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October 24, 2002 Online seminar is centrepiece of doctoral program



by Mirjana Vrbaski

Participants in a faculty development workshop on plagiarism were told Oct. 24 that student plagiarism — stealing material for academic credit — is becoming more difficult than ever to detect. The workshop was given Oct. 24 by Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services.

As students gain access to ever more extensive and sophisticated electronic resources, plagiarism is growing into a major problem in universities, said reference librarian Diane Sauvé, one of the session organizers.

The World Wide Web is one source of plagiarized work. Concordia students have free access not only to the Web but also to close to 6,000 full-text electronic sources, such as scholarly journals, magazines and newspapers.

In addition, the Web offers close to 250 “paper mills,” sites that sell custom-made and pre-written term paper and assignments. To benefit from them, students subscribe and pay a fee, for which they can get various services. They can even select a paper of the grade level that matches their average class grade. In other words, an undergraduate student who normally gets a B may choose an undergraduate B-level paper to pass off as his or her own.

While the availability custom-made papers has grown, pre-written assignments are decreasing in popularity. They are more easily identified by Internet search engines and detection software / services developed specifically to track stolen or copied work.

“However, detection software and services have limitations,” warned English professor John Miller.

They only compare papers submitted with their own database of term papers, which doesn’t include most papers available from paper mills or journal articles. While some universities may choose to invest in such software, they should be aware that detection is not guaranteed. As a result, the workshop emphasized prevention rather than detection. Religion professor Lynda Clarke has been particularly successful in lowering the occurrence of plagiarism among her students. Her strategy is to warn students, and to follow up the warning with the assurance that she is available to help anyone encountering writing, documentation or time-management problems.

“It’s not an enemy-enemy situation,” she said. “I know that a lot of students plagiarize because they feel the pressure to be something they aren’t yet. That’s why I keep in contact with them every step of the way, encouraging them to speak to me when they have problems.”

Her final tactic is to “psych them out! I tell my students, I’m like your mother. I know what you will do before you even think of doing it.”

Clarke also pointed out that foreign students are often the ones with the most difficulty, due to language problems. Because of this, content is more important than form in her assignments. “I try to understand the students’ ideas, not focus on their grammar.”

Mary O’Malley, of Student Learning Services, defended the students, explaining that not all plagiarism is done intentionally. “A lot of students think that Internet information is free, and doesn’t need to be documented.”

She also reminded faculty of cultural differences: “In some cultures, it’s an insult to document work. The reader is assumed to know whose work is referred to. If we welcome international students at Concordia, we also need to understand their culture and teach them our own, so that they know how things are done here.” Student Learning Services is dedicated to this idea.

Finally, O’Malley explained that faculty’s inconsistent reaction to “borrowed” work stands as an obstacle to the prevention of plagiarism. While some professors prosecute it, others turn a blind eye to it, seeing the detection and prosecution procedure as not worth the effort.

Bram Freedman, Assistant Secretary-General and General Counsel, agreed with Clarke and O’Malley that professors need to be proactive to prevent plagiarism, by defining it, by making information on it available and known, and by structuring their assignments appropriately. The Teaching and Learning Centre offers faculty a number of workshops each semester to help improve their quality of teaching.

For information on upcoming sessions, such as Learning Styles and Motivation (November 26), and Technology-Assisted Teaching (November 28), consult the Centre website: http://web2.concordia.ca/ctls/workshop.