Friday, February 8, 2008

Plagiarism Sucks -- Even for Lusty Meerkats

On one of my first rides after moving to Boulder, while stopped at some roadwork with other cyclists waiting for the flag-dude to wave us through, I struck up a conversation with a professional triathlete from Australia. She asked me what had brought me to Boulder, and I said I was freelance writing. Another cyclist had ridden up behind us, heard me say this, and volunteered that I may want to join Boulder Media Women. He gave me his card so I could get contact info for the group from him, and I joined.

It's a great group of women -- over 300! -- who all work in some form of media. Many are freelancer writers, and I've learned so much from being on the listserv, attending Friday coffee hours, Tuesday "Schmoozes" (happy hour!), and monthly potlucks.

Yesterday on the BMW listserv, someone posted a link to a Newsweek article about plagiarism. As a prof, I dealt with plagiarism quite a few times -- most often it involved students "lifting" passages right out of our textbook, but one student even lifted quotes directly out of a hand-out that I WROTE!!! -- and it was quite unnerving. I tried to be empathetic, realizing that many of our students hadn't ever written papers where they needed to use sources. Knowing this, I talked to them about plagiarism prior to their papers being due, and even gave them readings about how and when to cite properly. It still happened though, on a fairly regular basis. I'm sure that some of the students I caught remember me as "that evil professor-wench who filed a 'Plagiarism Report' on me," and sometimes I do look over my shoulder more often than normal when walking down dimly lit streets. But when I've explained to you exactly what plagiarism is, well, there's just no excuse for using someone else's exact words and failing to use quotation marks and a citation.

And as most of you probably realize, plagiarism doesn't just happen on school campuses -- it happens in real life, with much more serious consequences even when the context is hilarious. This Newsweek article was written by an author whose work was plagiarized. He wrote about meerkats...and a romance novelist used some of his work, word for word, without quoting or citing. Yes, information about meerkats in a crotch novel. Very, very bizarre and quite funny. I not only wonder about the plagiarizing author's competence, but about her editor' could you read this, and not be suspicious that she'd cut and pasted the information? Perhaps after 11 years of college teaching, I just have a heightened paranoia about cheating, but I'll let you be the judge...


Filmore said...

I know what you mean about students plagiarizing despite the warnings. However, my experience is that warning them does decrease the occurrence of plagiarism. It also allows you to be less empathetic. Showing them examples of what is and what is not plagiarism before they do the work is also effective in my experience.

A few of the obvious cases I dealt with were very easy to spot, because the only coherent part of the text was that which was plagiarized! Put that text into Google surrounded by quotes, and voilĂ !

I also earned a reputation of being "insane" about plagiarism, because I have sent a lot of cases to the committees. But I don't fear retribution in dark alleys and have never been threatened. I accredit that to the fact that my school has a "discipline committee" that is unleashed like a mob once a case is suspected by an instructor. The committee reduces the focus on the instructors as the antagonists - they're merely witnesses of a crime and they present the evidence.

I have taught at two universities, and found that committees are much more effective than the policy where the instructor has to be the judge, jury and executioner, so to speak. Committees have wisdom and knowledge of lots of cases, whereas individual instructors are virtually clueless the first time they deal with a plagiarism case. They are likely to make mistakes in judgment, or miss subtle policy rules such as time delays, etc.

When instructors have to assume all those responsibilities, they're likely to look the other way with respect to plagiarism, because it's too much work to get up to speed on the administrivia. With a discipline committee, however, instructors just file a report with the evidence, and the wheels are set in motion.

Kathie Reid said...

Filmore ~
Thank you so much for sharing your insight. It really is validating to hear of others' experiences with it. I do want to be sure, though, that you realize I was completely kidding about looking over my shoulder in dark alleys...none of my accused students ever threatened me, and many of them accepted their punishment with great humility and grace. I'm sure there are a few who really do dislike me and think I'm the bad guy, but I believe they are in the minority.
The University I worked at also had a committee to deal with cheating and plagiarism cases, but cases only went to them after the instructor and chair tried to deal with it -- if the student was unhappy with their initial decisions about punishment, the student could send it to committee. I found this to work quite well -- none of my cases ever went to committee.

velogirl said...

one of my articles appeared recently verbatim in a newsletter from -- attributed to another coach. then I found it on that other coach's website as well. you can't imagine the hoops I had to jump through to get credit for it. and they made me feel like I'd done something wrong. ARGH!