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Friday Guest Column: Searching for the End to Plagiarism

June 27, 2008 3 min read

Dorothy Mikuska founded ePen&inc, developer of PaperToolsPro and PaperToolsPro Online.

Imagine my shock when I read the newspaper headlines that a principal of a nearby high school had plagiarized his entire graduation speech and its valedictorian’s speech had eleven instances of plagiarism. Though extensive evidence of students plagiarizing may be startling, professional writers and educational leaders are also found plagiarizing. The integrity of the word is the basis of education and communication; steal or abuse words and learning is compromised. Schools have three choices to stem the growing prevalence of plagiarism.

First, and most popular, is directly teaching students what plagiarism is, why it is unethical, and its consequences, as stated in each school’s honesty policy. Increasing incidents of toxic text shows that students’ behavior for the most part has not changed. (Incidentally, the online honesty policy of the University of Texas at San Antonio was plagiarized word for word from another school’s policy without attribution.)
Believing that many students are both unethical and lazy and that teachers are too overworked to authenticate plagiarism, many schools employ Internet detection services, such as Turnitin, to police students by comparing papers to the contents of the software’s databases. Although these databases are extensive, they cannot compare student writing to text from websites requiring passwords, paper mill sites which email purchased papers, non-electronic sources such as books, or papers written by friends, classmates or Mom.

Preaching the school’s ethical code has proven ineffective and policing student work has taught students not to get caught by tinkering with challenged passages.
To address plagiarism effectively, its causes must first be identified. Plagiarism is an educational problem for which schools need an educational solution that provides appropriate instruction and support to overcome the four main causes: disengaged learning; poor reading skills; lack of organizational and metacognitive skills; and careless documentation.

I have watched students easily distracted while doing research, leading them to read only for main ideas, a skill they mastered in middle school. Mies van der Rohe said God is in the detail; my attorney tells me the devil is in the detail. Either interpretation tells me that details have got to be interesting—where real learning occurs, where motivation to be engaged occurs. But students skim too quickly because they value speed over reflection, simplification over synthesis, and brevity over complexity. In-depth long-term learning occurs when students analyze and synthesize information, when they organize it and reflect on their own learning, and when they evaluate and document their sources.

In the days before computers and copy machines, students recorded information on note cards with the source and page identified. Our millennial students no longer communicate with pen and paper but on a keyboard. They no longer take notes, but merely copy/paste from online sources without reflecting, analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating their information. Research has become as mechanical as the computer. If students genuinely understood their information, plagiarism would be eliminated.

Since students do most of their research online, educators need to provide software to assist proper learning. Citation management programs like Endnote and RefWorks create bibliography entries and citations as well as the opportunity to annotate a source. PaperToolsPro, a research management tool, has created an integrated package for note taking, citations, bibliography, organization, and synthesizing information.

Schools need to rethink the causes and solutions to the growing plagiarism epidemic, beyond simple solutions, beyond just writing an honesty policy for a school, even if it is not plagiarized.

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