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.