Friday, November 12, 2010

Avoiding plagiarism in online activities

I have just noticed, while grading one of my students wiki projects (they create an entire page dedicated to exploring a literary term), that the entire thing has just been copied and pasted from other places. Wholesale. All plagiarized. When I asked the student (otherwise an excellent writer and a seemingly good student) she admitted that that was really what she had been doing all semester with online assignments, including the informal online discussion blogs assignments. She seemed to not notice there was a problem, as if digital material is all the same -- in one place, out another, who cares, right? Plagiarism is only when you do it in one of your essays, right?

Has anyone else noticed a disconnect in students regarding information they generate in a digital world and that which they generate, still on computers, but turn in on paper? I would have though there was the same risk, but this student makes me question it. She seems fully aware that it is not OK to copy and paste from the internet on papers, but when I ask them to complete an assignment online, she is surprised that the same rules apply--as if perhaps even the JOB was to find answers online and copy them onto your blog post or wiki project, without filtering through your own consciousness, assessing and providing original interpretation, commentary and analysis. Isn't that what the internet is, just data and commentary that has been copied from one place and put somewhere else? Isn't it just accepted that the internet is full of that? If our students are meant to be producing knowledge and commentary, and placing it in that digital world, why, they seem to wonder, do they have to play by different rules? OK, they understand that there are a set of rules and standards governing ESSAYS (something about the MLA police and the Academic Integrity enforcement squad), but the internet is free-play, words are everyone's and no one owns anything, so we can borrow at will -- it's all one big collage.

What is the disconnect and what can we do early in the semester to make them understand that there are different rules for them (as students and as responsible users of the web in training) and for the crazy pajama web users and the 13 year old girls with blogs? I know the issue of the internet and the dangers and minefields of plagiarism inherent there have been discussed for some time, and for the most part students know it's wrong, but what makes them know it is wrong in papers, but not in online discussions and projects? And how do we help them see that there shouldn't be any difference, and not just in school, while a student, but in the future, too?

Also, funny Onion video here:http:// In The Know: Are Tests Biased Against Students Who Don't Give A Shit?


  1. Interesting. I actually discuss plagiarism in the context of copyright infringement and tell my students truthfully that if they plagiarize on their blogs they may be sued. Since the blogs are public, I ask them to be VERY careful and also have them copyright their blogs through creative commons. It seems this helps set the context for avoiding plagiarism AND copyright infringement.

  2. Students obviously need to learn otherwise, but, if I may play devil's advocate for a moment, I can see to a certain degree where they might acquire the notion that the Web is a lawless wild west of borrowing and stealing. Look no further than the widely accepted practice of file-sharing music and movies. In terms of writing, I've frequently navigated between various sites (news, reviews, etc.) to find that they're all reproducing the same unattributed text and passing it off as their own. The logic that "everyone else is doing it..." can be conveniently persuasive to students.

    Every instructor has to find their own comfortable angle for explaining this subject, but I like Jason's suggestion. Fear can be a very powerful deterrent!

  3. I'm so sympathetic. This reminds me of the recent case where a cookbook mag just 'borrowed' a writer's online recipes for a book. The writer protested and received a email that anything on the Internet is 'public domain.' Really!?

    I see the need for custom writing activities on our blogs and so forth. We can remind students that instead of cutting and pasting, just provide a link!
    Educating everyone about IP is certainly a hard part of our job.... The flipside is to remind them that if they don't write it themselves, their 'copying' is very easy to find (Google good / Google bad).

  4. I haven't had any copy-and-paste issues so far (assignments are too idiosyncratic) BUT I have had, since I started using Web 2.0 tools. three different students copy (part of) the post of another student in the same class (!) I am not sure if they don't understand what is proper, or they thought I would not read the posts/ make the connection, or what.

  5. Very interesting, but I’m not completely surprised. Unfortunately, there seems to be this attitude that certain set of rules are only applicable to a particular situation. Or, knowledge learned in one class is irrelevant to other classes. I would like to think that students become better at applying their knowledge across situations with more experience.

    Also, the idea of plagiarism reminded me of a conversation we had in the DFL seminar last year. Maybe Ximena or Jason can help me with this one, but Amazon actually sells books that are paper-copies of Wikipedia pages!

  6. At least these students are working on their cheating...check out this article from the Chronicle on custom-written papers: