Three indirect steps to help prevent plagiarism

Despite the fact that most teachers now include academic dishonesty policies in their syllabi, and may even spend significant class time discussing different forms of plagiarism with their students, there is a general consensus that plagiarism is still common among today’s undergraduates. Why should this be?

A few years ago, English professors Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard set out to gather data on the way that students use sources in their academic writing. They had a sense, through their experiences in the classroom, “that what underlay much of what was being interpreted as plagiarism was not based in students’ ethical choices, but rather in their practices and skills in source-based writing,” i.e., students are not plagiarizing because they are “cheaters,” wanting to scam their way to better grades. Rather, students plagiarize because they don’t know how to properly integrate other people’s work into their own. Wanting to test this assumption, Jamieson and Howard launched the Citation Project, a multi-institution empirical study of the way students use sources in their writing.

So far, the Citation Project has analyzed 174 student papers from sixteen institutions, classifying a total of 1,911 citations. While the research did not attempt to document instances of out-and-out copying of sources without attribution, the data on what students do when they do cite sources is nonetheless illuminating. Only 6% of the citations came in the form of summary; the remaining 94% were either direct quotations (42%), copied without quotation marks (4%), patchwritten (16%), or paraphrased (32%). The low incidence of summarization suggests that students are not fully engaging with the ideas within the sources they cite. This sense is further cemented by the fact that 46% of the citations come from the source’s first page (70% come from the first two pages).

In a 2011 interview, Jamieson and Howard make three suggestions for teachers who wish to cut down on plagiarism among their students. Following on from their research, their suggestions are indirectly aimed at plagiarism, emphasizing ways to teach students to properly engage with academic sources:

1) Teach your students to read complex sources critically.

This is clearly not an easy task, but it is just as clear that it is an important one. Teaching students the value of proper research, the way that an in-depth understanding of someone else’s work can naturally lead to their own scholarly contributions, is one of the most critical jobs of a college teacher, applicable in nearly every discipline. If students know how to better read other people’s work, they will be more likely to have something substantive to say in response, rather than cherry-picking quotations to pad out their papers.

2) Teach your students good source selection.

This involves distinctions between types of sources, as well as getting students to understand how to cite a source properly. Don’t assume that they know how—or, as importantly, why—to create a works cited page.

3) Teach your students how to properly summarize sources.

Teaching students how to summarize may help reduce plagiarism by showing students the right way to use sources. What’s more, training students in integrating other voices into their writing may lead to the students learning how to integrate other voices into their thinking. 94% of the citations analyzed by the Citation Project were at the sentence level, suggesting that putting an emphasis on summary may be a necessary step for teachers who want their students to engage more fully with the work of others.  -DG


Source: “Unraveling the Citation Trail.” Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 8, Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard, The Citation Project. 15 August 2011. Web. 29 August 2013.