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I consider myself a patient instructor. I’ll spend quite a bit of time with a student who is struggling with academic writing, often stepping outside my role as a psychology instructor and entering into the realm of writing tutor. I don’t deduct a lot of points when I see a student struggling with their writing, understanding that online adult learners come from a wide variety of early educational backgrounds and that building confidence is key. However, one thing that tries my patience is blatant plagiarism. I’m sure many of you agree. This is not to say that I don’t have some compassion for students who plagiarize – the tendency to plagiarize does not always represent laziness or poor time management, but perhaps lack of confidence and intimidation by the public nature of the online classroom environment. But despite some empathy, it is still irritating!

Benefits to “Teaching” the Definition of Plagiarism

I believe most students understand what blatant plagiarism is and know when they are doing it. The act of copying and pasting is a conscious one. But, there are more subtle versions of plagiarism that many students either haven’t been taught, don’t understand, or don’t appreciate the importance of. To mitigate this, I like to post a “Definition of Plagiarism” post at the beginning of every class. This post serves three purposes:

  1. It shows students that I am vigilant about plagiarism and that they have to be more mindful of it – in all of its forms – when writing in my class.
  2. It teaches them something that they might not otherwise be taught, allowing them to be more successful in their academic journey.
  3. It decreases the amount of plagiarism I see, therefore decreasing the frustration I experience!

A caveat: A post like this early on can be a little intimidating for students. I like to ensure them that I’m just helping them become better academic writers and that I don’t necessarily expect perfectionism up front – but I do expect effort and growth over the trajectory of the course. It’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them. I get a couple of panicked private messages early on as a response to this information, but it simply becomes another opportunity for me to engage with them and show them that I care less about whether they pass my class and more about their continued success.

The More Subtle Forms of Plagiarism

Here is a list of the more subtle forms of plagiarism that I like to share with students:

Go ahead and define blatant plagiarism. Oh, heck, why not. “Don’t copy and paste.” Here I like to remind students that I’ve graded many, many versions of this assignment and am very, very familiar with the top 10 hits on Google, the CourseHero essays, and the textbook.

Don’t just change words around. I tell students that even if they are summarizing what someone else says in their own words and citing appropriately, if they are mirroring the source’s paragraph and sentence structure (merely supplying synonyms or telling the same story in the same order with different words) then this is a form of plagiarism.This is why I require at least two sources in each paragraph (as appropriate)…and more if they can. I encourage them to learn what the source has to say, conceptualize it along with other sources they have read, and tell their own story, citing sources along the way.

Using another source’s reference list is a form of plagiarism.  I tell students “Do not cite Freud (1925) if you did not read Freud (1925). Cite the source you actually read, like so:  (Freud, 1925 as cited in Jones, 2004). If you are only reading Jones and you keep citing all of his sources, this is a form of plagiarism. He did the grunt work. Try finding and reading more sources.” Using old, old sources is a red flag to me. Not that it is impossible for a student to have found and read an original or “antique” source, its just not easy to, so I look into it.

Just citing and not quoting when you use the same words is plagiarism. Throwing a parenthetical citation after the copy/pasted sentence or paragraph does not make it not plagiarized.

Self-plagiarism is a no-no. “Do not use papers that you have written for previous classes, or even chunks of those papers, for this class.” I remind them that papers submitted to Turnitin (and other plagiarism checkers) are cataloged, so it is possible to determine if this is what is happening if the student or his/her previous instructor submitted that paper to Turnitin. I also tell them that professional academics are held to this to. We cannot reuse our methods section, for example, for multiple manuscripts, even if the manuscript is based on the same data collection procedure.

Keep direct quotes to a minimum. I ask students to use a few select direct quotes. Maybe two in a 1400 word paper, if it says something in a unique or particularly poignant way. I need to hear them in their papers…thats the only way I can tell that they have digested the material. To overuse quotes is a form of plagiarism, at least in my book, because it shows an effort at merely finding the answer, not conceptualizing the answer. I don’t care that they can find it. I need to know they know it.

Fake citations. I see this happening when I set a required number of sources for a paper. That’s why I stopped doing it. I tell students to use many and varied sources for every paper but don’t specify a number. I remind them to not fabricate citations and references that are not true just to meet the citation requirement.

Conceptualizations can be “plagiarzied” too. This is often a problem when a student relies heavily on one source. For this point, I might say, “Do not use someone else’s conceptualization of a body of literature. Credit them as this is their intellectual property. Use what you have learned and come up with your own conceptualization, or state that you agree with so-and-so and colleagues because you have also arrived a the same conclusion based on what you have read.” This is another point for using at least two (if not more) citations/references per paragraph as appropriate.

If a source basically answers the posed question for you, don’t use it. This really targets essays-for-sale websites. Sometimes students who have taken a similar class will post their essays online. This is not a “source” but a cheat. I might say, “Do not use as a source a website or blog that is obviously the answer to the question posed–sometimes previous students in similar courses publish their work on the web. Do not use these as sources.”

Avoid the temptation to plagiarize even in non-essay assignments. Here I like to tell the story of something that happened to me in graduate school. A Personality Psychology instructor (who was also my research mentor) asked us to make a list of 25 or so personality questionnaires/inventories and describe them. This wasn’t a formal essay, just a list, right? We all turned in our assignments and nearly everyone in the class copied and pasted their questionnaire descriptions from the web. It sounded like an easy assignment that didn’t truly require formal research, citing, referencing, and paraphrasing. The instructor was pretty upset when he saw so much plagiarism and similarity across assignments – especially among very talented graduate students. We got a lecture about plagiarism that day.  Just because it was an “easy” assignment didn’t mean we were off the hook. I was one of the students who cited my sources and used quotes – he was my mentor, so I had grown to think like him. I was glad I had that inside scoop!

Setting Students Up to Succeed – Goodbye Term Paper?

Of course, there is more to say about what plagiarism is, how to avoid it, and what good vs. not good sources are, but that’s another article in itself! Certainly, going beyond the traditional “term paper” assignment and requiring more experiential or problem-based assignments gets students thinking and writing in more original ways. This is the trend and, in many ways, a best practice in higher ed today – requiring students to do something and then write about their doing of the something. Having students apply what they have learned in their reading to a particular example or problem, as with a case study, leads to more critical thinking and original writing as well. Let’s talk about how to engage student creativity and critical thinking by creating more “real world”, practical, experiential assignments too…please comment below!

Also, what are your thoughts on plagiarism and how to define it to students? I’ve entertained the notion that lists like these might be more appropriate for upperclassmen. For adult learners entering into higher ed for the first time in decades, simply writing the paper and reading the material is Herculean in itself and to harp on things of this nature doesn’t consider where any one student is in his/her learning curve. I traditionally teach at the 300 level, but perhaps I wouldn’t go this far or this detailed in a 100 or 200-level class. Thoughts? Please comment!






2 Responses to “Defining Plagiarism for Our Students”

  1. Andree Robinson-Neal

    I love the point about ‘just citing and not quoting when you use the same words is plagiarism’ — I find it happens with some students whose first language is not the same as the primary language used at the institution. How do you handle second language learners when it comes to plagiarism? Do you take more time to explain it individually? Do you scale the grade if after a conversation you realize it is more of a language issue than laziness or blatant disregard for the rules?

  2. Brooke Shriner

    Good point and great question, Andree. For these students, I make sure to catch it early, provide good feedback, and then “grade” for improvement (even if small) and for the demonstration of effort to try. It may take ESL students longer, and I’m empathetic to that, so I view my role is helping them get into better habits rather than getting it “right”. I make sure to provide concrete examples of how the work should look. Showing rather than telling goes a long way in this instance.


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