Mac Lab Report

Plagiarism vs. Research

- 2002.06.03

This article is a companion piece to Adam Robert Guha's The Internet, Research, and Plagiarism. I won't say it's a rebuttal, because I agree with many of the the things he said.

My comments come from the other side of the fence, the teacher's side, and I want to make a couple of points he didn't. If you haven't read his excellent article, please do so.

As a teacher, I am concerned that some of my colleagues are missing the point when they assign research projects either in the library or on the Internet. The library can be intimidating to users unfamiliar with book indexing, and the Internet can be similarly overwhelming to users unable to filter out the large amounts of useless information that often accompany a search.

I think that assignments which simply say, "go do research and write a report," are a primary source of the problem of plagiarism in schools. Unfortunately, teachers who have that one computer sitting in the corner often make that kind of error because they haven't been trained on how to use a computer effectively - and are even more intimidated by a computer lab or library computer workroom. This leads, in my view, to plagiarism, both the subtle and borderline kind and the blatant and clumsy kind.

I've seen every kind of plagiarism there is.

One student tried to turn in a publisher's website description for a book report. "In this exciting novel, part of the Known Space series, Larry Niven creates yet another whole new world to stimulate your imagination...."

Another foolishly reviewed a science fiction movie instead of the book it was based on (these are rarely identical - thanks, Hollywood!). Other students simply copy paragraphs from websites and paste them together without transition or much organization. Those are easy to spot because the voice is in the wrong person and the vocabulary is inconsistent and at too high a level. "Bob Dole doesn't do commercials without a humorous aspect."

For oral reports, widespread plagiarism is obvious when students cannot read aloud what they supposedly have written. People do not usually use words in their writing that they do not know how to pronounce. "Albedo (Al-Bee-Doh, not All-biddo) is a measurement of the reflectivity of a planet." Now, one example is forgivable, but six or seven per paragraph means you probably don't understand what you're reading and certainly don't know what it means - and it's a good bet you didn't write it, either.

Sometimes students copy and paste from CD-ROM encyclopedias, including the hyperlinks (and the hyperlinks' formatting). When I asked one young man why he had underlined the term "aphelion" in a report, he shrugged. When I informed him of the real reason, a chorus of "busss-ted" sounded around the room.

Students also need to be taught how to cite references even when they have good intentions. This year, we did reports about the planets using PowerPoint, and citation of sources was required. My rubric included a two point drop (out of 5) for stating that the source was "www.google.com" or "Encarta" without the entry's name. That happened about 4 or 5 times in each class.

There is even plagiarism of other students' work. At the beginning of the year, I have many students who do not really understand cut and paste, or the difference between Windows and Office, or whether or not they have a spreadsheet program on their computer at home. By the end of the year, I have to watch carefully for students simply duplicating reports of other students and changing the name. I've awarded four zeroes for students stealing others' work this year. As they become more competent, they think they are "inventing" new schemes for copying.

The sad part is, many of my students are incapable of cheating effectively; they don't have the skills necessary to pretend to be a teacher and anticipate possible barriers to their cheating. This inability to reason is almost more worrisome than the ethical lapse that causes the cheating in the first place. "American Students Too Stupid To Cheat" would be a nice headline for the BBC's website, don't you think?

Lest you think I am a crotchety old teacher wanting to sit in the teacher's workroom ("lounge" is not a Unionifically correct term) and complain about my lazy or incompetent students, let me assure you that I have two things working in my favor to keep my hopes up. First, I have a great many students who are talented and intelligent and produce original work with great creativity and imagination. Some of the stuff I have seen from 9th graders is simply amazing - if you ask them to do it, many of them will. Some will not do anything, simple or advanced; but the majority rise to the occasion when presented with a challenge.

Second, I try to give assignments where the main part of the credit is generated by the student's input or spin on the matter. There is an emphasis on the invention of processes, such as writing the procedure for the lab report, which counts for more than simply getting the answer. Book reports should have a point beyond a recitation of the plot. I'm not always successful at this; it's difficult to create such assignments and time consuming to grade them. But I'm aware of it, and I try.

With regards to the Internet as a research tool, it does make assembling a plagiarized work more convenient. If the assignment is cleverly designed, there will likely not be a readily available source for copying. For example, if the assignment was "do a report on Mars," then there is a cornucopia of papers, websites, NASA summaries, and school reports waiting to be found. The student can say nearly anything and be on target with such a vague assignment.

On the other hand, if the assignment is "design a mission to Mars, starting with the launch date, trip time, arrival time, length of stay, return date, ship design, crew selection, and including the selection of a landing site based on research findings about the location of water on the surface and considerations of weather," then suddenly the student has to wade through a couple orders of magnitude of false leads and multiple sources because just one website is not as likely to have everything.

And if there is one website with everything, odds are it'll be easier for me to locate - and even possible that I've seen it already. Furthermore, there's no right answer to any of the components, so if everyone reaches the same conclusion it's pretty obvious they cheated.

Here's some advice for students seeking to make a transition from "Copy and Print" to "Think for Yourself":

  1. Don't use words you don't understand.
  2. Read what you've "written" out loud to your mother. If she doesn't "get it," try restating it until she does. Write that down.
  3. Try drawing your own diagram for a change.
  4. A reference should lead you back exactly to the same place you got the information so you can learn more.
  5. If you can't answer this question, then you're just babbling: "What's the point?"

The computer is a wonderful resource, and the Internet amplifies that tremendously. But like the characters unable to comprehend the notion of doing original research in Isaac Asimov's novel Foundation, inexperienced students need to learn that the point of every assignment is to make a statement for yourself and then support it, not write unending analyses of other people's research. If students and teachers both understood that, the frequency and seriousness of plagiarism would be greatly reduced.

Now go forth and Google!

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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