Thursday, March 10, 2011

Preventing Plagiarism, Part I: High Cost

Like all professions, teaching has its high and low points. One of the most stressful scenarios a teacher can face is a plagiarism case--it's a breach of trust between teacher and student, it frequently indicates that, in spite of the teacher's best efforts, the student just isn't interested in the course content, and it says that the student is willing to cut corners, which doesn't bode well for establishing a good work ethic. Most teachers (myself included) have a visceral reaction to plagiarism cases--they make us physically ill. When the case I was involved in last spring drug itself out unnecessarily (the student's fault), I had to resort to taking acid reducers.

So naturally, I was excited at the prospect of attending a faculty workshop "double feature" on preventing plagiarism a couple of weeks ago. The first workshop was intended for TAs and TFs and focused on making sure we all understood the extent of the problem and how the university expects faculty to handle cases that arise. Nothing new there, but the presenter did conclude with a few suggestions for making it more difficult for students to plagiarize. Among other things, she recommended requiring students to hand in photocopies of their research materials with the relevant portions highlighted (completely impractical in many situations--can you imagine having to do that for a senior project, thesis, or dissertation?), having students give a 3-minute oral summary of their papers in class on the due date (a good idea but still not foolproof) and designing assignments that are course-specific and unique (which we should all be doing anyway).

The second workshop was presented by a member of the faculty of the School of Theology and Religious Studies, and was open to anyone affiliated with the school. The presenter first related his own negative experience with plagiarism (he calls his first semester of teaching his "semester of plagiarism" because he had several cases) before sharing his solutions to the problem with us. The workshop was thought-provoking and practical.

The presenter said that he'd done a lot of reading on the craft of teaching after his first difficult year, and that what he'd read led him to change his entire approach to teaching. His goal in doing so had nothing at all to do with preventing plagiarism--he was simply looking for better ways to help students engage with course content in and out of class--but that's what ended up happening. In fact, in the three years since he adopted his new teaching methods, he has not had a single case of plagiarism. He concluded, therefore, that the key to preventing plagiarism is becoming a better teacher.

According to the presenter, preventing plagiarism comes down to three equally important factors: high supervision, high motivation, and high cost. I'll deal with the last factor in this post; the other two will have to wait. [N.B. The ideas that follow are not my own, but I didn't want to give the presenter's name away in a blog. If you would like to cite anything that you read, please ask me. I realize that this approach is, ironically, flirting with plagiarism itself.]

"High cost" means that the sanction imposed upon students who cheat is sufficiently disruptive to academic progress to deter them from cheating in the first place. At CUA, the "presumed sanction" for plagiarism at the undergraduate level is failure for the course. Not for the assignment, as at some schools, but for the entire course. This is a high cost because the university requires to students to maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher, and receiving 0 points on a 3-credit hour course significantly lowers the student's GPA. Additionally, CUA's academic honesty policy specifically states that the student can not withdraw from the course once a charge of plagiarism has been filed. There is simply no way to avoid the hit to the GPA.

It's also worth pointing out that CUA's policy does not include an "intentionality clause." Some schools define plagiarism as "the intentional attempt to pass off someone else's material as one's own." Instructors at these schools must not only prove that the student has copied and/or improperly cited someone else's work, but also that s/he did so knowingly and with intent to deceive. Proving intent is difficult, and in order to ensure that no students get out of the charges by claiming ignorance, CUA's academic senate deliberately left "intention" out of the language of the policy. Plagiarism is serious business, and the wording of the policy is designed, at some level, to strike fear into those who would break it.

The cost of plagiarizing at CUA is high, but cost alone is not enough. We all know that the threat of fines or jail time doesn't deter all would-be criminals from breaking the law. Would-be plagiarists are no different, and the temptation and and opportunity to plagiarize are even greater in today's digital age. To prevent plagiarism, students also need high supervision. We'll explore that angle next time.

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