Weekly Teaching Note
May 01 2013
NYIT Faculty Talk About Plagiarism

“None of you would think of putting your hand in my pocketbook and stealing my wallet.  Plagiarism is like putting your hand in my brain and stealing my thoughts.”  – Linda Comac, Director, English Language Institute 

Last month, the Center for Teaching and Learning offered a two-week online workshop on plagiarism, with the assistance of six English faculty members and two campus deans who reviewed workshop materials, facilitated the discussion, and explained NYIT’s academic integrity policy and procedures. The online format enabled faculty and staff from different campuses to exchange ideas: 32 people participated from our campuses in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Manhattan, Nanjing, NYIT Online, Old Westbury, and Vancouver.


Jennifer Griffiths (English, MA; Writing Coordinator) states that it is important to explain to students what plagiarism is and why it is vital not to plagiarize: “Successful completion of written assignments demonstrate that the student has mastered the knowledge and skills required in the course.  If they copy someone else's solution to a math problem, they haven't learned the math.”


Another participant (English, OW) echoed that sentiment: “My experience today confirms the necessity of repeated definition of plagiarism and emphasis of consequences. Today I did a plagiarism workshop in both my classes. … The workshop surprised my students and me both: them because they had forgotten some of the important points about plagiarism, and me because the students voiced a misconception I had not picked up on before: ‘If something on the Internet doesn't say it's copyrighted, then you can use it.’ ”


Many participants referred to the use of technology (TurnItIn and SafeAssign, both of which are available in Blackboard) as tools that can help recognize plagiarism as well as teach students about plagiarism. For example, some faculty encourage students to submit drafts of their papers review the originality reports, and correct any instances of plagiarism prior to submitting a final paper.


A faculty member from Old Westbury noted that “…my most effective plagiarism detection tool is my familiarity with each student’s writing,” and adds, “producing a research paper in stages … results in much better papers and less plagiarism. After producing the research proposal, the outline, and the annotated bibliography, the students know what to do to write the paper and about  how long the writing will take. They aren't so likely to start the assignment, discover they can't possibly produce something decent in a hurry, and plagiarize.”


David Hogsette (English, OW; Writing Coordinator) suggests the following: “If you are convinced a student plagiarized but cannot find the source, call him/her in for an interview. Quiz the student on parts of the paper, ask what certain terms mean, read some of the plagiarized text and compare to the student's authentic writing (like an in-class quiz or essay or other writing assignment). Ask him/her to explain the difference in language (if you see any). … Even if they don't [admit to plagiarizing], you can still … send the case to Dean of Campus Life for further review and evaluation. … [It is essential that you] report all instances of plagiarism to the Dean of Campus Life, and encourage your colleagues to do the same. This is vitally important in our efforts to curb plagiarism.”


Michael Schiavi (English; Manhattan Writing Coordinator) offers some practical advice on talking with students when you suspect plagiarism: “In very rare cases I am willing to believe that a student's plagiarism is accidental:  for example, a lifted line in an essay's introduction, or an attempt to define a difficult term without quotation marks.  OK.  In these cases, I meet with the student one-on-one, identify the infraction, and work on re-write strategies in person with him or her.


“But when a suspiciously marvelous sentence, or more, suddenly appears in an essay riddled with errors, red flags should start going up.  In those cases, I personally don't believe in a zero for the assignment, which is the same grade that the student would have received for not doing the assignment at all.  Plagiarism is cheating, and it needs to be addressed and documented as such.


“1)  Bring the student in and ask whether he or she has plagiarized.  If a confession is forthcoming, great.  You both sign the form, and it goes, with the evidence, to the Dean of Campus Life, who takes it from there.


“2)  If a confession is not immediately forthcoming, show the student the evidence that you have found.  This, of course, requires that you have done your homework.  In my own experience, 95% of plagiarized work is instantly and easily found through a routine Google search of idiosyncratic phrases.  As I tell my adjuncts, when students start using conditional/subjunctive cases ("Would that this were the case") and plural possessives correctly, my antennae go way up.  And in 98% of such cases, when you present students with printed evidence of their plagiarism, they sign the form, and it goes to the Dean.


“3)  In cases where you cannot find the evidence, I do as David [Hogsette] suggests and question students about advanced vocabulary or phrasing in the paper.  But I also try to document at this stage:  before the meeting, I prepare a list of such phrases and ask students, while sitting before me, to explain or even paraphrase them in writing.  When they cannot do so, confession is usually immediate.”


Alex Ott (Student Solutions Center) added another dimension to the discussion: “The issue becomes how to strengthen the sense of integrity of, essentially, all people so as to encourage their honesty. … Don’t get me wrong: The “head on a spike” approach has its place. You need enforcement. You also need supervision of exams, etc. But more than that is needed. For multiple reasons: First, the punitive approach will not convince everyone (most people who cheat don’t think they’ll get caught, after all—just as most criminals are not dissuaded by the potential penalty). Second, and perhaps more importantly, part of education is the building of good character. While the punitive approach might work to stop a student from cheating/plagiarizing, will it build good character? Perhaps, in part. But if you “convince” a student to behave well only on the basis of the potential sanction, what happens when they get into an environment where the sanctions are less clear? That’s when their good character will be important. I think we need to build a culture of good character. The question is how to build that culture.”


Michael Schiavi sums it up nicely: “This process is all very laborious and time-consuming, but it is necessary.  We have a responsibility to protect this institution's integrity and to ensure that our students' degrees actually mean something.  Otherwise, why are we all bothering?”





Olena Zhadko, PhD

Instructional Designer, Center for Teaching and Learning



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