Plagiarism in the Information Age

This is where I temporarily doff my free-spirited adventurer hat and don the super serious professor’s cap, in order to address one of my top 5 pet peeves.

First thing’s first: I am not an English teacher.  In fact, I was never particularly fond of the subject in school.  English is not even my first language.  I like to talk excessively about science and public health.  I occasionally use slang and colloquialisms.  I don’t know very many scientists who really hate if you leave a participle dangling for all to see, and even fewer who care for APA style citations.  Generally speaking, if you can get your point across, you will manage to get through life just fine.  (Even if you can’t, someone will still love you.)

Unless, of course, we are talking about academic writing.  I used to think people had the most difficulty with mathematics (it turns out this assumption is based entirely on my own disdain for the subject) but after spending many, MANY painful hours editing peer essays and, more recently, student papers, I have given in to the reality that the greatest Achilles heel in our society is the English language.

Flashback:

In grade school, I only tolerated English because we were allowed to write creatively sometimes; nevertheless, I was quite good at the subject.  My Bosnian best friend, whose first and second languages are also not English, excelled too.  I am convinced that non-native English speakers push harder and often end up more successful than their native-speaking counterparts, although I have no literature to back up this claim (mostly because I can’t be bothered to look right now).  Within my own family, however, I am an anomaly when it comes to English (that is a nice way of saying my brother sucks at it, but he knows it and that’s why he became a chef…HI, BRO!).  As for my parents, they are brilliant in other aspects of life and could not tell you the first thing about subject-verb agreement.  Read Random Texts from Mom.  Enough said.

The first time I made anything other than an A on an essay was in the ENG 1102 course at the University of Georgia.  I exempted from 1101 with AP credit, but I instantly wished I had been forced to take it.  My AP English teacher in high school was fantastic and yet not even she could prepare me for the expectations of college.  On my first essay in this 1102 course, I made a C.  When the professor handed back my paper, I just stared at the red 70-something circled at the top of the page.  I felt my knees weaken, my throat turn to sandpaper, and nausea rising up from my stomach as my vision blurred.  The realization hit me like a sneaky left hook: my writing was AVERAGE!

It might as well have been a D or an F.  The self-deprecating evil me immediately agreed, yes, I am mediocre [sob].  I didn’t blame the professor at all.  In fact, I shook my fist at previous English teachers, who obviously had been lying to me all these years.  Give the poor immigrant girl straight As on her writing so as to encourage her, they probably said in a secret meeting.

All these thoughts aside, I did not give up.  Instead, I took it as a reality check and carefully read the professor’s remarks a dozen times.  Then I made an appointment during his office hours.  He was very kind and said my writing was actually good; it just needed refining.  I had to learn a higher level of academic writing.

I ended up with an A in his class and have only improved since then.  I am not telling you this to boast but rather to set the scene for the true star of this rant: plagiarism.  And also to inform you that the extent of my writing and criticism credentials is that I have always excelled in this particular subject.  And I know how to cite because I have done it a thousand times.  Take that as you will.  It may seem that grammar and plagiarism are totally different things, but in the context of student writing, I lump them together, with the latter only being far more horrible because of the dishonesty involved.

(I still have trouble with commas and semicolons and other not-so-obvious grammatical nitpicks.  I’m not perfect and I never claimed to be the grammar police!  Did I mention I am not an English teacher?  And, yes, I do know that starting a sentence with “and” is generally frowned upon.)

Most students think they understand plagiarism but the line still gets blurred.  Changing a few articles and rephrasing without in-text citation is not plagiarism, right?  As long as there are no quotation marks?  I want to know who decided that the absence of quotation marks makes an egregious academic offense “okay.”  YOU chose not to put them there, not the original author because that would mean S/HE was citing someone else.  I want to meet this person so I know who to punch thank for my hours of headache when grading papers.  I will give this person a certificate of congratulations for the impact s/he has had on the social lives of college professors.

My beef with plagiarism stems from a healthy respect for authority.  I am a rule follower.  If you are a refugee whose parents fled from one government and were shot at by another, you tend to stay clear of trouble with the law.  Additionally, I do not feel society should reward laziness and dishonesty.

But there is hope: the same technologies that facilitate the ease of copy and paste have also made it easier to get caught.

Universities, including mine, have started using a program called Turn It In.  Students submit all written assignments online.  The software instantaneously checks for originality by searching databases of electronic sources.  The originality report is generated, telling both the student and teacher what percentage of the paper has online matches.  You can compare the student’s paper to the original source side by side, and similarities are highlighted.  The program also checks for non-peer-reviewed sources such as previously submitted student works.  Another key feature is grammar check although, just like Word or other document software, it is not always right.

From a plagiarism standpoint, it’s brilliant.  Teachers are no longer relegated to typing sections of the student’s paper into Google Search.  It is not perfect by any means (for example, how to address non-electronic sources?) but its utility cannot be overlooked.  Perhaps an even more salient point here is that an online program does little to address the greater issue – that integrity is fading and people are looking for the easiest route to get ahead in life.

In the hopes that I can help contribute to academic honesty, and perhaps make the writing process less painful, here is a list of tips based on my personal writing style and experiences.  I have had success with them, so maybe other students will too.

  1. Don’t procrastinate. Start with the obvious.  Do not wait until the day an assignment is due to begin research.  If your paper needs to be 5 or more pages, work on small sections at a time.  The more chances you have to look it over, the better the outcome.
  2. Don’t fight the process. I get that not everyone has a love for the written word and that you would rather eat your own arm before exploring the more mundane or difficult topics.  Instead of approaching the assignment with fear and loathing, think of it as an opportunity to hone a very rewarding skill.  You’d be surprised at how mindset can improve the writing process.
  3. Stay organized.  Another obvious one.  When making note cards or however it is you organize your information, make sure you keep track of the sources for each point.
  4. Write freely.  Kind of a tricky one.  You have learned all you wish to learn about your topic at this point.  Fight the urge to look at a source in its entirety as you write and instead, simply start writing.  Write YOUR perspective; make connections in what you have learned; compare and contrast.  Then go back and add sources to supplement your thoughts.  Properly cite them.  You should know by now that, however outlandish brilliant your revelations, you must be able to support them with the literature.
  5. Don’t be lazy.  Too much going on in your life to think any original thoughts?  TOUGH.  Life/college is supposed to be hard, deal with it.  (Okay, harsh.  But seriously.)
  6. Practice.  A lot.  Again, obvious.  Still, I cannot emphasize it enough.  You should write as often as you can.  You should read (a lot) too because this also helps you become a better writer.  According to Mom, I read “too much” as a child (“Ehhh, you eye gonna fall out!”) and for this I am thankful.  Between books and sitcoms, I expanded my vernacular despite being surrounded by non-native English speakers.
  7. Utilize your institution’s writing center.  It is there for precisely this purpose.  Go back to #1 – you are not allowed to use the time factor as a reason not to get help.

Teachers: feel free to weigh in on this topic.  Let me know if I am completely off base.  I am constantly looking to improve myself as well.

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