Tired of getting papers copied from the internet?
Towards the end of every semester I sit down at my computer and pull up a list of papers to grade. The mountain always seems overwhelming, so I knock out a few of them quickly to feel like I am making progress.
The quickest way to whittle down the list a little bit is to scan the similarity scores. My university uses software which helpfully highlights phrases similar to other writing and provides links to the sources. Papers above 30% similarity are prominently color-coded yellow or red.
It is fast and convenient to give a 0 or a 25 or a 50 based on academic integrity, but it makes me sad. When I started, it seemed like I was getting 2–4 of these per class of 25–30.
I have received plagiarized papers from new students and from experienced professionals. I had one student with an advanced degree in another discipline turn in eight of ten pages copied directly from the internet.
I began to wonder, is there a better way? Was there something I could do?
Making a plan
I teach online graduate classes; every student already has a college degree, so they should know better, but did they really? I teach the intro class in my department, so it is usually the student’s first in graduate school.
Quality of undergraduate degrees can vary widely, and some master’s students have been out of school for years or decades. For a near lifetime academic, the rules are almost reflexive, but maybe not for the student?
The policies are already everywhere. They are easily found on my institution’s website, and I dutifully incorporate them into my syllabus. But how do you get someone to read?
If I taught face to face, I could probably look my students in the eye and make sure I was communicating. Maybe even then I would still have the same problems. We can always talk but we cannot make someone else listen.
I don’t even have the talking option online. How does one reinforce a concept? How could I shout in a virtual classroom? (not that shouting would be acceptable in a face to face classroom…)
Finally it struck me: Emphasize the concept through points and grading just like we reinforce every other academic concept we want students to learn.
I decided to try giving a quiz. My classes are 500 points, and this quiz is 4 points of extra credit. About 90–100% of students complete the assignment; it get their eyes onto the policies and plants a seed.
1) Is it OK to submit the same or substantially the same paper as you have submitted to another current or previous class?
Sure! My instructor will be impressed by the way I am minimizing the effort I put into the class! Besides, my professor will never know that I re-used a paper from my undergraduate.
NO — This is a clear violation of academic integrity per the syllabus and university policy. Similarity checking software generally identifies this, especially if submitted to another university class.
2) I know that I’m not supposed to copy other people’s words. Is it OK to paraphrase by changing ever 3rd or 4th word to a synonym?
Sure! It’s not really taking their work if I uses a thesaurus to change a couple words in each sentence! Besides, my professor will never know because I don’t copy more than three of four words!
NO — Changing every fourth word to a synonym does not demonstrate original work. Plus, this is glaringly obvious…the software highlights the copied text, and the un-highlighted changed words present a classic leopard print pattern on your paper. When the instructor clicks on the conveniently provided link to the source material, it is even more blindingly obvious.
3) As long as I cite where everything comes from, I don’t really need to use quotes.
True — as long as I get close my instructor won’t care.
FALSE — Do not cut and paste, put a citation, and call it good. Do not change every third or fourth word of a passage to make it look like it is not a quotation. That’s not paraphrasing.
4) As long as I put all of my citations in quotations, I never violate the academic integrity standards.
True — Putting it in quotes is a get out of jail free card.
FALSE — If you string together an entire paper of quotations, you will likely get a very low grade. While you are not being dishonest, you are also not doing original work. You are assembling snippets of other people’s work.
Unfortunately, I did not keep stats on my before and after results, so I have only my general impressions to pass on. I did not eliminate poor grades for plagiarism, but I feel like I am only giving about half as many.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. Getting through their first class or two can make or break a master’s student. They may be spending thousands of dollars on classes, and if I can help them avoid an unforced error, so much the better.
A B student that gets no credit on their paper will likely get a C or D for the class. On the other hand, even if his or her best effort is rusty and scores badly, even a lower grade still keeps them in the hunt for that B.
If this simple exercise reminds one student to do original work, helps one student pass the class and stay in the program, then it is worth the minimal effort on my part.
After all, how do you value the aspirations, hopes, and dreams of one student?
If you liked this, look for some of my other articles on education…