HoustonChronicle.com Section: Editorial
|7:58 PM 9/28/1997
Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
Copy these strategies to stop plagiarism by students
By GARY M. GALLES
Unfortunately, the new law cannot eliminate such forms of cheating, since it only makes them misdemeanors, and prosecution will be difficult (for example, many websites protect themselves by having users check a box to state that they will not represent the work as their own, even though that does not keep users from doing exactly that). Further, the law is subject to jurisdictional and First Amendment challenges.
Therefore, if efforts to upgrade student writing skills rather than cheating skills are to be as effective as possible, more is needed than the new law. In particular, what is most needed are writing assignments designed to minimize the ability of students to substitute others’ work for their own.
Since writing is, in essence, formalized thinking, the educational purpose of writing assignments is to learn the process of organizing and disciplining one’s thoughts about a topic. Therefore, the most academically productive approach to such assignments is one where the teacher is intensively involved throughout the development of the paper, rather than just being the passive evaluator of the finished product. Not only would students learn more from policies such as the serial submission of the topic, references, an outline, and a rough draft prior to the final draft, with each stage subject to comments and suggested changes by the teacher, they would also effectively eliminate the possibility of buying or otherwise using someone else’s work.
Unfortunately for both the educational progress of students and the possibilities for plagiarism, class sizes and time constraints often preclude the intense teacher involvement that would be required to implement such an approach. Fortunately there are several less “costly” paper assignment strategies available that could go a long way toward the elimination of purchased papers and other forms of plagiarism if we would but use them. These do not hinder the learning we wish to take place or impose heavy time costs on teachers, but they would reduce the ability of students to claim credit for others’ work on writing assignments.
An annotated bibliography, with synopses of all references, could be required rather than just the usual listing. Alternatively, all references could be required to be photocopied from the original with the relevant sections highlighted, to be turned in with the paper. Such rules would make the papers virtually unusable, since finding the cited sources would be very difficult unless the student actually did the research. In the same vein, an abstract of each paper could be required, as for a professional article. This would also raise the cost of using a paper the student did not write.
Graded oral presentations of papers, with students required to answer questions and defend their arguments, would force students to learn their material better, plus give them valuable experience speaking in front of others, as well as dramatically reducing the grade-point return of using someone else’s work. Similarly, papers could be assigned on opposing views of a topic, with the writers debating the subject before the class, giving similar results.
Assignments could require a description of the research process, particularly how the utilized sources were found, which would make it extremely difficult to “defend” the use of another’s paper. In addition, some part of each paper could be required to involve a personally conducted interview, survey, or experiment, which would preclude the use of a “catalog” paper.
Papers shorter than six pages (the minimum length available from most paper mills) can be assigned, which also trains students to be concise rather than training them to pad papers to reach a minimum length requirement. Topics that are idiosyncratic to a class or are restricted to current events, and are therefore unlikely to be available “over the counter,” can also be assigned. These all would be even more effective if certain particular references were required by the teacher, which would make previously written papers unacceptable for to the assignment.
Papers could require a certain number of current references. All references could be restricted to holdings in the school library system, similarly restricting the use of prior papers. In addition, first person voice or first person applications could be required, since such papers would be unavailable from others. And more in-class writing can also be used.
While many of these strategies obviously would be unworkable in a particular class, some would be appropriate in any class. If we are to treat plagiarism as seriously as it deserves to be treated, adopting some of them would be a reasonable, low-cost first step toward the elimination of purchased papers and other forms of unethical academic behavior on our campuses. In fact, the new anti-plagiarism law may make a serious dent in such behavior only if such strategies also are adopted in the schools.