it with my classes, repeated key points before assignments were due, crafted tailored assignments, and took the incidents that I detected seriously. When my gut instinct detected something amiss, I followed up by checking statements and ideas that were out of place. As an instructor, it is far more satisfying to approach each paper as original work produced after some effort by each student. This attitude of trust lets me enjoy the work my students produce and see us as engaged in a collaborative learning process.