More plagiarism BS

Academic Plagiarism, and specifically the success of Turnitin, is once more in the news – and ‘Frankly, my dear, I couldn’t give a damn.’  I don’t care much about plagiarism, most of my assessments are designed in a way that makes them very difficult to plagiarise, and I mainly use Turnitin to manage digital submissions and grading (although I’ve moved to using pdfs on my iPad for grading and feedback). I design assignments  and grade for ‘evidence of a mind at work’

Mostly, I care about the Great Plagiarism Witch Hunt because the focus on a law and order approach to detecting and punishing plagiarism is more evidence of an outcomes focussed, behaviourist pedagogy which annoys me deeply.  I think academics who spent all day demonizing plagiarism instead of explaining why properly scholarly practice is important are all wrong anyway. (and I plagiarised myself there because I posted that sentence on Facebook a hour ago)

The emphasis on punishing plagiarism is important if all you do is hand out the same essay titles as everyone else, every year. There are a million essays on the causes of the French Revolution out there, and they all thread the same ground. I would argue that it is absolutely impossible to write an original undergrad short paper (5-7 pages, 1,200-2,000 words) on a topic like that. If a student wants to say ‘The people stormed the Bastille on 14th July out of fear of a royalist reaction’  then there are a limited number of ways you can construct that sentence. Odds are, whatever form of words you choose, someone else has already used them. So, bang, sentence plagiarised, there’s a another few points on the Turnitin score.  Expecting students to find an original way to state a simple fact and/or causal relationship on any common topic is requirement imposing for convolution of phrasing, which manner avoideth plagiarism which, sadly, contemporaneously compelling such contortions of lingual expression as to contribute to obscurantism of meaning, as well as painful coinage.

It is true that the critics of the latest piece of Turnitin corporate research do criticise the law and order approach, and talk about the need to emphasise ‘academic integrity’ as a positive value. (see Thomas Dee at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/02/06/researcher-casts-doubt-plagiarism-detection-software-turnitins-efficacy-claims ). Dee said:

“What’s lacking in all of this is what we fielded in our randomized trial, which is something that grabbed students up front and said this is what academic integrity really means, and here are some effective strategies that you can implement right now to avoid plagiarism. I worry about approaches that are more law and order and less about us taking up our primary duty of trying to educate these students.”

This is slightly more positive, but actually still misses the point. It isn’t about academic integrity, it is about research skills and good practice. Effective research requires student to locate and evaluate sources, ascertain the scope of debate on a topic, take a perspective or position on the issue, and carefully select evidence to support their position, presenting it in an paper – or a presentation, or a blog post, or on a discussion forum.

Regardless of where they present the conclusion, I want my students to reference it, not because I want to track plagiarism but because I want to see how well they have chosen evidence to support their position. I need to be able to look back at the sources they have used to see if they have chosen quotes which are representative of the work they used, or if they chose the most useful quotes. In research based teaching, where my students do a lot of work using primary sources, I need to be able to track back to see how well they used the source, and not how carefully they placed quotation marks.

I try to sell my students on the value of the research training, not the sub-editing skills – in this day and age, with all the spelling, grammar and reference checking tools we have, machines can pick up those, and pre-emptively alert students to the needs to fix them. That includes allowing students to use Turnitin to check their own drafts for plagiarism, which I encourage. That does mean that, since the drafts have already been sucked into the Turnitin database, the final submissions often score above 80% on the plagiarism score – if they don’t, it means they didn’t bother to check a draft!

How I design those assessments, and how i grade on my iPad, at home, by the fire, with pipe and whiskey, is too long for today – that’s for another post.

As I said, I don’t grade for ability to place quotation marks, I grade for evidence of a mind at work. It’s harder work than relying on any plagiarism detection tool to scare students into working properly, and that’s why we earn our money.

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