Monday, October 11, 2010

Defining Plagiarism

Over the summer our colleague Christopher Bigelow shared a link to an interesting article in the New York Times about plagiarism. If you haven't already, you should check it out. It's about how the Internet is causing students to become confused about exactly what plagiarism is (or at least complicating it).

Tonight I'll be teaching my lesson about how to cite sources in MLA. For the first part of that lesson, I spend some time talking about plagiarism since that's what we're trying to avoid when we cite our sources. I was inspired by this New York Times article to create the following activity for my students. I'm going to put them into groups of 3-4 and hand out the following exercise for them to do together:


What is Plagiarism?

Suppose you wanted to define the concept of "plagiarism." Working in groups or with a partner, try to reach a consensus about whether each of the following cases is an example of plagiarism or not:

1. A student buys a paper online and turns it in as his own work.

2. A student buys a paper online and changes most of the wording so that it is in her own words, then turns it in as her own work.

3. A student is writing a paper about Columbus’s voyage to America. He writes "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492." He does not cite what source he got that fact from.

4. A student is writing a paper about the Great Depression. She used information from Wikipedia in her paper. Because Wikipedia is created by unnamed authors and written by a collective group, the student did not provide a citation for the website in her paper because she thought it counted as common knowledge.

5. A student is writing a paper about homelessness. While researching the topic, he found a website that featured a really good FAQ page about homelessness. He copied and pasted information from this page directly into his paper. The website was anonymous (meaning it did not indicate who wrote the information), so the student did not provide a citation for the website in his paper because he thought it was unnecessary for something anonymous.

6. A student is asked to write her own analysis of a painting for a class. The student consults an analysis about the painting in a textbook written by a Humanities professor. The student uses the essay to spur her own thinking about the topic. She writes the analysis in her own words, using some of the ideas written in the article about the painting.

7. A student is asked to write a research paper for his History class. He realizes that the assignment is very similar to an assignment he did in his English 1010 class and he decides to turn in the old paper he wrote for 1010 for his History assignment.

8. A student is asked to write a research paper for his History class. He realizes that the assignment is very similar to an assignment he did in his English 1010 class. He does some additional research about the topic and makes some revisions to the paper before he turns it in for his History assignment.

9. A student is writing a research paper. Nearly 85% of her paper consists of quotes from other sources about her topic. All of the quotes are cited correctly, meaning that the student clearly identified where each quote came from.

Based on your decisions, create a working definition of "plagiarism." Specify what general criteria you would use in order to determine if something is plagiarized or not.


I'll then have the class share their definitions as a class. We'll use that as a jumping off point to discuss some of the ideas presented in the article and what really counts as plagiarism or not. We can also discuss unconscious vs. conscious plagiarism, since the English Department's policy makes a distinction between those two types of plagiarism.

I figure that this exercise could be helpful because, while some of these examples are clear cut, most of the examples are not. They'll have to debate and engage with each other to figure them out. It can also help them really begin to think about what plagiarism means on a more personal level using real-world examples.(By the way, almost all of these examples are real examples that I've encountered in my own experience---and two of them come directly from the New York Times article.)

Side note: Michael Wesch's lecture An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube (given to the Library of Congress) is good supplemental viewing for the New York Times article because it talks about the complications of authorship on the Internet. (And, dang, it's just a really great lecture for its own sake.)

Edited 10-12-10 to add: I wanted to follow-up on how this lesson plan went in my class. I liked it a lot better than what I had done previously (which was just to define plagiarism in a lecture for them). This was much more engaging---in fact, one of my classes ended up having a very robust discussion that lasted 10-15 minutes about this topic. I found that it was helpful to ask them which scenarios they weren't sure about after they gave their definitions and we wrote them all on the board. One thing that surprised me about this activity was that I realized that there is a gap between what the students considered to be plagiarism and what I (or at least other professors) considered to be plagiarism.

For example, most students do not consider #7 to be plagiarism (incidentally, neither do I; I just think it's a little unethical), but I've heard professors at UVU saying that it is plagiarism to re-use an old paper and I thought it was important to let the students know about it. (I encouraged them to talk to their professor before they re-submitted an old paper or to revise it in some way.) Some of the students debated about whether #9 was plagiarism, but I've had a discussion with Psychology professors who feel that it is plagiarism if most of the ideas in your paper are not your own---even if they are cited. Some students thought that #4 or #6 were not plagiarism (and I do think it's plagiarism, even though I think #6 is probably unintentional plagiarism)---but that might have something to do with the way I worded the questions. Anyhow, it was really illuminating. I think it went relatively well.

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