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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Combat Plagiarism

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist

Plagiarism is hardly a new phenomenon. But a couple of recent stories have reignited concerns that plagiarism on the rise, facilitated by new computer technologies.

A recent survey by Pew Research Center found that most college presidents (55 percent) believe plagiarism has increased over the past decade. The vast majority (89 percent) blame the Internet. A study by the plagiarism-checking software Turnitin.com also blamed the Internet, but offered a more in-depth perspective of what that online plagiarism actually looks like. It pointed to "social networking and content-sharing sites" as the originators of the highest proportion of content (35 percent) it tied to plagiarized materials. It found that 14.8 percent came from "cheat sites and term paper mills," 13.5 percent came from news sites and less than 10 percent from encyclopedia sites.

But to say that "encyclopedia sites" were just a small portion of plagiarized content on Turnitin.com belies the frequency with which students turn to that type of site. Or rather, it belies the frequency with which students turn to Wikipedia. According to Turnitin.com data, the collaborative online encyclopedia is its top site for plagiarized content, followed by Yahoo's answer portal.

No doubt, it is much easier for students to find information online and copy it than locating information via the library stacks and transcribing a passage by hand. But some of the outcry about plagiarism and the Internet may need to be reevaluated. Rather than challenge how much we can rely on college presidents' sensibilities about the amount of plagiarism they see, I propose questioning sites that sell plagiarism protection software when they assess the habits of students.

If nothing else, as Kenyon College professor David Harrington found, Turnitin.com may only be gauging a small portion of students' online activities. After all, the service seems to track only a portion of the resources from which a student might opt to lift passages. If content is behind a paywall, Harrington contends -- such as in the case of The New York Times or Google Books -- then Turnitin.com's search might not uncover it.

Even more problematic, Harrington points to the services that Turnitin.com offers, including WriteCheck -- a way for students to check their own work to see if it passes the anti-plagiarism "sniff test."

"Turnitin is playing both sides of the fence," Harrington argues, "helping instructors identify plagiarists while helping plagiarists avoid detection. It is akin to selling security systems to stores while allowing shoplifters to test whether putting tagged goods into bags lined with aluminum thwart the detectors."

If we stand back, we need to ask: is it the advent of copy-and-paste that explains this? Is it the type of resources available online? Is it something else? And in the midst of all of this, what can teachers do to help address plagiarism?

In part, of course, the answer is to teach about proper citation and to help students understand how to attribute their own work to the right research and the right resources. But it also means talking to students about how Wikipedia works -- how its own citations work and how to check the history and profiles of Wikipedia editors.

The other piece too is to assign writing and research assignments that are, at their core, hard to plagiarize. This means encouraging projects that encourage creativity and originality as part of the assignment itself and cannot be simply copied from Wikipedia or other online sources. This can involve assignments that rely on primary sources or recent events or other things that that tend not to be covered by "paper mills." It can mean assigning projects in stages so that students have to submit outlines, research notes, and rough drafts along the way.

And finally, it also means being able to encourage (and to recognize) students' own voices in their writing.

Have you seen plagiarized work before? If so, how have you dealt with it?

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