More Thoughts on Plagiarism

I received so many insightful comments and off-site e-mails about my last post on plagiarism that I’m postponing my post about student evaluations (another end-of-term issue which concerns us all) to continue discussing this topic. For those of you who have not read all the comments (I always do!) Sandy Thatcher, who, I assume, is Sanford Thatcher, director emeritus of Penn State Press—and thus someone who knows much more about the subject than I do—had the following to say, worth quoting in full:

“Mr. Donoghue has not done much to clarify plagiarism here by confusing it with copyright infringement. Plagiarism, as the unacknowledged borrowing of others’ ideas, is not a violation of intellectual property laws and hence should not be spoken of as though it were part of intellectual property. What services like Turnitin are best at detecting is copyright infringement, not plagiarism, which would require a much more sophisticated type of semantic-based analysis. (By the way, it surely is a misstatement that Turnitin owns the individual papers in its system, since it does not get any copyright transfer from the authors of papers in its system. It was indeed sued by some students–unsuccessfully–in a case in the Fourth Circuit for copyright infringement.) For some real clarity on what plagiarism is all about, read Richard Posner’s brilliant “Little Book of Plagiarism” (Pantheon, 2007).”

First, Posner’s book, which I’ve now dipped into, is essential reading for anyone who is responsible for grading student work. Second, I didn’t mean to confuse copyright infringement with plagiarism, only to suggest that copyright infringement should be one of several contexts in which plagiarism would be discussed in the hypothetical orientation I outlined. In any case, I thank Mr. Thatcher for his invaluable comments.

Equally valuable, in a more practical way, is a comment from “bergtrom,” which basically reproduces a detailed set of instructions, entitled “Making Sure Your Term Paper is Your Own Work.” I won’t reproduce it in its entirety, but it’s a crystal-clear outline about how not to plagiarize, the very kind of orientation I’d like to see implemented not course by course, but institutionwide.

I was most encouraged though, by an e-mail from a former graduate student of mine, Chris Manion, who now works for Ohio State’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching. He and his colleagues are currently working to develop a course that addresses the concept of plagiarism in the context of “the wider issues we all tend to miss in the classroom.” Chris referred me to the “Citation Project,” an undertaking that strikes me as extremely full of promise, and only seems to be beginning to gain momentum. The site is subtitled “Preventing plagiarism, teaching writing,” and it problematizes the concept of plagiarism in ways that I believe Thatcher and other commenters would approve.

To date, the Citation Project has analyzed 1,911 citations from 174 student papers produced at 16 different U.S. colleges and universities. It found, to my surprise, not a shocking amount of outright plagiarism, but makes a crucial distinction between “plagiarism” as the dictionary (and most of us would define it) and “patchwriting.” The Citation Project defines patchwriting as: “Restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.” A remarkable 16 percent of students routinely patchwrite. How one differentiates that practice from plagiarism is, of course, always a judgment call, but it goes to Chris Manion’s central concern that students are insufficiently or confusingly engaged with the materials they cite. Manion notes that even good students were often “overwhelmingly unengaged with the sources they were citing. They were too often sentence mining from dubious sources to fulfill superficial requirements on assignments.” He concludes, absolutely correctly: “our classroom approach to research and writing is way off the mark. We’re on completely different epistemological worlds than our students, and we do little to bridge that chasm.”

Several commenters noted that plagiarism is ultimately a function of bad teaching. In essence, I think you’re absolutely right, but the solution is not to continue to teach conventionally, just better. Bridging the chasm will require considerably more.

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