[Update 30/3: the end of the exposed plagiarist story]
There have been a few cases of plagiarism of the cut-and-paste from the web variety by students at our department, and luckily the university has very clear routines for how to handle it. If an exam paper or paper submitted for assessment in a portfolio is suspected to contain plagiarism, the person grading the paper may not grade it but instead sends it on to a committee with an explanation of what the problem is and the committee decides what is to be done. The student also has the opportunity to explain him- or herself. I believe the committee has a lawyer and a couple of student representatives on it, which seems fair. If the student is found to have plagiarised, the exam will be annulled and the student may be barred from taking exams at any university in Norway for one or two semesters, depending on the gravity of the plagiarism and how advanced the student is. Obviously it is seen as more serious if a grad student plagiarises than if a first semester does so and there’s reasonable grounds to think it might be a misunderstanding.

As a grad student I taught a little in other departments and once graded an exam paper where 2/3 of the paper was cut and paste from the net with no sources given. I reported it to the person who was responsible for the course, but was told to simply fail the student. The next semester I heard from other teachers that the same student had done exactly the same thing in another class, and thinking it was the first time it had happened, they hadn’t reported it either. Imagine what we teach students if we allow them to plagiarise their work?

All the cases I’ve come up against in Norway so far involve students who wrote in English, which was a second language for them, or foreign students who struggled to write in Norwegian. That may have made the cut and paste sections particularly visible to their teachers. Perhaps there is just as much plagiarism in essays written in the student’s first language, but the paragraphs are translated or better integrated so that teachers don’t notice.

I was amused by this exposÈ of an American college student who foolishly asked a comedy writer to write an essay for her. He accepted, found out her real name, wrote a cut-and-paste essay he assumed would be detected as plagiarism, wrote it up on the web, and sent an email to her Dean.

Of course, it’s not really amusing. It’s tragic for students who are banned from taking exams for a year of their lives. It casts the whole system of portfolio evaluations and grading into doubt, because there must be so many cases that aren’t caught. And yes, even scholars plagiarise – the Vice-Chancellor (equivalent to the rektor in Norway or the President in the US) of Monash University in Melbourne resigned after having been found to be a “serial plagiariser” in the seventies and eighties (he’s now getting a top job in academia again). It is entiredly possible to imagine an academic community based on sharing ideas freely, but as long as each individual academic and his or her institution gain or lose financial benefits and scholarly respect directly based on publication and citations of said publications, plagiarism will be the academic equivalent of embezzlement. Students’ plagiarising is a slightly different issue. Yes, it threatens our perception of the academic system of publishing being fair and natural. It also threatens our system of giving grades and degrees. Finally plagiarism threatens the whole idea that university and college students are supposed to be learning something more substantial than how to game the system and get a degree.

Most of all I’ve discovered my own fury when confronted with plagiarism, though. They think I’m stupid not to see through this? How dare they waste my time like this? Why on earth would I put effort into doing a good job as their teacher when this is all they think learning is worth?

I think we need to be strict and very consistent about plagiarism.

6 thoughts on “plagiarism

  1. Espen

    Jill,
    you are very right about this being a problem – fortunately, technology can help. I have good experience with using plagiarism detectors (http://www.espen.com/norskblogg/archives/2005/02/plagiat_og_tekn.html) which have a very good preemptive effect (though, of course, some students will go ahead and plagiarize anyway, sometimes because they have done it for so long that they just don’t know how not to do it.)

    Anyway, contact me if you want to chat about it.

  2. Tversover

    Jill om plagiering

    Jill har et velskrevet innlegg om plagiering – jeg har mange meninger (og ikke s lite erfaring) med dette, men fÂr i f¯rste omgang n¯ye meg med  vÊre enig med henne, og heller skrive mer om det en annen…

  3. Windur

    Just spent an hour and a half writing a blogpost titled “Martin Luther King Jr. was a plagiarist”, stating why I thought stunts like those are wrong, but it got lost in the e-oblivion…
    It’s also interesting to see how plagiarism is mostly accepted or ignored in many oratory traditions, yet we still think people are smart enough to make the distinction.
    If it’s accepted within the Christian tradition to steal sermons, why can’t I borrow a few lines from this essay?

    Personally I think Plagiarism destroys the entire purpose of going to college. You may get good grades, but if you don’t do the work or learning yourself, then what’s the point?
    I even gloated when 30 percent of my class got caught cheating on their last year-assignment in HS(Mostly because all of them were “honor-roll” students) but that doesn’t mean that plagiarisers deserve this kind of “e-shame”.

  4. David

    We’re encouraged to use this service turnitin.com which scans the net against assignments turned in for class.

    Funny aside, when the education center people first told us about the site, they messed up and called it “turniton.com” which at the time (although it no longer is) was an adult site.

  5. Jill

    My university has just started testing one of those plagiarism-checking programs, and I think it’s the only sensible idea – the point should be to let students know they can’t do that, not to punish them after they’ve done it. And I bet we’re missing a lot of cases, too.

    We’re going to be using a Dutch system called Ephorus.

    I do think the plagiarism cases highlight some fundamental problems in the way we’ve set up our literature culture, not least, in the rules we’ve arranged for value of writing.

    But then again – yes, we echo other works in everything we do. But in writing, we can say so, at least when we literally use someone elses words and don’t even paraphrase them. Even online, we’ve found ways of doing this, with no institutional organisation. We link to where we found something. We note that this is “via so and so”, we give credit to where we found it.

    It’s simple politeness, really.

  6. Amy

    We also use turnitin.com at our University (US). While it does a good job at catching the online plagiarism, it doesn’t have a huge reach on articles published in our field (English). But, it seems to have stopped or at least slowed down plagiarism. Students think twice, though we have caught a number of students.

    What turnitin.com does nicely, though, is assist the professor in explaining the proper use of sources. I actually let students see the report if it looks like a case of inadvertent plagiarism. I explain what students need to do and send them away to rewrite the paper. They know they could be tried for plagiarism by our Honor board, so the lesson usually sinks in.

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