Teaching Undergrads to Avoid Plagiarism

In the last few years, there have been a number of examples of plagiarism in the news (such as here and here) that provide useful teaching moments for undergraduates learning how to write and do research. Most recently, accusations about Jill Abramson’s new book are the focus of much attention. Every term, I dedicate time to talking with my students about the twin imperatives of, one, building on and contributing to a body of existing knowledge and, two, of acknowledging and giving credit to those who built the foundation. Even if they understand intellectually— and many don’t — they struggle with how to do it in practice. As to the first, there’s another post to write about how they struggle with developing their own ideas in the context of others, what it means to contribute to a body of knowledge, and how there’s room for them to contribute to even well-tilled areas of inquiry.

The giving credit part — acknowledging sources and proper citation — is particularly challenging. To be fair, if well-established and experienced writers and speakers have some difficulty with plagiarism, then we might expect our students to as well. And while the extreme might be obvious to most — examples of whole paragraphs (see examples in links above) or passages copied from someone else’s work without attribution usually elicit audible gasps from my class — they see a pretty substantial gray area in which they have trouble navigating in their own work. Not only do they struggle with identifying their sources — it’s not uncommon to see them making statements of fact without presenting any specific evidence — but even when they do, they struggle with proper citation. And I don’t mean format (although it seems I care more than some instructors about formatting) but providing any kind of notation about about where the information or ideas come from.

So, every term I bore them with at least a brief discussion about plagiarism. (BTW, I know that I bore them because they tell me so in their evaluations. Oh well, tough noogies.) I get that it can be hard to distinguish our own ideas from those we read about, especially if we’re doing a lot of research and we don’t keep track as well as we should of which blocks we’re building on and which ones we’re adding to the conversation. Teaching them how to take notes and keep track of their sources is part of the lesson, and I’ve used Raul Pacheco-Vega’s guidance on using Excel for this purpose as an example for them. And I reference and encourage them to use online writing sites that can provide excellent tutorials and information about specific types of sources and citations. My faves are Purdue OWL and the UNC Writing Center.

I use Turnitin as a tool for helping them learn when to paraphrase, to quote, and to provide attribution, encouraging them to upload drafts into the software so that they can catch their mistakes (it won’t surprise anyone to learn that they rarely do this). But in my class, they write their research papers in parts and I require them to turn them in through Turnitin so I can give them feedback about where they need more attention to attribution. I don’t hold them fully responsible for plagiarism until the final paper, after they‘ve had at least two rounds of feedback from Turnitin and me on how to do it properly.

This term I added another element to my segment on sourcing and citation by asking them to insert citations where needed in a news magazine article they were assigned last week. It gave me the opportunity to remind them that the rules are different for scholarship and journalism, and that we’re scholars in our class. What was presented as fact and what was presented as opinion? What would they require about sources for the facts? Where would they insert a footnote or a parenthetical citation? How would they cite the quotes? Did they know how to cite a court case? An interview? What about an unpublished report?

I did this a bit on the fly and didn’t have enough time to do it as well as I will the next time. We did it in class, but it would have been better done the night before so that everyone was ready to talk about it. I’d put them in small groups to talk about what choices they made and why, and then report out to the larger group, which I try to do as often as I can to get broader and more thoughtful participation. And, I’d ask them to take a paragraph or two from their own most recent draft and edit it to include proper citations. Perhaps I’d have them turn it in for quick feedback and participation credit for the day.

Whatever we can do to encourage them to slow down and take the time to do their research properly will be invaluable to them. In my program, I’m particularly worried about how they’ll do their work when they leave the classroom and campus. There are a lot of tools at their disposal that weren’t available even a decade ago and they should use them. My class is the space in which they can acknowledge what they don’t know and learn from their mistakes. Better to screw up with me, I tell them, than “out there.”

Author’s Note, February 16, 2019: I just realized that the link to Raul’s website didn’t transfer when I pasted text in the blog post! I guess this helps make my case that most errors are good faith mistakes … but still. The link is now in the text.