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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Three Plagiarism Cases

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Maybe in the past I have been too naive, too trusting, or simply not quick-witted enough. But through my initial five years of university teaching, I had not encountered a single case of severe plagiarism. It is common enough to find the odd first year student forgetting to put a quote in quotation marks; so too might they quote or paraphrase a critic that they had heard spoken about in lectures, without chasing up the original source. Oddly, though, more common are students who diligently reference lectures and tutorials, so scared are they of being accused of plagiarism.

But if I had not come across serious plagiarism - more bad but understandable habits from new students - something must have been in the air over the last three weeks, when I have had to deal with three separate cases, all in students who were at level two, and who should therefore have known better. The three cases are instructive, though, because they show the very different ways in which plagiarism can manifest itself; they have also been a good learning experience for me, having discussed the theory of plagiarism at length (including on this website) but never having encountered it from a first-hand, teacher's perspective. Without compromising the anonymity of the students, I throw the cases up here in the interests of sharing my experience for new teachers, and also for proving to students that plagiarism will eventually get spotted.

Case One: The Lift
The first case was in some ways the easiest to deal with. The student in question had lifted large parts of a journal article and passed this off as their essay, without attributing the source either in footnotes or in a bibliography. It took about three sentences to spot this happening. Only an academic would be boring enough to want to write about the bodily functions of Finnegan's Wake.

Oddly, precisely because it was so extensive, the plagiarism here was more a symptom than the problem. For all their wiles, whinges, and late night essay-writing binges, I have a positive view of students - and I do not believe any would do this without some good or, rather, serious underlying reason. I was concerned not so much for the plagiarism itself, which was blatant, as for what it revealed about the student's welfare. Clearly, something was happening behind the scenes that had made them desperate enough to copy at such length, and blind enough to think they could get away with it.

In this case, then, I immediately referred it up the academic line, for someone with an overview of all that student's work and past history, who could probe the issue more deeply.

Case Two: The Sneak
In many ways, this was the most obnoxious of the three, even though the plagiarism was the least extensive. Here, the student had written an essay that was clearly their own work on the whole; the topic was so specific as to have made it virtually impossible for them simply to cull an entire paper. It was a good, but not spectacular essay. However, lurking in the middle of it were two sentences that simply did not sound right. To my ear they seemed just too, well, academicky. Literary academics have a way of writing that is sophisticated, precise, but also slightly clunking. They also sprinkle - nay, litter - it with jargon. Who in daily life uses the words "cultural paradigm"? One would expect the differences in writing style between a good student and an academic to be barely perceptible, but actually they stood out a mile here.

The two sentences that had been lifted verbatim were not referenced, nor was the source included in the bibliography. Ironically, this was probably a case of double plagiarism, because when I Googled the phrases, it led me to a discussion forum thread, where the entry had purportedly been written by a junior school student. I think not.

There were two depressing things here. The first was that my student had tried to deceive me. They were perfectly capable of writing a good essay on their own, but had slipped these in so as to make me think better of them. Of course, the student protested that they had just failed to note down the source when drafting the essay - which may well be true, but it is hard not to be more suspicious of a genuine motive rather than pure carelessness.

However, the more depressing thing is that the student had clearly discovered these quotes via a Google search, the same search that allowed me to pull them out. Rather than carefully selecting a journal article or library resources to read and summarise for their essay, they had turned to the search box as a quick way of finding something directly relevant to whatever terms they plugged in. As I said, the source was actually a discussion board for junior school students, which is hardly what one might call academically reliable (even though my hunch is that the school student here had themselves plagiarised from an academic source).

This, then, exposed the research habits that I suspect are common to many students - and which, I confess, I have slipped into as well. Rather than constructing an essay from the ground up, assembling and integrating diverse ideas from selected academic sources to develop a new concept in their work, this essay seemed to have been more built from the top down. The student had seemingly developed their own thoughts and written in a flow of personal ideas, then simply plugged in anything that seemed handily to correspond to their points.

This case, then, shows that referencing is not simply something one should do as an afterthought to the process of writing an essay. Rather, it is intrinsic to a whole research methodology and approach from the outset. Thinking about what needs to be referenced at the end of the writing process should encourage one from the start of the process to go directly to the most reliable sources - namely those on reading lists and in scholarly databases online - rather than to use a web search towards the end, scattering cherry-like soundbites on the surface of the essay.

Case Three: The Bad Habit
If both the above cases were clear in terms of their implications, this was perhaps the trickiest and most ambiguous of the three. Here the student had read a great deal of critical material, and diligently listed it in their bibliography. However, scattered throughout the essay were sentences or phrases that had been lifted from this material, without being referenced. The student had also given evidence from the primary text that corresponded with the evidence selected from some of the secondary criticism, whilst some of the general ideas were also interrelated.

Immediately, then, this was a grey area that applies to plagiarism in general. Including phrases without attribution was clearly unacceptable. But how about the places where the student had selected evidence for their argument that was substantially derived from the arguments of the critics? Given that at this level we would hardly expect any student to come up with original ideas, and indeed they would be expected to rely quite heavily on lectures, tutorials and course readings lists without necessarily needing to reference all of these, how far should one complain about something that is fairly derivative? Isn't this ultimately the case for most work below PhD level?

This is one of the tricky balancing acts that undergraduate students must learn. Tricks like introducing a paragraph by saying "Critic x has explored the possibility that novel y is about x" come in handy, because a student can then structure ideas and evidence that are derived from the critic, without having to litter their work with references for every tiny point of detail.

This case also highlights the importance of a bibliography. Even though the student had not referenced every relevant moment, at least I knew that they had got their ideas from somewhere outside of their own heads, even if I could not pin down precisely which were the student's words and concepts, and which the critics'.

But this also made me reflect on whether we as teachers do enough not only to press home the importance of referencing, but also to explain that using the work of others does not represent a failure on the part of a student. This particular student was otherwise really good. Their earlier work had been of the highest order. They had clearly put in a lot of effort to read around the topic in this case, too. I suspect, then, that they had not referenced every source not only perhaps because of poor note-taking habits, but also because of their fear that I would somehow see their essay as inferior because it relied on other critics rather than independent engagement with the text.

This is why I think we ought to do more from the outset of a literature course to explain that at this level, literary research may well be more like in the sciences. In the latter, there is no shame in citing any factual detail; indeed, it is the very test of a good research paper that it will do this, advancing new knowledge only by a tiny increment, pushing off against a far larger body of old knowledge in the background. Similarly in literary studies, what is being tested in an undergraduate assignment is not the soft skill of the student's ability to write creatively and spontaneously, and to have a passionate but critically refined assessment of literature, but the harder skills of reading around, researching and integrating different ideas into a new essay. This skill of synthesising the work of others is one reason why employers value English graduates so highly; it is the same sort of skill needed to write a business report, or produce a Powerpoint presentation.

We might like to pretend that the ideal English student follows the Arnoldian model, someone whose aesthetic ears have been carefully tuned so as to be pitch-perfect, able to identify and explain what makes good literature. But as Matthew Arnold showed in his "blind reading" exercises, even the best students can not be taught interpretation from the bottom; critical sensitivity is something that is only gradually acquired through practice and the continued effort of reading and critical writing. What those of us teaching at the undergraduate level ought to be stressing, then, is not that the best essays are necessarily the intuitive ones that emerge from the student's mind alone. Rather, the good essay will digest of the minds of others. Whilst we can't "teach" Arnoldian interpretation, we can teach the fundamentals of referencing, researching, selecting sources and so on, that can be the equally good route to a sound literary essay, and ultimately to the student's employability.

In Conclusion
Whilst impressionistic criteria cannot help but inform our marking, I do believe that a good essay will not only sound right, it will also do right as well. It will not only have some ephemeral sense of the student being a good, intuitive reader of primary literary texts; it will have the hard indications of the student being a diligent, thorough reader of secondary materials, and someone who gets their references correct.

Recently, at one of the universities at which I teach, the student newspaper's editorial complained about different standards across academic departments. Some subject do not give specific credit for referencing and bibliographies, whilst some award equal marks to getting referencing right as they do to the quality of the arguments themselves. Whilst I would not necessarily go this far, all the cases of plagiarism I have encountered above do make me think that we should specify a certain percentage for the quality of referencing and selection of sources, rather than what is written per se. Not only would this be a further check on plagiarism - students will do everything they can to get the "easy" marks - it would also convey the truer, modern view of undergraduate literary studies which is that it inculcates not just the soft ideology of originality, but the hard, testable skills of researching, summarising and referencing well.

This is my controversial conclusion from the teacher's point of view. The conclusion from the student's point of view should be less ambiguous: plagiarism will get discovered. Probably, the odd case slips a reader's eye. No doubt many students use search engines to pluck ideas which they then paraphrase, rather than reading selected secondary criticism which they explicitly summarise and reference. However, sooner or later, a teacher will discover plagiarism, and when it does it lays bear all those bad habits. No matter what the practical implications on marks, being accused (and, for that matter, accusing a student) of plagiarism is a nasty process to have to go through. There is no point running the risk.

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Posted by Alistair at 12:51 pm

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