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?
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.