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Monday, August 14, 2006

Plagiarism: A Rant

I skimmed recently five books on plagiarism and did a bit of net looking just now and it only confirms my opinion: Plagiarism is the result of bad teaching.

Let me explain by first giving a definition (although very problematic) of plagiarism. The University of Indiana presents this:

"To avoid plagiarism, you must give credit whenever you use

  • another person’s idea, opinion, or theory;
  • any facts, statistics, graphs, drawings—any pieces of information—that are not common knowledge;
  • quotations of another person’s actual spoken or written words; or
  • paraphrase of another person’s spoken or written words."
The main problem I have is the first. Two families hate each other, the kids fall in love. What am I talking about Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story? Ideas cannot be copyrighted. Thus there is no need to credit the idea of the story in either case. Furthermore opinions are often general, and it would be useless for a student to find someone who prior to their paper stated a similar opinion. I agree with the rest of the definition.

The real problem though comes from teachers who assign papers like, "Write an overview of Optical Art in Europe" or "Describe how Magic Realists were influenced by Swift." The typical university student has absolutely nothing to draw upon for these papers except what the teacher presented in class or outside source material such as the net or books. Therefore, there is absolutely now way in which a student can fulfill this assignment without using other people's material. In this case they should credit every single paragraph of the paper, excepting the one where a student states an opinion about the material such as "I hate this," or "I think this is good." Allowing students the leeway to rewrite without credit is to allow semantic games with the definition of plagiarism. Oh, if I can find it on Wikipedia then I'll penalize the student but if the ideas are somewhat rewritten (although from my notes and texts) I'll give an A. You can't blame the students for this one -- they know nothing of the subject being assigned. Thus I think we must come to view the typical research paper as outdated, a dinosaur of the past that should and must be revised. This practice is wrong. It's bad scholarship. It sends a misleading message to our future scholars.

What is the solution? One is to teach students how to correctly and fully credit other sources, which will mean most every section of the paper. Another is to assign papers where a student can learn to write but is not forced to draw from source material. An example would be, if in high school, "Should schools have gym classes?" It's an area where every student will have an opinion as well as personal knowledge they can draw upon. They are not forced to head to the net. On the college level an example might be, "What art is better, Optical Art or Symbolist Art." While they might have to lean upon source materials to discover the aspects of eacy style, again the majority of the paper cannot come from those sources. A third solution would be to provide student with handouts and the paper can only cite the handouts -- nothing else. This way there is no danger of plagiarism from sources the professor is unable to trace. And it will be clear just what failings the student has in correctly citing material.