Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Plagiarism, you need more than technology to counter it

Through the Kept-Up Librarian, a link to a small article from the BBC News about plagiarism and software. The article reports on the work of Professor Jean Underwood of Nottingham Trent University. The professor argues that parents and teachers have to show students what constitutes plagiarism. Technology is not the solution to every problem. True, there are some tools out there to help detect plagiarism, but there are also a ton of tools to help students plagiarize, including paper mills where papers can be be bought. Professor Underwood also points out the problem of parents who do the work for their children. This is something commonly faced by public school teachers: over-eager parents. Some do the work for their kids thinking there is nothing wrong with giving Susie a little extra help; others actually do it knowing it is wrong but not caring, which makes me wonder what kind of message does that send a child? Back when I was a student, plagiarizing in any form was seen as stealing. Period. This was non-negotiable. You got caught, and you got a failing a grade along with the shame that you got caught. I guess things are not so black and white these days when it comes to cheating and plagiarism.

This article made me think a little because recently I put together a little guide on plagiarism resources for students. While it was something on my mind, I will admit it was not on the top of my to do list. However, some events moved it to the top of my list. Basically, the faculty were requesting something to "send their students to so they could learn about plagiarism." No need to go into the details; the basic idea was to have something the teachers could put in their syllabi and thus cover the topic. An optimist would say this was wonderful, that the faculty are attempting to address the problem. The pessimist would see it as the faculty just covering themselves, as having something to link to so when anything happens, they can say, "you had the information." I fall a little towards the pessimistic side, maybe because I have seen faculty once too often simply want a magic bullet, something that will simply detect plagiarism anytime by typing something somewhere. And I am not saying this necessarily as a librarian, but as a former composition teacher (high school and college).

Confronting plagiarism, or any other form of cheating, is not a pleasant experience. Having to make sure to put together the proof before confronting a student, then the confrontation, and then letting the consequences take course are all parts any teacher would soon rather avoid. And I will tell you why. Because plagiarism and cheating are a breach of trust. As a teacher, you want to see the best in your students, and when a student pulls one of these stunts, that image is shattered. It does not matter whether they cheated out of stress, without knowing, or with all intentions to deceive. You never will see that student in the same light again even if they make up the work and start over. There is no magic bullet. It takes education at all levels--parents, teachers, and administrators--to make sure students learn what is appropriate and what is not. You can give all the information in the world, but if it is not discussed in the class, if it is not modeled, the students will not learn. This has to be a collaborative effort. The composition teachers have to address it. The librarians can help in this area by reinforcing what the teachers do and by making sure that the best information on practices is available. This can take the form of guides, workshops, online tutorials, instructional sessions, visits to the classroom, etc. This should not include for the teachers to expect the librarians to do plagiarism hunts for them. In a way, that is passing the buck in my estimation. I will not deny a small sense of bias because when I was a teacher, I was expected to gather the evidence myself. I was not expecting someone else to do it for me, and I don't think others should. However, that is my philosophy. As a teacher, you are responsible for your own students. The librarian, and also the writing center on a campus, can serve to reinforce and enhance what is taught in the classroom.

The point of the article is that technology is not the only solution. Just like educators can come up with ways to use technology to detect plagiarism, the students who want to cheat will find new ways to cheat. It's pretty much a continuing war, so the best way to counter it is through education. Give the students the tools to learn. In making a small guide in collaboration with colleagues and providing it fo faculty to put on their syllabi, I have provided a tool. The library can also educate and provide tools for faculty in order to address the issue. Librarians in positions like mine who teach can discuss these issues, provide some modeling in the classrooms, and show examples of what could be plagiarism and/or cheating. Librarians can be a substantial resource for faculty, not just in composition, but in any class that requires writing. They can be a resource for their students as well as for the faculty themselves. Our role as information experts and as educators means that we are often up-to-date on best practices and know where to find the best information and how to make sure it is good information. But it should be a collaborative effort with the welfare and learning of the students in mind. It should not be a matter of simply adding something to the curriculum in order to cover a requirement or in the hopes that the problem will somehow go away because a tutorial was made available or a guide was provided in a link as part of the syllabus. This is an active process where teachers, librarians, tutors and others come to together to educate the students. In the end, my intention was not to rant. However, I do think this is important enough that to expect for a simple technological solution is to do it a disservice. In the meantime, I will do my best to continue reaching out to students and teachers in these and other topics.

For a little further reading on this topic, Steven Bell, writing for the ACRLog, also picked up on the article and writes some observations in his post "Stopping Plagiarism Takes More than Software." Much of what he said goes along with my feelings on the topic, but in a way, I think he was much more diplomatic than I could be. A couple of points he makes are worth highlighting:
  • "Developing more creative assignments that avoid repetition, that require the use of local or locally unique resources, that call for a series of drafts, and that have higher expectations for research methods and content can all make plagiarism more difficult. But, these methods require more front-end development and greater effort from faculty. It’s certainly easier to require the same term paper assignment year in and year out, and then let a piece of software catch those who weren’t clever enough to mask their plagiarism."
    • I am going to take a risk here and say I tend to have a low opinion of teachers who simply allow themselves to give the same paper assignment every year. Yes, I know it is easy to assign the same essay every year, but you open yourself to things like plagiarism if you do. Teaching is not about complacency.
  • "Academic librarians have certainly been doing their part to combat plagiarism on their campuses. Through workshops, creative digital learning materials, and efforts to promote sensible research, we are on the frontlines of helping faculty to help our students to avoid plagiarism. But if the researcher has correctly determined that plagiarism, like many problem behaviors, must be confronted early on by parents and teachers, then we may need to realize combatting plagiarism will be an ongoing challenge."
    • I think this says it well. Librarians can and do their part, but it comes down to the teachers to do their part as well instead of expecting technology, which really savvy students can likely thwart, to do the work.
I will say I had a bit of difficulty deciding on whether to post this or not. I probably sounded a bit harsh, and I am not apologizing for that. I think some things need to be said. What I am hoping is that more people in academia will pick up on the article and carry on the conversation. I am hoping librarians will continue to be on the frontlines as Steven Bell suggests, and I am hoping that teachers will do their part as well. And I am hoping we can all work together in educating the young people who will some day be the leaders of tomorrow.


Mark said...

Not harsh at all Angel; well said. Maybe not 'diplomatic,' but that is much of the problem in today's world.

This is an ethical issue! People need to understand that. Technology can certainly cause ethical issues, but it is a very rare case where technology can solve an ethical issue.

I would go out on a limb (in some people's minds anyway) and say that technology is incapable of solving ethical issues, but I'll refrain as there may be a case or two. My starting salvo, if I were to go there, would be that at best it can remove our right to commit an ethical violation. That is not a solution though, only the removal of the individual human right to make an ethical choice.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Mark: Hmm, now I find that intriguing. The idea of removing someone's right to commit an ethical violation. I suppose I find it intriguing because it may seem a tempting idea, except we come to the point where I would ask who am I to decide that someone should not be able to choose violating ethics. As much as I may not like it, we do have to let people foul up. The nice thing with that would be if they actually took their consequences instead of trying to avoid them. In the case of plagiarism, for a student, take your failing grade and the shame you got caught, not try to get some lawyer and sue the school or try to get daddy to bail you out.

You do make a good point--it is an ethical issue. And it makes me wonder in the case of some teachers, if they even see it in those terms, or if they only see it as a mild annoyance or inconvenience. As far as I am concerned, it is as bad as stealing.

As for being diplomatic, I have always said no one will ever put me in charge of anything. You have to kiss too many behinds and soothe too many people when I would prefer to bite their behinds off and kick them out of their complacency. But, one should never say never. Thanks for stopping by. Keep on blogging.