Plagiarism, Just Fine

OK, it’s not. However, a group of students are suing Turnitin.com for archiving their papers after they submit them so they can later be referenced. Make sense? If you are not familiar with Turnitin.com, it is a service used by universities and high schools to check for plagiarism. A teacher sets up a class on the Turnitin.com web site and requires students to submit their work through this site. Student then get to see the results of the plagiarism scan and resubmit if necessary. The teacher can also see the results of any paper officially submitted (although I think a student can have the paper scanned before he/she actually turns it in). The program checks the submitted papers against the Internet as a whole and thousands (millions?) of other papers submitted into the service.

The lawsuit alleges that the company is violating the high school students’ rights under U.S. copyright law. The students are required by their schools to submit some essays to Turnitin.com, a Web-based service that compares the documents against a massive internal database and other sources to look for signs of plagiarism. It then places the student works in an electronic archive. (from Education Week)

Interesting approach. Actually, you could argue just opposite! By archiving student work, students can be ensured that one will take credit for their personal work. Buy, anyway…

Well I don’t specifically use Turnitin.com (my school pays for the service, I just haven’t had the time…), I’ve caught too many students over the years plagiarizing information by typing in a particular un-student-like line of text into Google. Most of the time, that does the trick. Some inventive students actually pull resource from a number of sources and paste them all together, creating the Frankenstein of essays and term papers. Needless to say, these are particularly easy to spot.

However, over the last few years, I’ve changed my approach to academic papers. I no longer ask for the standard report or general essay on a topic. I force them to think about the information and do something with it. I’ve done many different versions of a WebQuest on the Industrial Revolution where students create a newspaper. In the original version, students had to do a short news story on an invention and/or an inventor from the era. Sounded good at the time and it hit the standards. What I discovered was that numerous students simply copied and pasted that section from a source I PROVIDED! The first year I caught almost ten students. Even the second year when I WARNED them I would be looking specifically for plagiarism, three students committed the same offense. The next year I reworked that section and instead of the bio/report, I required students to create an advertisement for an invention. A much more creative task where students demonstrate their understanding. Plus there are no advertisements “out there” for the spinning jenny or early steam engine.

With the massive of amount of information online and the numerous services that sell term papers, it seems we (the teachers) need to re-think the term paper. We have to get beyond the write a report mentality. We need to teach them to use the information out there in some way, not just regurgitate information on a topic. While there are elements of formal research papers that we need to teach, I believe the traditional term paper of my youth (80’s and 90’s) is dead. Yes, dead. We can get a dozens of these papers with a few directed searches, why make the students reinvent the wheel? Why tempt the students? Instead we need to find better ways to get our students to think about the material.

What do you do beyond the term paper?

[tags]plagiarism,turnitin.com[/tags]

16 thoughts on “Plagiarism, Just Fine”

  1. When we studied Greek myths, legends and heroes, I had my students research one, they had to create comic strips with a minimum of 10 panels telling the story. I received some excellent work from students–but they had to actually process the information. Next year I will add a reflective piece to the final product.

    In another project, I required students to write editorials w/ magazine covers. With this activity, I had a lot of plagiarism. Therefore, I am reevaluating this activity.

    I’ve also had students create brochures. Because students had to compile and condense a large amount of information in such a small product, they had to be creative. There was minimal plagiarism in this portion of the project.

    I find that the best way to minimize plagiarism is to have students turn in rough drafts along the way. I usually catch a lot of it at this point and it gives them the opportunity to improve.

    I really want my students to start writing more papers b/c this will be necessary skill for those who are college bound. So completely eliminating papers and essays from high school activities will not benefit the students. As I am planning for the next school year, I am strategizing how I will teach plagiarism as apart essay/paper writing.

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  2. The best research paper I did with my students this year involved me giving them a list of questions and a list of websites to find the answers to those questions. Students could not really find definitive answers from reading just one website. Essentially they were exploring a topic. After they did that I gave them options for paper topics, and based on what they learned and internalized, they wrote their papers (persuasive), using the sources to help defend their arguments. It seemed a little underhanded because I didn’t emphasize that the end result was really going to be a paper. The process of finding information was so huge and took the focus away. That time I had no plagiarism.

    The paper my students did just before school ended invited them to research a topic of their choice. I had so many different modes of writing and topics I’d never believe my students would be interested in, but I had several students plagiarize. The students went through the writing process, and I caught most of them in the rough draft stages, so I wrote them up and sent them on their way to write their own papers. Some never did.

    I am also concerned about not teaching my students how to write a standard research paper because it will later be required. I teach 8th graders, and many of them are only starting to get the process, let alone the format. I know their high school teachers will be frustrated with them. (I’m been in their shoes.) If I didn’t start now and those students never did “get” how to write a research paper, what would their college professors say? I’m looking for new and better applications of research, but I can’t just throw out the traditional research paper–no matter how much I’d like to!

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  3. “Interesting approach. Actually, you could argue just opposite! By archiving student work, students can be ensured that one will take credit for their personal work. ”

    But Turnitin.com is making a profit using the student’s work without their permission. If they were just comparing the students’ work to on line sources, I wouldn’t support the students. I had some professors that kept copies of papers we wrote. They would compare them if they suspected paper selling was happening. Again the professors were not making a profit.

    I spend a good deal of time teaching my students K-5, to respect the work of others and not steal it. Respect is a 2 way street, I personally think it is wrong for teachers/schools to require students to give way their work to a for profit company.

    As to your question, the teachers at my school require higher level projects. At the end of the year they were making travel brochures about regions of the country/state, teaching games about science concepts, games based on novels they read, and other projects. They were required to submit a bibliography along with the project. I helped the students and teachers in my technology class.

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  4. I had much the same opinion when it came to Turnitin.com, which my school would/could not ante up for. However, in my solutions to the Frankenstein essay with the creative assignment, the goobers still seem to want to google something and pretend it fits the assignment. (I teach English, so there has to be writing, and there are ads for the lot of things I’d have them research for Spanish.)

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  5. I’ve recently had a rash of plagiarism and have spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do to stop it in the future. Aside from having the students create all written work in school, which is not entirely plausible, I’ve also tried to create some creative projects or some very specific topics for writing. It seems, however, that the students still find ways to sneak in lines and paragraphs that are not their own, even if they are not directly related to the project.

    Unfortunately, the wonderful internet simply makes it that much easier for students to turn in work that is not their own. It is a struggle that we fight to no end in my English department. I try to tell the students “if you can find it on the internet, so can I” and yet they still try to turn in work that is not their own. I’m not sure where this is going, but it’s just such a frustrating topic that I felt the need to rant about it.

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  6. Hi from northern Europe, more specifically Finland! Inspired by the same article (which I actually read in Time magazine) I wrote something about this same problem in my blog just a while ago. For some of our EFL students it is simply too tempting to steal their essays from the Internet. In Finland the press has even reported some prominent politicians having cut and pasted their doctoral thesis!

    Rather than make it my problem to rethink all the assignments I give to students (after all, my students will have to write a certain type of essay in English in their national final exam, and I don’t want to deprive the honest majority of their chance to practise), just like Kimberly above, I try to discuss with them what they can and cannot do with other people’s writing. You can quote and refer to somebody’s texts in your writing for as long as you credit them, and for as long as this is only to back up your own ideas and opinions. Right?

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  7. I have used turnitin.com for the past two years with great success in high school social studies classes. My school has stressed that research papers are required in college with sometimes severe consequences for plagiarism so it is best now to learn how to write and know you can be caught for doing things you are not supposed to do. One criticism high school students sometimes make once they get to college is that they were not required enough to write research or other kinds of papers while in high school. So, along with the English department, I make them do some serious writing in social studies classes. Plagiarism has been a problem but not so much now using turnitin.com. I read about the lawsuit and don’t know the answer but I like having a vehicle helping me stem the tide.
    However, I also do technology connected critical thinking projects like other people mentioned such as comic books, digital memory books, newspapers, brochures, and a variety of other things. I think I am searching for a mix of experiences, technology oriented as well as traditional; afterall, a thesis is required for a masters and a dissertation is mandatory for a doctorate. Formal writing has its place in education and I think we need to continue to teach and use it.

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  8. Maybe the great carousel of instructional methods has turned a few degrees and it’s time to go back to oral exams. I don’t know about you, but in graduate school (sociology), I worked harder on preparation for orals than any paper I ever did.

    And just think…you can evaluate on the spot!

    Just thinking out loud.

    I taught eighth grade US history (retired in 2003) and relied on many different classroom assessment methods to accommodate student strengths.

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  9. I’m a fan of the “google technique”. It accomplishes the task pretty well and the kids are always aghast when caught at how easy it was to catch them.
    As for alternates to the term paper I like to use a “textbook entry” with an illustration, brief annotated time line, key words, discussion questions and a VERY limited word count. I also give a relatively broad topic (race relations in the US between 1900 and 1945) so that the kids are forced to take out the fluff. The assignment often has the added side effect of encouraging students to look at how standard texts have to leave information out to meet length requirements. If all goes exceptionally well students begin to ask if there is more to a story than what they are reading in the book when we encounter new topics.

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  10. My students have lots of access to things behind paywalls (e.g. JSTOR) that a google search won’t catch. Furthermore spending lots of time catching sophisticated cheaters is not a good use of my time. I am happy for my school to pay Turn-it-in so that I can spend more time giving decent feedback to my students who are not cheating. Since none of my students applied for copyrights or established that the work is copywrited prior to handing it in, the work does not enjoy copyright protections. I fail to see how this suit goes anywhere. Also, I have found the demonstrating how turn-it-in works before assigning papers makes it an effective deterrent. It also is really effective for catching kids who make up stuff. Their plagairism ratings are zero. Students can also use turn-it-in to check their own work before handing it in to make sure they aren’t accidentally plagairizing.

    As for term papers that ask students to regurgitate. That’s a bad assignment. Students should be analyzing, synthesizing, arguing. If your question isn’t argumentative in nature. The point of writing about history is to pursuade; alternative assignments are nice sometimes but the minute you move away from the argumentative essay, you leave the heart of the historical enterprise.

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  11. Smithie argued: “The assignment often has the added side effect of encouraging students to look at how standard texts have to leave information out to meet length requirements.” The very first lesson in 9th grade at my school is “History is the process of leaving things out.” All history is written with a point of view, whether it’s source selection, topic selection, or (as with textbooks) market considerations and usually some combination of all of the above.

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  12. I don’t know the answer to the philisophical problem with TurnItIn making money from students’ work, but I do know that when I do require a traditional term paper, I LOVE having TurnItIn as a tool. When parents have questions, I can present them with a color-coded copy of their child’s report, annotated to show where the information came from. I show my students how the service works. There is always at least one student who points out that there is probably a way around TurnItIn’s filters. I point out that there probably is, but that it would probably take more work to figure it out than just writing the paper in the first place.

    My school requires us to correct multiple drafts of any written work. I am very stressed for time, as it is, so I find that I don’t assign as many written projects. On the one hand, that’s great, because I end up with some great, highter-end thinking projects, but I worry about lowering the bar, literacy-wise. I want my 8th graders to communicate effectively and express their original thoughts well. They have some very good ideas which will only be given the respect they deserve if they are communicated elegantly and gramatically.

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  13. This may be a daft question, but couldn’t the learners just do their writing during classtime, with print resources on hand, etc? Even if they didn’t have as wide a field of resources, at least they would be producing original writing in an environment where they would have access to guidance as needed. That is, assuming the goal is to help them learn how to write, edit, cite, etc. If the goal is something else, then, yeah, dump the whole term-paper idea.

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  14. I don’t have an alternative to the term paper, but I have a question. Why are students cheating in such rampant numbers? Have they always? Is it just that technology provides teachers with the tools to catch the guilty parties?

    I suppose I would also ask, what is the purpose of a term paper? What skills should writing one teach? I’ve been out of college for over a decade (not that long relatively speaking), but I’ve found that younger people (with good educations!) that I have hired for entry level positions lack the skills, or determination?, to find the answer to a question or a problem. If they can’t find something in two or three google searches, they report back to me that ‘it doesn’t exist.’ Then, I spend ten minutes trying various other unrelated terms and investigating possibilities (THINKING!) and unearth the results I’d asked them to find. I may be rambling at this point, but perhaps there are ‘problem solving’ assignments that can be created where by students are asked to think through a question or theme, and those who illustrate the deepest thinking are rewarded with the highest marks. I’m not sure what that work product looks like, but the traditional term paper as I knew it probably isn’t the answer.

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