I have plagiarized. I am a plagiarizer. One of the lazy, the dishonest, the corrupt. I am one of them. The hated ones. The bane of teachers, especially the composition teaching type, everywhere. Or I was. Let me explain.
In high school I was assigned a “research paper.” We were to find a subject we wanted to write about, find a source (I don’t remember that word being used, but I’ll use it here) about that subject, and then write an essay. There was no discussion of how to do this, of what look for, nor if what we were doing was to be a summary, or an argument, or how to use a source to help us prove our point. No ‘models’ at all. None of that. In fact, all the specialized vocabulary I’m using I learned twenty-five years later. I just remember being told to do it, that I didn’t know what to do, and that I didn’t know how, or who, to ask for help, because asking for help in high school was just not an option. How uncool would that be? So, not knowing how to do what was required, the correct way, I responded with what I now consider a fairly creative act.
I found an article in one of my dad’s computer magazines, on Atari video games, and thought/knew I could just ‘re-write’ it, basically copying it, but changing words, and/or ‘re-saying’ sentences in my own words, as I went. I gave no citation, nor had I ever heard of the word citation. I didn’t even know what the word plagiarism was, but I did know that what I was doing was ‘wrong,’ that I was stealing someone else’s ideas, and I had some minor fear that I would be ‘caught,’ though what the consequences were I wasn’t sure. But I thought I was clever, disguising the original text enough, so that even if my teacher found the original article somehow, he would never recognize it from my essay! Moo ha ha!
And yet, when I completely got away with it, receiving an ‘A,’ although I felt relief, I also felt really really guilty. And a little disappointed. Like, “Really? It was that easy to fool you?”
Why did I do it? Lazy? Well, like most of my fellow students, I had a desire to do the least amount of effort possible in school, that was just a given. But the feeling of not knowing how to write a “research paper” kind of drove me to a desperate act: It seemed a ‘cheat or fail’ situation, and I now wonder if part of me wanted to get caught, as the only way for me to say/show my teacher that I had no idea what he wanted, nor how he wanted it done, though again, now, I’m not even sure he ever read it: there was no real (easy) way for my teacher to check where I was getting my information, even if he’d suspected something: This was back in the days when papers were still written out by hand. I didn’t even have access to a typewriter!
But after that, even on into college, I went through my classes never even considering plagiarism. In part, it didn’t seem necessary: In high school I could usually write something in homeroom the day it was due that would get a ‘B.’ In fact, back then I prided myself on my ability to get a ‘B’ instead of being a nerd and actually making an effort at studying to get an A (Now? I’m a nerd), though of course, expectations were low, and the ability to just complete something and turn it in seemed to be good enough for my teachers. I’m exaggerating, but also there weren’t any other research-y type assignments, no writing assignments involving using an outside source to support some “point.” I don’t remember many essay assignments period, and if there were, they were, or I wrote, merely summaries.
That was the ‘school writing,’ the high school version of academic writing. On the other hand, I had been producing my own creative texts, sometimes in school, mostly on my own, since about first grade, including short stories, cartoons/comics, and, later, when I started playing music, song lyrics. Even when a school assignment was something creative, like a short story, I never ever had any urge to copy something else. I valued the opportunity to create a text of my own, to tell my own stories, for a number of reasons: I like reading creative genres of writing, and, liking them, I wanted to emulate them. Also, creative writing was fun, and I was good at it, meaning I knew (I mean, as much as a high school student knows) how to ‘do’ it. Or, I was good at it, therefore it was fun. The two are intertwined. I had read short stories, I had models, I knew kind of how a story might/should progress. Research paper? Not fun. Didn’t know how to do it. Funny how these things go together. And I had no models, had never read any research-y texts that I liked. Had never read any research-y type texts period, not in school, and especially not in the reading I was doing on my own, and no, The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown didn’t count.
For the rest of high school, then into my first two years of college, and the three composition classes I took, I still never had to do any research, nor write anything either working with or responding to outside resources. And I was fine with that. Still am. Instead, with the department under the influence of Peter Elbow at the time, I was writing personal essay type assignments, which, to me, were more like the creative writing I’d been doing on my own, therefore I was invested in the writing, and I was ‘honing my writing chops’ with material on which I was an expert: me. Not that I knew everything about myself, nor that I didn’t do some reflecting, but, since I liked what I was writing about, I never thought about plagiarizing. It just wasn’t even an option. Writing from personal experience is just less conducive to that kind of thinking. As far as I know, plagiarism wasn’t ever a problem in any of my composition classes at JCC, for me or anybody.
In fact, I wanted to do more writing, so while still at JCC I did an independent study on research writing, just because I was curious. I wasn’t thinking I needed to prepare myself for other classes later on at the university, I just figured knowing how to write a research paper would expand my abilities as a writer, period. In this, I know, I was in major nerd-dom. But I was right: I did expand/learn/think. My teacher, Mr. Albright, basically gave me as much freedom as I needed. I got to choose my topic, cockroaches, and he helped me with suggestions on where I could look for info on cockroaches, and maybe a little on the organization of the paper. For citation, I just used a model, a book not on citation, but a book that used Chicago Style. I didn’t know there were different systems, I just copied what the author of that book had done, which, interestingly, shows me that there is value in copying at least certain things. And I actually enjoyed the project.
Then I never again had to do any research or citation in my undergraduate studies.
Nor did I plagiarize. Never thought about it, even if at times, though I wasn’t doing ‘research,’ I was asked to write papers about ‘stuff.’ This was always hard for me, and if there’s one thing I now feel I could’ve had more, or any, experience in, it would be this, because I knew my teachers didn’t just mean summarizing, and yet, I was still bad at even that. I felt trapped: regurgitation didn’t require thinking, but I hadn’t been shown how to ‘think’ about subjects either. For example, in my last semester, I took a class on Hinduism, which I loved. The professor was great, engaging, funny, the books were interesting, both informative and made me think, or re-think, my ideas of religion and existence, etc. At the end of the semester, we had to write a paper about what we’d learned, and I was at a complete loss. He had given us no guidelines, no handout, no models, no nuthin’. It was just assumed that we knew how to write ‘a paper.’ I was freaking out, and as a last resort, opted for the regurgitation option, and one day just sat down and wrote down everything I knew/remembered from the course, by hand, in my notebook, typed it up, and then called it a paper. You might say that’s a legit thing to do, and I did ok, I think I ended up with a B for the course, though maybe a C for the paper itself. My point, I think, is that that was a moment when I might have considered my old plagiarism trick: Find an essay about Hinduism somewhere, and copy it, changing words and sentences. But I didn’t. Why? Well, the stakes were higher. I was at Michigan State University, and somehow knew, though I hadn’t been told, that being caught ‘cheating’ was going to have more serious ramifications than in high school, or even at a community college. I also knew that faking out a college professor would be harder to do
Also, I was invested in the class, somehow. Not in the sense that I was writing from personal experience (though now I think that would be a great, and more interesting, strategy for a paper, to mix personal experience with what I’d learned during that semester) but because I liked the course. It was one of the most interesting classes I ever took. It changed the way I thought. I wanted to be able to prove, to my professor, but also more to myself, that I could produce some written evidence of my thinking. In addition, by then I had a certain confidence in my writing skills, from the composition and creative writing classes I’d taken, and my own creative writing, so that, even with the frustration of not knowing what to do, how to write that paper for Hinduism, I knew I was good enough not to have to cheat.
Based on these experiences, the two biggest factors in causing a temptation to plagiarize seem to be not knowing how to write something, and not being invested in a class, rather than, say, laziness, like some people claim. Also, reflecting back on my high school plagiarism experience, I have some additional thoughts I can’t ignore or quite explain: In copying that article for my high school assignment, I did actually: 1) read it carefully, and 2) learn from it, and 3) practice working with a structure and 4) Do some playing with words, which in its way, is creative. And, I turned out ok. I mean, I didn’t become a criminal, or a terrorist, or even a politician.
Fast forward fifteen years and I found myself returning to JCC, this time as an instructor of composition. Oh the irony. And, things had changed: research, meaning use of outside sources, and citation ability, had become a part of their composition courses. And, surprise, plagiarism was “rampant,” as one colleague put it. In all three levels of writing classes at JCC, English 132, 131, and even the developmental class, 090, the ease of finding online sources, tied in with the cut and paste functions of internet and word processing programs, in other words the technology, seemed to make for a tempting combination for my students. For the personal essay assignments, all my students seemed fine, even invested in, writing and rewriting “stories,” about themselves, but every time a ‘research paper’ rolled around, there would be a little frustration on their part, and mine, about what plagiarism even was, and how not to do it, to the point that sometimes this became more important, to them and sometimes me, than the actual process of writing and/or thinking.
And if all this starts to sound like I was one of those grumpy “plagiarism nazis,” those professors that are ‘out to catch the (lazy) perpetrator,’ I didn’t want to be, I didn’t mean to be. It just kind of happened. When I felt like some students were lazy and thought they could just cut and paste and get away with it, with whole paragraphs suddenly shifting into the voices of adults with PhDs, then yes, that left me feeling a little insulted. Fortunately, technology works both ways. Thanks to Google Search, I could type in an odd sounding sentence and usually find the source, but I hated that every time the ‘research paper’ rolled around, I had to go on a ‘plagiarism hunt’ after my students had already written something. I was only catching symptoms of the problem, not solving the problem itself. Plagiarism, though seemingly clear to me, wasn’t so seemingly clear to my students, and just talking about it seemed to set up a ‘me versus them’ dynamic, in which, instead of the writing or thinking they were doing for a paper, they were mainly worried about ‘not doing something right.’ Not a good situation in which to foster learning.
Were other students consciously copying sentences and maybe changing a word or two because they were lazy? Maybe. Or was that really how they had learned to write? Again, maybe. Or were they, like I had been, a little frustrated because they just didn’t know what to do? Probably. A little of all those things seems true, but based on my own act of plagiarism, that last reason starts to sound like the stronger one. They didn’t know how to work with outside sources, nor were they personally invested.
So I tried a few things: First, I had students choose their own topics to research and write about. If they were more invested in the topic, they were more likely to really want to find things out it. Second, I wanted some way of keeping the personal connection to their writing. That is, I didn’t want them to write dry, academic-y texts in a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ kind of way, I wanted them to be in their papers, in the style of some creative non-fiction books I’d read, like A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman, something both informative and personal and easy to read. I found using Ken Macrorie’s I-Search paper very helpful for this. What I like about it, or at least my version of it, since people seem to interpret it differently, is that students write about not only their research, but why they were interested in a certain subject, their personal connection to the topic, and the process, the story, of how they did that research. Informative but still personal. These types of papers were much more fun for students to write, and for me to read!
Third, I tried to talk about plagiarism in class, at the start of my students’ I-Search papers, before they even started to write, using example texts from our book, and bringing in other examples I’d found, which modeled how writers had quoted from, paraphrased, and/or summarized these texts, correctly or incorrectly, and we talked about these examples, and whether we agreed with them or not. We also discussed quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing, and practiced them in groups, using example sources I’d bring in (including faux news articles from The Onion—my effort to make the exercises at least somewhat fun).
All three of these activities seemed to help, giving them a little experience in just thinking/questioning was plagiarism was, and also in using citation language. But I still found myself on the plagiarism hunt, Googling whole sentences and comparing the results with my students’ sources, when the papers started coming in. Less. But still. My naiveté and idealism weren’t up to reality. I was open to anything that would help save me work and time with the plagiarism problem, so I, and my students, would have more time for the actual writing/thinking parts of their assignments.
Enter turnitin.com, a program that JCC started using, experimentally, my second semester there. The way it works is a student can submit/upload a paper onto the companies website, and the program compares their paper to every text it can find on the internet, then sends it back to the student, with an “originality report,” giving a breakdown of the percentage of the students’ own words compared to any groupings of words used from other sources, quoted or not. Any duplicated sections it finds are highlighted in different colors, with a corresponding link that brings the students to the source of that similar text. The program also highlights the phrases it finds, even if certain words within the phrases were different. There’s also an option to highlight all text within quotes in paper or not, and I always encouraged students to do this, in order to demonstrate where and how much their quotes appeared ‘sandwiched’ between their own words, and to see what percentage of a paper these quotes consisted of, since we’d discussed that 5-10% was a number to try for, that they didn’t want their papers too ‘quote heavy.’
I made it mandatory that my students ‘submit’ their rough drafts to turnitin.com, so that, based in part on the feedback they received, they would have time to make changes to the final drafts. And what I felt was going on was that students had a tool they could use to double-check themselves on whether they were quoting, paraphrasing, and/or summarizing correctly or not. It was a time saver for them, and for me. They could get instant feedback from the program instead of having to wait for me, and I could go on and concentrate on their writing, their ideas, instead of hunting for plagiarism.
Then I started to hear about the controversy surrounding turnitin.com, and I couldn’t quite believe it. Both at JCC, and then Eastern Michigan University, where I had entered the graduate Written Communication Program, when I started to hear people discuss turnitin.com, we seemed to be talking about two completely different programs. Since these were people I trusted and respected, I wanted to know why they felt it was, as someone put it, “evil.”
I finally got a chance, in part, with a new book by Caroline Eisner and Martha Vicinus, Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age, a collection of essays from composition scholars as far away as Australia and New Zealand about plagiarism, technology, and plagiarism detection devices like turnitin.com. The main theme is about how technology, and how we use technology, affects our thinking about the three ideas listed in the title. There is some good healthy disagreement among the contributors, and the point of the book if more about how thinking about writing and plagiarism is changing, rather than come up with any absolute answers.
turnitin.com in particular is addressed in some of the essays from the last section, including one of what I consider the “core” ones, by Linda Adler-Kassner (my professor/supervisor at Eastern Michigan University), Chris M. Anson, and Rebecca Moore Howard, titled “Framing Plagiarism.” Their main point is to ‘re-frame’ how plagiarism is talked about, the terms and vocabulary used, and taught, in schools but they seem to fall into a ‘frame’ of their own in discussing turnitin.com, describing it as a way to “control” students and “strip” them of their “identity” (241-2), though how this happens isn’t stated exactly, they seem to take these terms as givens. But saying turnitin.com does this is like saying that the Google search engine “controls” students and “strips” them of their identity. No. It has changed the way people do research, in both good and bad ways, depending on how it’s used, just like any tool, but tools don’t “control” people. If anything, the act of writing in the Academic Discourse, or researching, responding to texts, citing in a predetermined way, using certain ‘academic’ language, all of these things could be argued to be a form of ‘controlling’ students and taking away their identities. If they don’t do a little conforming in college, then they end up excluded from the Academic Discourse, and therefore from jobs, and even from the ability to express themselves politically in the Public Discourse(s). Not that that’s a good thing. We all want to help students navigate in the academic world without losing sense of themselves, but also help them grow and find new ways of thinking about themselves, but taking away a potential tool won’t help either of those goals.
One of the articles Adler-Kassner et al. cite, by Bill Marsh, on how plagiarism is discussed, also discusses plagiarism detection devices, and, though they don’t use this section of his article, it seems to inform their turnitin.com ‘frame.’ According to Marsh, the use of plagiarism detection tools like turnitin.com are an example of the “bureaucratization” of higher education. For him, the danger isn’t the instructors, so much as the administration, who, he claims, want to impose ‘how to teach’ on instructors (427-438). Although this article may seem ‘old,’ from way back in 2004, Marsh’s argument still seems valid: just as Leave No Child Left Behind emphasized the idea of tests as a way to determine “learning” (I have to put that in quotes), higher learning institutions are feeling the push to both streamline learning (i.e. make it cost less) and make it accountable. Meaning, accountable to someone other than instructors. Meaning, administrators think (or perhaps hope) that with programs like turnitin.com there soon won’t be a need for teachers, that students will just submit their papers to a programs and receive some type of ‘neutral’ evaluation about whether their writing is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Put that way, submitting student papers to a program sounds a little horrifying, true, and this thinking seems to come from idea that education is based on “standards,” where students all need to learn the same ‘thing,’ rather than on learning for itself.
All of the teachers involved in the turnitin.com debate would probably (I mean, I hope) agree that standards-based “education” is a horrible idea, money-driven, and that administrators would love to replace teachers somehow, but by using turnitin.com as the focus point, I don’t think the administrators, or some teachers, understand the technology of turnitin.com very well: when a student submits a text to turnitin.com, it’s not automatically ‘labeled’ plagiarism, the program merely points out where text matches already existing text. It remains up to the individual student (and/or instructor) to determine if plagiarism is happening, and how to (appropriately!) address it. The originality report merely gives a percentage of text that appears in other sources. It makes no judgments or pronouncements about the quality of the paper, nor the process that went into writing it. That remains the job of the instructor. And “appropriately” is the key term here. What Adler-Kassner, Anson, and Moore, and others, seem to get trapped in is that using plagiarism detection devices like turnitin.com isn’t an either/or situation, it’s a ‘how to use it’ situation. Just like any tool, it can be used appropriately or inappropriately.
Another reason why people consider turnitin.com “evil” is the idea that papers students turn in to turnitin.com become the property of the company. That had never been my understanding. The company does store the essays electronically in order to be able to compare future student essays, to prevent one form of plagiarism, in which students pass on essays to friends taking the same classes later. It’s not that turnitin.com can turn around and use the essays in some way, for example to publish them, and a Chronicle of Higher Education article confirms this, showing how a judge ruled that the program is ok to use under the “fair-use provision of copyright law,” because the company isn’t trying to use the submitted student papers for any creative or academic use, nor for profit (Young A13). In other words, the company isn’t going to turn around and sell the essays, or use them in any way, and the students retain all the rights to their writing.
Yet another argument against turnitin.com and other plagiarism detection programs comes not only from instructors, but, supposedly, students, who both claim that using a program like this makes them feel like criminals. That is, they’re considered guilty of plagiarism until proven innocent. But I never got the impression that my students felt intimidated, or insulted, or suspected of being lazy, because of using turnitin.com. In fact, I actually felt like a few of my students were more willing to believe the program than me about whether they were using their own words or not, and some of them actually ended up realizing the difference between using their words and (even unconsciously) using the words from their sources, when they saw the color print out of their paper. They seemed to like the visual representation of the evaluated paper that they got back as a reassurance that they weren’t plagiarizing, because I’ve found that students just don’t know if they’re plagiarizing, and are actually quite worried whether they are or not, even the ones who aren’t.
And, practically speaking, one study, discussed in an article for The Journal of Education for Business titled, “Plagiarism and Technology: A Tool for Coping with Plagiarism,” by David Martin, shows that using turninin.com does reduce plagiarism. Martin describes how the study, done over three semesters, finds that plagiarism went down significantly, once students became aware that a detection device was being used (149-152). By itself, this study doesn’t help the situation, especially if it enforces the negative discourse surrounding plagiarism, but it reminds me that, even if I believe being invested in a subject, and knowing how to work with sources, are the primary motivations for not wanting to plagiarize, a little discipline might be a useful thing for students, to keep them honest, as long as it’s combined with nurturing and encouragement.
The best way to avoid the ‘problem,’ or debate, about turnitin.com, and plagiarism in general, is to change our expectations about what students need to write, because, after all, what we really want them to do is think, and maybe traditional research papers aren’t the best way to do that. Or, at least they’re not the only way. That is, building on Adler-Kassner et al.’s idea to change the frame in which something is discussed, we need to question what we instructors really want/expect from our students in regards to ‘research’ and working with texts. Their solution is to change the way instructors “teach” subjects, with the goal to get students more engaged in what they’re researching, so that they won’t look at assignments as just busy work, which makes them more likely to just regurgitate/plagiarize, but as researching a topic as something they’re genuinely interested in.
Yet another essay in the Eisner and Vicinus book, “Insider Writing: Plagiarism-Proof Assignments,” by Lynn Z. Bloom, a literature professor, builds on this idea. She argues that the best way to ‘deal’ with plagiarism is to avoid the “conventional” critical analysis type papers in which students feel they have to conform to what the professor, or critics, think about a text. Instead, she recommends “insider writing,” in which students take on the personas of the writers they’re reading, and create alternative genres of texts, such as “monologues, dialogues, dramas...” etc (211). Like Bloom, I suggest throwing out the idea of the ‘research paper’ period. There may be value in writing a longer linear piece of writing, but the ‘genre’ of the research paper hardly exists anywhere outside of school, and even in school it varies widely in format depending on the class, the subject, and instructor. There is no ‘standard’ research paper and, given that most of our students will not go on to grad school, having them work in more practical, and fun, genres of writing seems to offer them a better learning environment. That is, I’m not suggesting getting rid of ‘research,’ just the way we traditionally think/write about it.
One way composition instructors have had a huge success with this at Eastern Michigan University has been with the “Multi-Genre Research Project,” in which students do research about a topic they choose, but also get to choose the genres they want to write in, be it more on the creative side (a poem, short story) or the more practical side (a business letter, a website page). Since I started using this assignment, I have hardly ever had to worry about plagiarism, except the few times when students have ‘chosen’ (in their reflections they said they thought it would be easier!) to write a ‘traditional’ research paper. I have been amazed at the creativity and energy students put into these multi-genre projects, while at the same time learning about research strategies such as determining a good source and using library resources. And, they still cite the new info they’re using, as well as write a regular Works Cited page, giving them practice for any researched writing they’ll do after my class, traditional or not.
Based on the current, dismal, department budgets, I’m not sure instructors, Chairs, or Deans can justify the expense of plagiarism detection programs, so this debate may all end up moot anyway. If I were to include more traditional, research-y, type assignments in my future composition classes, I wouldn’t hesitate to use turnitin.com, if it were available, but since I’ve started incorporating these multi-genre research projects, and changed the ‘rules’ about what writing about research means, which is really the problem, I haven’t had to worry about ‘turning it in’ or not.
Adler-Kassner, Linda, Chris M. Anson, and Rebecca Moore Howard. “Framing Plagiarism.” in Eisner and Vicinus, 231-245.
Bloom, Lynn Z. “Insider Writing: Plagiarism-Proof Assignments.” in Eisner and Vicinus. 208-218.
Eisner, Caroline and Vicinus, Martha. Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor: 2009.
Marsh, Bill. “Turnitin.com and the scriptural enterprise of plagiarism detection.” Computers and Composition. (21:4. 2004. 427-438). Google Scholar.
Martin, David F. “Plagiarism and Technology: A Tool for Coping with Plagiarism.” The Journal of Education for Business. (80:3 Jan/Feb 2005. 149-152). Google Scholar.
turnitin.com. 2009 iParadigms LLC.
Young, Jeffrey R. “Judge Rules Plagiarism-Detection Tool Falls Under ‘Fair Use.’” Chronicle of Higher Education. 54:30. 2008. A13.