End-of-Semester: What to Expect When You're Expecting (Plagiarism)

Guest classroom practices blog post written by Tony Russell, English Professor at Central Oregon Community College

Tony Russell

It’s uncanny how often I’m asked, “Do you catch a lot of plagiarists?” I suppose it’s my lot in life as a writing instructor. I mean, I imagine that police officers tire of being asked, “Do you write a lot of tickets?” Nevertheless, what is so unsettling to me is the enthusiasm with which I’m asked if I “catch a lot of plagiarists.”

 Because frankly, I take no pleasure in it at all, and I don’t know many instructors who do. The truth of the matter is that I dislike it very much. Not that I don’t support Academic Dishonesty/Integrity policies. I do indeed support them. But I want my students to learn and to succeed.

When a student plagiarizes, a whole set of policies swing into motion. For most instructors, plagiarism results in a failed assignment. For others, a failed course. Often, these policies are accompanied by some sort of reporting procedure. As a result, a plagiarized paper is more work than a failed one, and the most frustrating part of all is that it is all so avoidable—for the student, that is.

So this month I want to tell you about two strategies. One is an intervention, an attempt to stop plagiarism before it happens. The second is a method that I use for reporting plagiarism that greatly simplifies and speeds up my work.

1. The Turnitin Review
I start each semester with a Turnitin Review. I show students a sample paper in Turnitin, and we review the Originality Report together. I show them what a copied-and-pasted passage looks like. I show what paraphrase plagiarism (every couple of words are highlighted by Turnitin) looks like. For introductory writing courses, I assign a paper where students are asked to show an example of both copy-and-paste and paraphrase plagiarism.
20150601 -Paraphrase plagiarism

The activity builds students’ confidence in reading Turnitin Originality Reports and provides students and faculty members with a shared vocabulary. Thus, I will often get a question like, “Turnitin marked this. Is this paraphrase plagiarism?” And I like that, again, because I want my students to learn and to succeed.

Another great term my students and I have is Turnitin trash. By this, we mean anything that Turnitin picks up that is random (a couple of highlighted words but ones that are clearly not plagiarized), is repeated (things like required paper headers and headings), and bibliographic entries (which, if identified by Turnitin, can actually be quite helpful in determining if a citation is correct). Largely, Turnitin trash refers to stuff the students can ignore, and again, I commonly get the question, “Is this Turnitin trash?” And again, I like it because I want my students to learn and to succeed.

We spend about 10 minutes on this activity at the beginning of the semester. At the end, I do a five-minute Turnitin Review (Re)view. I mention that the end of the semester is coming fast and that stress is likely high. I then do a quick review of what plagiarism looks like—whether Turnitin catches it or not—and then I admonish students to be mindful of this as they work over the final days of the semester.

2. Defining and Reporting Plagiarism
So what if the unthinkable—some might say inevitable—happens? Well, reporting mechanisms for plagiarism differ from institution to institution, but Turnitin has some tools that may help simplify your work.

20150601 - Print buttonReports often require a copy of the paper and an explanation. What better than the Turnitin report itself? Just click the print icon in Turnitin, and then click Download PDF of current view for printing. The report includes the highlighted material from the Originality Report.

If you need more than a highlight—say, you need a written explanation—highlight the plagiarized passage(s) in Grademark and attach a comment to the highlights. Then save the report as a PDF as described above.

If you are required to explain the type of plagiarism involved, you may stick to the typical copy-and-paste or paraphrase plagiarism language, but Turnitin has a website that labels “10 Types of Unoriginal Work.”
20150601 - 10 Types
Both the PDF and the website resource have greatly simplified my plagiarism reporting. I save the PDF, use the “10 Types” labels to write my report, and send it on to the appropriate administrator.

When conversing with my well-meaning friends, I try to avoid the label of plagiarist as much as possible. My students are learners, who are going through a process of learning how not to plagiarize. So in reply to their question about “catching” plagiarists, I respond, “I catch when I have to, but I also give them the tools to help them to avoid it. And most do.”

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