July 20, 2017

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The Problem of Plagiarism | What Works

Students who copy may not know they’ve committed an offense

With so many middle and high school students using subscription databases and the Web to complete assignments, there's a lot more cutting and pasting taking place than we'd like to see. And while it's understandable that teachers would be tempted to give failing grades to plagiarized work, it's unfair to students who may not even know they're committing an offense.

My students at International College, a Pre-K to 12 American school in Beirut, Lebanon, truly believe that their works aren't plagiarized because they've "changed some words." In fact, many of them think cutting and pasting, and then replacing a few words with synonyms, is legitimate. Others have told me that they couldn't write a passage without using the author's own words, making it clear to me that they needed a lesson in how and when to cite sources.

Media specialists should offer at least one class on plagiarism to each grade level to ensure that students understand its definition, why it's wrong, and how to avoid it. Can a one-time antiplagiarism session be effective? Absolutely. It worked with my 11th- and 12th-grade students because I engaged them in a debate of the issue and then tested their skills.

Prior to my lesson, I made sure that students understood some basic definitions by giving them a copy of our school's policy on plagiarism. (If your school doesn't have one, offer to head up a committee to develop one.) The policy made it clear that plagiarism meant representing someone else's ideas or words as your own, that collusion was allowing someone else to copy your work or writing something for someone else, and that self-plagiarism involved handing in the same work for more than one assignment. I began the one-hour session by asking students to define and give examples of plagiarism. Although most of them found it easy to explain plagiarism and now understood the need for citations, it took a while for many to understand that submitting an assignment more than once is also considered to be an infraction.

I thought that showing kids real-life examples would help them better understand. So I gathered eight recent newspaper articles and presented a PowerPoint sequence of stories—"Plagiarizing Students Unable to Graduate," "Pastor Resigns After Admitting Plagiarism," and so on. Then I asked the kids to write a one-line summary of each case. I gave them a few minutes to read each other's work in silence before giving them a written test about the kinds of professions affected by plagiarism, the consequences of plagiarism, and if this could happen to them. Most students expressed surprise that plagiarism was even an issue outside of school, but were thoughtful in their responses about how much it could affect their future studies or professional lives. In the discussion that followed, self-plagiarism was the only point that remained contentious for a few students. It took several minutes of heated debate to persuade the class that you shouldn't get credit for one thing twice.

I focused the final part of my lesson on how to correctly cite sources by handing out examples on a simple instruction sheet and then asking students to explain the process of proper bibliographic citations. Then I tested their skills one more time. I gave them a page from an essay that uses three in-text citations: a short quotation, a long indented quotation, and a citation for paraphrased material. I made sure that at least two quotations were from Web sites. Students were asked to identify where citations were required and cite the source using the instruction sheet and citation examples to guide them.

Even if you've taught citation methods before, don't assume students know how to do it correctly. Many students didn't get it right the first time, but I wouldn't let anyone leave until each person handed in perfect citations. By the end of the session, we had achieved 100 percent success. Afterward, students raved about how useful the session was—and their teachers were no longer giving out failing grades.

Colleen MacDonell is the head librarian at International College, a Pre-K–12 school in Beirut, Lebanon.

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