by Nicholas Hayes
As we walked home in the rain, my partner who is an art teacher told me about a student who had submitted an image which had been downloaded from the internet as an original work. It was an uncomfortable situation because the student had enough foresight to crop out the original artist’s signature. When asked confronted with the original image, the student responded with explanation that they were told they could submit photographs. If taken at face value, that vexing reply hits at the cross purposes instructors and students face when discussing unoriginal material. I want to clutch my metaphorical pearls and scream, “Stop, plagiarist, stop.” A fitting response for a crime etymologically linked to kidnapping (“Plagiary”). But such outrage is disingenuous since plagiarism is often linked to student misunderstanding or poor assignment design.
Before we start ringing the tocsin of righteousness, we have to have a clear understanding of what plagiarism is. For example, we might think of Turnitin as a plagiarism detection tool. But this is a concept the company seems to avoid in favor of the concept of unoriginality. In part this is due to a current understanding that plagiarism must be deliberate. Sloppiness or lack of ability to use citations should not be judged with the same severity as intentional dishonesty (“Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism”). Ultimately, a machine can compare similarities in language, but it cannot determine out intent. Even instructors as sensitive, informed readers can struggle to do this. Unoriginality emerges from either a position of ignorance or from an inability to manage time. We at SNL whose students are so often returning after years of not being in the academic sphere are typically sensitive to those concerns on a psychological level. We must also be sensitive to these on a work product level. Students may have problems remembering how to cite or how being able to balance so many new tasks.
To help re-conceptualize the issue of unoriginality, Turnitin identifies ten main patterns. Two of the most prevalent and pernicious are called Clone and CTRL -C. The Clone pattern is what we might think of as traditional plagiarism in which a student submits another person’s work as their own (“Plagiarism Spectrum”). This is a pattern that could be considered Academic Dishonesty. Students may intentionally plagiarize for many reasons: fear of failure, fear of risks, inability to manage time, assumption of the lack of importance of academic expectations (“Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism”). Finding this type of pattern is distressing. But if found in an early draft, it provides an opportunity for a deeper conversation. CTRL-C is the key command (shortcut) on most computers for copying a section of text. This pattern of unoriginality is when a large amount of unaltered text from a single source has been inserted into a student’s paper (“Plagiarism Spectrum”). Although this can be frustrating, it often indicates a lack of understanding of how to synthesize, summarize and cite.
Finding these errors, sometimes prompts even the most even-keeled of us to suspect malfeasance somewhere. Blaming the students is the easiest strategy. We can frame them as untrustworthy or lazy in their academic practice. Once we begin to understand that student unoriginality often the results from a lack of understanding or knowledge, we can turn our ire to the student’s last writing instructor. Yet learning is an iterative process, and academic rigor is something that must be reinforced across the curriculum for students to succeed.
When students submit unoriginal writing, it is not a situation without fault. Sometimes the other actors are partially culpable, and sometimes we have to look at our own classroom policies. Classes that stress performance factors like grades over mastery of the subject and have rigid deadlines can create environments in which unoriginal writing may seem like a pragmatic solution (Stephens and Chu). Even that old, familiar assignment that we have kept in the class for decades might contribute to the problem. Assignments that do not require unique approaches and specialized course knowledge may create a situation where students may feel justified in responding with unoriginal content (“Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism”).
Understanding why students might submit unoriginal writing does not prevent it from happening. But it does suggest a variety of solutions to address it. The first is to provide students with a variety of tools to prevent from straying into error. Consider requiring students to submit assignments to the D2L drop box, and turning on Turnitin so they can see the Originality report (for more information check out this link). You may also consider including a list of writing resources on your assignment guidelines. SNL Writing suggests using this template. You may want to refresh yourself on DePaul’s Academic IntegrityPolicy, learn more about the current thinking about unoriginal writing (for more information check out this link), and re-design your assignments to require original thinking. Enrolling in SNL Writing’s Teaching with Writing can help you rethink your assignments since it presents many creative solutions that require unique responses from students. Most importantly, you and your students have many support structures in place to help prevent unoriginal writing.
“Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices.” Council of Writing Program Administrators, Jan. 2003, http://wpacouncil.org/positions/WPAplagiarism.pdf
“Plagiary, adj. and n.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/144942?. Accessed 30 Jan 2017.
“The Plagiarism Spectrum.” Turnitin. Turnitin, http://turnitin.com/assets/en_us/media/plagiarism_spectrum.php. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.
Stephens, Jason and Jason Chu. “Why Students Plagiarize.” Turnitin, 10 June 2014, http://go.turnitin.com/l/45292/2014-06-10/2xm1. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.