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How to avoid academic plagiarism

By Yang Min | 2013-08-02 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Harvard University probes plagiarism outbreak involving 125 students in this August


Chinese Social Sciences Today: Hello, Dr. Teresa Fishman! It’s my honor that you could accept my invitation for this interview on academic plagiarism. I learnt that you have made a lot of research on anti-academic plagiarism. As far as you know, what actions does higher education system or other academic institution take to avoid academic plagiarism besides text-matching software?


Teresa Fishman: Great question. There are many different kinds of actions that have proved useful so I’m going to talk about the broad categories first: One approach is primarily pedagogical, and involves taking time in not just one, but many different classes to teach students not just how to cite sources correctly but also why professionals value proper citation. The idea with the pedagogical approach is that even though students have probably learned that they are supposed to cite sources, they may not know exactly how or why. This is one of the most effective approaches for students who want to learn what will be expected of them in their future professions.


A second kind of approach focuses on academic culture at many different levels including the large university culture, smaller programmatic cultures, and even individual classroom cultures. The idea with this approach is to convey to students that academic integrity is something to be proud of, and something that they must each uphold in order to maintain the value of their program. This approach puts the responsibility the group itself to maintain standards that benefit the group.


Both of those two approaches, in my opinion, are superior to a reliance on text matching software. Ideally, they can be used together, possibly with the text-matching software as a tool when it is needed.


A third approach is an aggressive “catch and punish” that attempts to make the costs of plagiarism high enough that students are “scared away” from copying work without attribution. This approach puts high penalties on plagiarism, including, in many cases, expulsion from the university. While I think it is important to put penalties in place to discourage plagiarism, penalizing students too heavily, especially for first offenses, seems counterproductive to the goals of higher education. I prefer the educational and cultural approaches, but the penalty-oriented approach is also used fairly frequently.


Chinese Social Sciences Today: How do scholars think of internet? 


Teresa Fishman: Most academics think of the internet as a wonderful research tool, and a way to access previously unfathomable amounts of data. Some educators, like me, see the internet as a phenomenon that has fundamentally changed the work we do from being largely about communicating and investigating information to one of teaching students how to find and investigate credible sources of knowledge that they can access themselves.


Chinese Social Sciences Today: Do they think internet makes a lot contribution to plagiarism? 


Teresa Fishman: Some do, but many of us who study plagiarism are more of the mind that what the internet does is make it more possible to “grab” and incorporate ideas without thinking about them, which is a big reason that we are so adamant about reducing the amount of student plagiarism. While it has been possible for centuries to copy the work of another writer, copying used to involve at least reading and then writing the material one’s self; Now students can copy and paste the work without even reading or understanding it, which is one of the ways that plagiarism undermines education.


Chinese Social Sciences Today: As you know, the research data is not as much as researchers expected, so how to avoid academic plagiarism while facing limited resources?


Teresa Fishman: One of the most important things about plagiarism that students often do not understand is that not only is it easy to avoid plagiarism (simply by citing one’s sources) it also shows mastery of the subject when sources are well-chosen and incorporated in smart, effective ways. Often students are under the mistaken impression that teachers will regard their work more favorably if they have done all the writing themselves. Actually, using sources well, to document one’s own assertions is an important skill as well, so using sources with documentation is more effective than trying to pass of the work of others as one’s own.


Chinese Social Sciences Today: What attitudes do general academics have towards plagiarism? 


Teresa Fishman: For this one, I think I will tell you what my attitude is, as the director of the International Center for Academic Integrity. There are many different attitudes, but this is the one I have come to after doing work in this area: Student plagiarism is a problem for many reasons: It allows poor students to get higher marks than their better qualified peers; It can ruin the reputation of schools and universities that are, in many other respects, doing good work; It is fundamentally unfair to the students who do their own work and to the employers who hire graduates that they believe to be better qualified. The most important problem with it, however, is that it circumvents the educational process, so that students miss out on opportunities to learn. Plagiarism has many causes, but one of the major ones is that students who plagiarize often do not understand that their education is about much more than learning facts—education is also an opportunity to learn how to think about things in analytical ways, which is a skill they will need and use throughout their lifetime. When they plagiarize instead of doing the mental work themselves, they not only rob themselves, but also rob society of the benefits of being a citizen who can think well and solve difficult problems. Using someone else’s thoughts and words might not seem like a huge deal, but failing to become an analytical problem solver certainly is.


T. Fishman is Director for the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No.352, Sept.5, 2012.