Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Adventures in Plagiarism

In over 10 years of teaching college writing classes (my other gig besides reporting on obscure euphemisms in Evasive Maneuvers) I've seen boatloads of comma splices, goofy fonts, and misspellings of not only my name but the student's own. Plus plagiarism. Oh, the plagiarism I've seen! If plagiarism were flowers, I'd have earned a second Ph.D. in botany by now. Here are a few examples harvested from my ever-blooming garden of academic dishonesty. Warning: you may need to hold your nose.

Why I hate "plagiarism" software

Over the years, I've had at least three students say something like this: "I've heard that 15% plagiarism is acceptable."

Amazing, right? Nah, not really. Unlike so much preposterous poppycock, I know exactly where this mountain of malarkey came from: the culprit is text-matching programs like Turnitin.com that are erroneously labeled plagiarism-checkers. Since these programs merely match text in their database—whether cited correctly or not—they don't detect plagiarism. An actual human being needs to look at the matching text and see what's cited and what's swiped. As I tell my students, the only reliable plagiarism-checkers are your eyeballs.

Unfortunately, these programs sell themselves as plagiarism-obliterating techno-messiahs, and some professors and schools buy this bill of goods, which they then resell to students. No wonder students end up bamboozled about what plagiarism actually is.

Isn't that the opposite of education?

Quote unquote

One type of plagiarism I've seen again and again and again is a direct quote that cites the source but has no quotation marks. Clearly, the student isn't trying to pull a fast one or there'd be no citation, but by making the direct quote appear to be a paraphrase, plagiarism has occurred. This is when I start quizzing the student to find out what happened.

Sometimes, it's sloppiness. Other times, I'm flabbergasted to learn the student—in some cases, a graduate student—did not know that quotation marks were needed. This never fails to blow my mind. The closest to an explanation I've heard is one student who thought quotation marks were only needed for quoting speech.

Is there anyone out there teaching that? I was under the impression that students start learning about quotation marks in middle school or earlier, so how can their main function slip through the cracks so easily and often? I don't get it, but I do believe quotation marks might be our most endangered punctuation marks.

Michael Jordan: Worst rookie ever?

This example isn't precisely plagiarism, but it fits within the academic integrity department, specifically the sub-department "lack thereof." In an introduction to an essay, a student made a comparison involving Michael Jordan, casually mentioning how Jordan was not a very good player in his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls. In fact, he was almost cut from the team.

I was pretty sure Jordan—who is almost universally recognized as the best player of all-time—didn't stink as a rookie, so I looked up his stats. Turns out, in Jordan's rookie season of 1984-5, he shot over 50% from the field and over 84% from the free-throw line. He averaged 28 points a game. He was Rookie of the Year and started on the all-star team. Basically, his first year was better than the best year of most players, as I suspected.

So I wrote to the student, essentially asking "WTF?" in language that was less acronymic and more appropriate. She did some research, and it turns out this story had a grain of truth to it: Jordan was cut from a basketball team in high school. My student had heard this anecdote somewhere, remembered the idea that Jordan struggled, and transposed that struggle onto his rookie year in Chicago. I asked her to rewrite the essay with a higher fact content, and she did so. Meanwhile, I ended up with a great example of why common knowledge is often common horsefeathers.

Are infidelity and plagiarism correlated?

I should bring this article back to vocabulary, so here's a word I do not recommend any student use with any teacher, especially when they've been caught plagiarizing: brainfart.

That's exactly the term a student once used as an explanation for failing to cite his sources. When I pressed the issue, he gave no details about his thought process or what was happening in his paper, but he did tell me (details altered) his wife was engaging in a specific sort of infidelity, a fact that came to light on a specific holiday, thus distracting him.

Further research is needed on the relationship between holiday adultery and plagiarism, but I had already learned a valuable lesson from my oversharing student: maybe a brainfart isn't such a horrible explanation after all.

Future students take note: If the alternative is hearing the gory details of the destruction of your marriage, I welcome tales of neuro-flatulence. My sense of smell stinks anyway.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 20th 2011, 9:28 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
Knowledge of what plagairism is or is not seems to be a sticking point for many students,teachers and professors.I would venture to say that most students learn by unwittingly commiting infractions and then seeing the red-marked results. A sort of "Trial by Ordeal." Quite an inefficient way and ineffective way of acquisition.

May I suggest that a more constructive road to enlightenment would be to have students write a shor essay on the subject at the beinning of the class, say a thousand words or no more than five pages. This is not a huge assignment and may not be as comprehensive as a fully researched report. It may, however, provide some incite and possibly a basis for future discussion when incidents are "discovered" and "uncovered" by both student and professor

You would have thousand word essays times the number of students in the class with sources cited. A compilation or consolidation of these essays could provide something more substantive.

Unequivocally, students would no more about plagairism, they most certainly would not no less.

Derek Bekeny
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 12:17 AM
Comment by: Xavier C.
Article left me a bit "wanting" (article length dictated?). But, it is a great subject.

I really liked Derek's suggestion. I wonder if it is "original" (just kidding, Derek).

I just love "war stories" of the "experienced." I'm not a teacher of those kind of students (I'm a physician teaching Residents). Nevertheless, I do remember a high school mate of mine telling me, after the fact, of turning in a "surfer" article completely plagiarized from a contemporary surfer magazine (circa 1968), and getting "a grade" on it (I don't recall what grade). I am still ashamed, to this day, that I did not turn him in to "the authorities."

I just wanted to add that this concern of increased plagiarism is likely, to my way of thinking, to be reflective of a greater looseness to our general, societal mores and attitude towards "personal responsibility." That, in turn, lies - at least in part - in the laps of us, the parents!

I can only say that this issue (personal responsibility) occupies a modest amount of my time in "working" with my pre-teens. Nevertheless, I am struck with the fact that I am a bit of an "island" in espousing responsibility, as a working part of my kids every day experience. Why should they adhere to "old fashion" ways, they say, when their peers are so oblivious to same.

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