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 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.

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, did not initially ask questions about who owned the original picture.

Here are two suggestions for helping students understand and avoid plagiarism:

  • 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.
  • Use a higher-level approach. Professional writers (except for Goodwin!) don’t worry much about plagiarism, for an interesting reason: They’re trying to include as many sources as possible into their work. Teach students to ask who should be included 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 Ernest Jones. And so on.

Bottom line: Don’t just turn students loose and expect them to think and write like professionals. And – if you’re a student – get help. Expect to spend a lot of time in the library. Talk to librarians. Ask your instructor to check your outline (and an early draft, if possible). Take responsibility for turning in a well-researched and well-documented 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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