Saturday, March 18, 2006

In which StyleyGeek's students win an award for the highest proportion of plagiarizers

I'm having plagiarism issues.

At the start of the semester, I gave all my classes the standard "what is plagiarism and how to avoid it" talk, in which I specifically mentioned things that students in past years "haven't known" were not allowed (such as working together and handing in identical assignments, copying notes word-for-word from the textbook as an answer, etc).

One thing I apparently didn't mention was that they aren't allowed to copy and paste directly from their online lecture notes. Now, I would have thought it was self-evident, and would have had no problem coming down hard on one or two students who did this in their first assignment.

But of 67 students, I had 12 (12!) who handed in assignments that were pastiches of copied-and-pasted lecture notes, complete with all the original typos and irrelevant asides.

It took me a long time to work out what had happened. For each of the twelve it was obvious there was something weird going on, since some of the answers seemed to refer to examples we had talked about in class, rather than the examples they were specifically asked to comment on.

Then there were the irrelevant asides, such as, when addressing the question of what the word order patterns were in some Swahili example sentences they were given, the students wrote: "The word order here is SVO. As is common in Langauge [sic], strong transitive verbs such as "hit" and "kill" tend to cause the agent to be mapped to subject and the patient to map to object". There were no verbs "hit" and "kill" in the examples! And they had not been asked about the mapping of agent and patient.

I quickly realised that there were 12 papers that had entire paragraphs that were identical to each other, but since these were students from different groups, and also since I had specifically told them not to work together and there was no attempt at disguising the similarities, I couldn't believe that was what had happened. It took me another couple of hours to track down the source of the copying, starting by looking at the textbook, the rest of the assigned reading, the class handouts, and finally thinking to check the online lecture notes. And there it was.

So what do I do? The department guidelines distinguish between deliberate plagiarism, for which the student automatically fails the whole course and has a note put on their permanent record, and "accidental plagiarism", for which the policy is to give them no marks for the assignment and put a note on their permanent record. For all except the best of them, the latter course of action would also mean they fail the course, since this assignment is worth a large percentage of their total marks. We are also required to meet with the course convener, the HOD and the dean about each case, as well as prepare a document on the evidence of plagiarism. This is a lot of work even for one student (as I discovered last year). I don't think I could handle doing it for 12 of them.

Also, the fact that such a large proportion of the class seemed to think this copy-and-paste method of writing an assignment was okay maybe points to the problem being some sort of miscommunication of expectations, for which I am presumably partly at fault.

The course of action I am tending to at the moment is:
(a) being really brutal about taking off marks for inclusion of irrelevant material (which will mean none of the 12 will get much above a bare pass on this assignment)
(b) giving each of the students a verbal warning, and the class in general a talk about how this sort of thing is not okay, AND
(c) keeping a note of who was involved so I can scrutinise their work in future very carefully for signs of repeat offending.

ScaryLecturer told me the response is entirely up to me, but that he would have no problem treating it like standard plagiarism. On the other hand, he also believes that a student handing in late work (even an hour after the deadline) without having previously negotiated an extension should get no marks for the work whatsoever.

Also... 12 students!


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6 Comments:

shrinkykitten said...

I'm sorry Styley. I really think scarylecturer should both decide how to handle it, and should handle it. I really really don't think (having been on both sides of the fence) that grad students should ever have to deal with plagiarism except insofar as it relates to finding it, finding the original source and making note of all of it for the prof to handle.

In the US, accidental and purposeful plagiarism are not discrete entities -- intent isn't considered. This is partly because all too often students claim ignorance.

In a class I TA'ed last year, the prof made me handle all 10 of the plagiarism cases I discovered. It was horrific and became almost dangerous due to threats and physical intimidation some of the students used. The prof wanted me to handle it, but would not enforce anything. As a result the only consequence was that students had to redo their papers (ridiculous). Several of those then turned in papers that were just as plagiarized. I turned them over to the prof, and she did nothing.

As a prof, I always handle it and never make my TA's deal with it at all. I figure I'm the one with the power.

One of my students this term plagiarized from MY article! The gall!

StyleyGeek said...

From your article! That's so stupid it's almost funny. How could they assume you wouldn't notice?!

I agree that the prof should really handle this sort of thing.

ScaryLecturer is the most hands-off person I have ever tutored for. He has given us no indication of what he would like us to go over in each week's tutorial (which I am glad about, even though it means extra work, because I can judge for myself what material the students are really struggling with and concentrate on that). But he also doesn't give us marking schedules or any sort of guidelines for marking, which meant the other tutor and I had to have lots of meetings to thrash out a reasonable schedule (plus actually do the assignment ourselves to work out the correct answers).

I don't think ScaryLecturer is deliberately being difficult about these things -- when we requested a marking schedule and a list of the correct answers he agreed he should provide one and promised to do so, but never got around to it, despite our frequent reminders. I think he is just chronically disorganized (didn't get around to making the course reading list available until 3 weeks into the course, either.)

At least it is all good practice for convening my own course one day!

Miss Eagle said...

There has to be a penalty for the plagiarism - not just to penalise the guilty but how do you treat with justice those who have worked hard without resort to plagiarism. I am sorry for the non-supportive attitude of the person higher up the food chain. However, if you have to let them go through, fail them or mark them drastically low and then up the mark of the honest students. Otherwise why not just hand out the degrees at bargain basement rates because obviously they're not worth much. (Imagine if this sort of thing happened in a profession like medicine where we could die of their ignorance or engineering where the buildings could fall down and kill us all!)

USJogger said...

OK, I have to vote, "Come down hard." We're not talking about students who made an effort to do their best on the assignment, and in the process stepped over a line. We are talking about students who cared so little about the assignment that they didn't bother to read their own answer to see if it made sense.

I kind of like the distinction between "intentional plagiarism" and "unintentional plagiarism." What I like about it is that they can claim that they didn't know they were doing something wrong, and you can claim that you are letting them off easy by only giving them the penalty for "unintentional plagiarism."

StyleyGeek said...

You are all correct, of course.

I think my reluctance is mostly to do with not wanting nearly 20% of my students to have, for all intents and purposes, failed the course by week four. They'll probably drop out, but if they don't, I hate to think what it will do to the classroom dynamic.

Part of my reluctance is also to do with something I didn't mention in the post. Every single one of the 12 copy-and-pasters is a recent immigrant who is struggling with English (in fact, all but three of my Asian students are involved, and none of my Australian students are). So I don't think their decision to use this method is simply due to laziness, but more because they thought that the phrasing of their notes expressed the necessary ideas better than they themselves could.

Finally, to be scrupulously fair, I'll have to go through the rest of the papers again more carefully and treat anyone who has copied a sentence here or there similarly to how I am treating the ones who wrote almost nothing in their own words. I dread to think how many of _those_ a more careful examination of the work will turn up.

I think what I might do is talk to ScaryLecturer again and say that I want it to be treated like unintentional plagiarism, but that my contract doesn't cover the amount of extra work this will involve for 12 students, and that the rest is up to him.

As for Miss Eagle's point about "why not just hand out degrees at bargain basement prices..." -- I'm not sure that's entirely fair. If we do let these assignments "go through", the students will get a warning and a note on their record and will not be allowed to get away with it again. There is still slightly more than 60% of the assessment for this course to come, and if they can't prove they can do the work without copying-and-pasting for the rest of it, then they will most certainly fail.

StyleyGeek said...

Update: I spoke to ScaryLecturer and said that I thought they should get the plagiarism treatment, but that I didn't have time (or get paid enough) to write up 12 evidence documents or go through the meetings with the individual students, HOD and dean. So it was up to him.

He said in that case we should "let them off with a stern warning".

I guess I'm not the only one around here who is suffering from "can't be arsedism".

I have marked them extremely harshly for including irrelevant material, though, and most are only borderline passes. Which gives them the opportunity to pass the course IF they don't pull this shit ever again. Ever.