Life, you might argue, is plagiarism. We start with nothing, are bombarded with input from Day 1, then suddenly: bingo! All those facts, ideas and opinions magically become our own. We may not cut and paste our personal philosophies from Wikipedia, but everything we know and are comes from somewhere.
Yet when it comes to education, we expect students to be more picky and precise with their sources of information and the ways in which they use them. Reading, absorbing and reproducing is good. Cutting out what you might call the middle man – that process of absorption – is less good.
To be fair, many are genuinely unsure how to go about the academic process. Faced with challenging source material, some students take a bit, then a bit more, decide they couldn’t really put it any better themselves, and before you know it they are into plagiarism with a capital P. You might call these the accidental plagiarists. And in our age of information and ease of access, there are more of them than ever.
You can deal with this in a number of ways. The worst option is simply to ignore it, because then it can rapidly become the norm. A variety of good teaching packages will take students step-by-step through the process of reading, highlighting, note-taking and then writing their own stuff from their own notes. Many will also give worked examples of what is and what is not considered to be plagiarism.
Most colleges will subscribe to software programs such as SafeAssign, which gives a “plagiarism percentage” to any piece of written work. This helps not only the teacher but also the student, who can run the program before submitting their work and discover the extent to which they have erred.
Cutting and pasting may be the most persistent and prominent form of plagiarism but it is not the only one. Most teachers have had the experience of reading a piece of student work and being struck with déjà vu. “Haven’t I seen this somewhere before?” you muse, as you sift through your pile of papers. And of course you have, because the student in question has copied it from a higher-performing classmate.
The right course of action
These days I teach adult students and have noticed that some of my colleagues are reluctant to confront even the most blatant of copiers. They are embarrassed; they think the culprit will be too and that any confrontation is likely to turn nasty. In practice, this rarely happens. And sometimes the student whose work has been copied is genuinely shocked that what they loaned to someone with the best intentions has been so blatantly stolen. At which point you can advise them not to share their work.
The third category of plagiarism is, in many ways, the most difficult to deal with. This is where someone else has actually done the work for the student. It’s tough because it’s often much harder to get the evidence that the work is not the student’s own. A year or two back, one of my adult students was getting her teacher father to write essays for her. The written work she produced in class was much inferior. When asked to account for this, she stuck to her guns. “I’m much better when I have time, when I can carefully proofread,” she argued.
More recently, another student of mine, also an adult, was paying a graduate to do her assignments. She too would not back down, deciding instead to fight dirty and brand me a racist and a misogynist for suggesting that she could be gaming the system. Unpleasant it might be, but you can’t just throw in the towel when this sort of thing happens. If you do, the problem will only get worse.
Stephen Jones is a lecturer at an FE college in London