Students often confused by the complexities of plagiarism

In my last blog on plagiarism, I explored the complicated nature of plagiarism, how plagiarism is relative to a culture, a field, and even a specific situation. In the end, I called for all of us to work to be more aware and set better examples.

I also mentioned in my last blog, as a writing teacher, my goal is to use incidences of plagiarism as “teachable moments,” to help students improve and learn, rather than punish them. I do see a lot of plagiarism, and most of it is accidental; however, there are times when I really do wonder what we can do to teach responsible documentation of words and ideas when our culture seems to send mixed messages about what plagiarism really is and what its consequences are.

I have used many resources and instructional techniques to teach the responsible documentation of ideas over the years, and they generally are effective. But, sometimes, I do not feel like I am getting through to students about the importance of responsible documentation. I can’t help but think, as long as I am the only one in a student’s life “going on and on” about the value of responsible documentation, I may have a hard time getting through to that student.

I have taught writing classes devoted almost entirely to source integration and responsible documentation. I have worked with students over many weeks, reviewed drafts, pointed to citation issues, and pointed to resources that could help. Despite these efforts, I frequently have a few students turn in essays with plagiarized passages and/or ideas.

Sometimes, I feel like hitting my head on my desk and crying.

But, I don’t. I just keep teaching because I realize the issue is complicated, so learning the necessary skills on this issue is going to be complicated for students as well.

I am certain most of the incidences of plagiarism I hear about from colleagues are accidental—where the student either did not know how to properly cite information or that the information was supposed to be cited. Now, I don’t want to sound like I am making excuses for students. I have been suspicious many times of “willful ignorance,” but I learned in my teacher-training courses to be very careful when making plagiarism accusations. I witnessed one incident, as a graduate teaching assistant, in which a student plagiarized, was accused of plagiarism, admitted to plagiarism, but still obtained an attorney because she did not find the consequences for plagiarism “fair.”

Stories like that tend to make some teachers tread softly when it comes to plagiarism accusations. Plus, there is the reality, at least according to me, that it truly is hard to know for sure if someone is being willfully ignorant. That stated, “willfully ignorant” does come to mind when I think of the students who take semester-long documentation classes and still plagiarize in the end.

However, even my somewhat-jaded, end-of-the-semester self realizes the reasons for plagiarism are complex. Some of them are likely related to an honest lack of understanding or ambiguous “rules” and enforcement or even mixed cultural messages.

Because of my “a first plagiarism offense is always a “teachable moment,” policy, I find students generally open up to me about why they plagiarized. Sometimes, even though I feel a whole semester of instruction is enough to make documentation issues clear, when I speak to students, I am reminded my class is just a tiny part of their lives. College is not their only focus. They have jobs and families, and one “whole semester” to me is just one of many classes for some of them.

I am also reminded, if it has been twenty years since a non-traditional student wrote an essay or if a traditional student has never written anything but a standardized test essay, which does not require source integration. One semester is not going to change a lifetime of different practices. It is going to take time for students in those situations to process and fully apply the lessons of a course on writing and documenting responsibly.

Moreover, the confusing nature of “rules” that seem to apply in some situations but not others leads to problems. Additionally, the “rules” themselves, as presented by academic style guides, are sometimes so inconsistent students may simply feel overwhelmed. These are things to keep in mind—at least from a writing teacher’s perspective:

  • While we say plagiarism is taking ideas or words of others without giving credit, there are many situations, such as formal presentations, where responsible documentation is almost never a component.
  • Even what type of information should be documented can be controversial. In my work on the Excelsior College OWL, I had to poll faculty to better determine what information counts as “common knowledge” and what does not. There was a surprising amount of disagreement among faculty members, even those in the same field.
  • Style guides for documentation offer “rules” for students to follow that feel arbitrary and confusing—and forever changing. While style guide developers surely try to simplify things as much as possible for students, the reality is the details of documentation according to style guides are overwhelming. When professors focus heavily on some of these finer points, students become discouraged and nervous. For example, when students have to remember to use “p.” for page numbers in certain source types while they should never use “p.” for other source types, the arbitrary nature of these “rules” leads to frustration. I have seen this frustration then lead to “I just give up” far too often. These “rules” feel impossible to learn to many students, which leads to a “why bother anyway?” stance.
  • Different fields absolutely hold students to different standards when it comes to documentation. I have seen writing assignments that require only a list of references at the end with no requirement for in-text documentation. In another class or field, this would be a failing, plagiarized piece of writing.
  • And, as noted in my last blog, our culture really does send mixed messages about the consequences of plagiarism. We see a journalist lose his job, but we see high-profile politicians continue their careers with little to no consequence for plagiarism.

These points are not meant to create blame. As a rhetorician, I am fully aware of the relative nature of correctness in all of its forms, but they are meant to make us stop and think how tough it can be for students in our culture to grasp these complex rules and then put them into practice. Such a thing takes time—and constant reinforcement. And, we have to admit that college graduates in our culture may not be getting either, which can lead to problems for them in their professional lives.

In my next blog, I intend to discuss the examples, we as faculty can set for our students, to improve their understanding of plagiarism’s complexities.

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