The Plagiarism Problem

Plagiarism in research papers (copying word-for-word without giving credit to the author) is a huge problem in high school and college research papers. Every semester, teachers and professors wear themselves out warning students a) not to copy word-for-word from sources and b) if they do copy, tell where the information came from.

And still the problem persists.

I’ve long thought that there are three reasons why plagiarism is such a stubborn problem:

1.  Poorly designed assignments.
If a teacher assigns a purely factual paper that requires no critical thinking, chances are students are going to copy word-for-word from Wikipedia or some other source. Assignments should ask students to synthesize, critique, compare, or contrast information. To put it another way: Think about the high end of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

2.  Lack of instruction and monitoring.

Many students simply don’t know how to write a research paper. As the deadline draws near, these panic-stricken students take the easy road and buy or borrow a research paper.

Teachers can minimize the problem by giving detailed instructions about what they’re looking for and by checking students’ progress – asking for outlines and drafts well before the due date. (Click here for PowerPoints and videos that explain how to write a research paper, step-by-step.)

3.  Changing ideas about ownership of intellectual and creative property.

Many students today do not fully understand copyright and intellectual ownership. Accustomed to sharing music and other online resources, they do not have experience with traditional scholarly attributions.

The famous Barack Obama Hope campaign poster is a case in point. Artist Shepard Fairey assumed he had the right to alter an Associated Press picture of Obama without the photographer’s permission. The case ended up in court. If you think this was a clear-cut case of plagiarism, think again: Even the Smithsonian, which purchased Fairey’s poster for its collections, didn’t ask Fairey about his source.

An example of plagiarism?

             Was this plagiarism?

What can instructors do about plagiarism? Prevention is the best cure! Here are three suggestions:

  • Tell some stories about controversies about intellectual property. Shepard Fairey’s poster is a good starting point. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s research woes offer another doorway into discussion. (Accusations of plagiarism in her published books prompted her to resign from the Pulitzer Prize selection panel.)
  • Use a higher-level approach. Most professional writers (unlike Goodwin!) don’t worry much about plagiarism, for an interesting reason: They’re trying to include as many sources as possible into their work.
    Students should be encouraged to ask which authorities should be mentioned in a paper they’re researching. For example, a paper about Abraham Lincoln should include at least a nod to Carl Sandburg. A paper about Sigmund Freud had better mention Carl Jung, and a paper about Shakespeare’s Hamlet should include a reference to Ernest Jones.
    How can students find out which sources to use? One good strategy is to ask a librarian. Another useful step is to check a research encyclopedia – the Americana for US topics, and the Britannica for worldwide topics. Both encyclopedias include a recommended reading list with many of their entries. (Wikipedia doesn’t provide reading lists.)
  • Make sure students know how to write a research paper, and be available for help. If your institution has a learning lab or a writing center, provide materials for the tutors to use – handouts and a sample research paper, for example. Get to know the tutors, and help them understand what you’ll be looking for when you read the research papers that will be coming in. 

Bottom line: Instructors shouldn’t just turn students loose in a library and expect them to think and write like professionals. And students shouldn’t assume that an all-nighter and pot of coffee will earn them an “A” on a research paper.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an excellent article about the problem: Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism by Rob Jenkins.

You may also find this article from Inside Higher Ed useful: What Students Don’t Know (August 24, 2011).

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