Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Plagiarism Rears its Ugly Head

A spate of plagiarism cases in popular culture have been in the news. You can find some coverage here about Nora Roberts and her suit, here about self-publication and fan fiction, and here about Katy Perry and her "Dark Horse" song. Plagiarism pops into the news, I could be wrong on this it but it seems to me it is about once per year, whether it is Robin Thicke and Parnell William's  "Blurred Lines." Or, Margaret Wente's column. Or, the mass cheating case nearly twenty years ago now in the US at the University of Virginia.  In higher education, plagiarism is a matter of on-going concern and so I thought I'd take the time to sketch out a few thoughts as to why it is important and some of the misconceptions I hear about it, particularly those that have circulated (on and off) in the school where I work, Mount Allison University.

Misconceptions about Academic Dishonesty 

There are three things I hear repeated regularly in discussions about plagiarism, all of which I think are wrong.

They are:
  • Students don't know what plagiarism is and so inadvertently cheat
  • International students come from cultures where plagiarism is allowed and so make mistakes in American and Canadian universities that are really not there fault. Cheating, I have been told, is part of "their culture." 
And, on the artistic side of things:
  • Plagiarism is not plagiarism, but inspiration. Artists have always played off each other and if we make them accountable to, say, the law of copyright, it will harm the creative process.
I'm going to address this last point in a separate blog because it is a special and separate case. In this one I want to start with a more general discussion of what plagiarism is, why it is important, and the sanctions that often follow from it. 

Plagiarism, Cheating, Research and Scholarship

What is plagiarism and why is it important? If you are reading this blog I suspect you already know but to lay out my argument: plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty (in more prosaic terms I often describe it as "cheating") in which an author (or, potentially a group of authors) claims credit for words, ideas, or information developed by someone else. Plagiarism occurs when one (let's assume a single authored text) does not give due credit for the sources of one's words, ideas, or information. The most common example that I run into at a primarily undergraduate institution like Mount Allison is the old "cut and paste" from the internet to a paper. But, it need not be limited to cut and paste. If you get an idea (say, an interpretation) from someone else and pretend that you made it up or you take data from someone else and pretend you did the research, these too are examples of plagiarism. 

Plagiarism is, of course, easy -- painfully easy! -- to avoid. One simply cites one's sources. I've done that in this blog with hyperlinks but parentheses (like this) and footnotes or endnotes are also common. I haven't checked this out but I'd wager that all modern word processes will automatically space and format footnotes and endnotes for you and have for some time. 

I should also say that the vast majority of students I encounter are 100% honest. That is, they may do good work or they may do bad work but they make a sincere effort to cite sources and credit the authors and researchers from whom they have taken words, ideas, or information. To be sure: they may not do this perfectly (a statistically significant minority of my students, for instance, will often mis-format citations or use more than one citation format in the same paper), but the effort is clearly there. In discussions of academic dishonesty, we need to be accurate and not allow our discourse to spin out of control. We are dealing with a very small number of students, a very small number indeed. 

Two final pre-notes that also tend to contradict each other:
  • Plagiarism (like any offence) needs to be intentional. There is a category of legal offences called "negligence" whereby one becomes guilty if one does not take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of other people and, one could argue that ensuring one does not cheat might fall into this category but, by and large, offences require an action: an intent to deceive. 
  • Plagiarism is often, however, "reverse onus": that is, faculty (or, in the case of Perry's song, it seems, lawyers) do not have to prove intent, which is amazingly difficult to prove. Instead, they have to prove commission. The reality of commission -- that I can find instances of, say, copying -- is taken to prove intent. 
Is this fair? Should plagiarism be reverse onus? This does seem unfair because few offences are reverse onus in Canada. We allow for mistakes and accidents which might, say, under the law be horrible and tragic but are not crimes. For example, if I accidentally gave someone the wrong medicine and it was an honest accident and they had further health problem that is a horrible mistake but I am not liable for it. Should not the same thing be the case with plagiarism? 

Perhaps in theory but in practice the issue is not simply the difficulty in proving intent. I'll address this matter below. After all, I don't think we should make it easier to find people guilty just because it might otherwise be hard. That would be a pretty shocking precedent that people might like until they were found guilty of some crime they did not commit just because of an easy lower bar had been set (for instance, imagine if you did not have to prove that someone robbed a store to find them guilty of robbery. If we did not have to have evidence of a robbery, say, money found on their person or a video recording of the robbery), it would get really easy to find just about anyone guilty whether they did the crime or not. 

In the case of plagiarism, however, faculty rarely make an accusation of plagiarism after a single instance. Said differently, all the faculty I know (and I know a lot because this is my job) don't jump on the first instance of, say, quote marks being missed. We note it (usually right on a student's paper) and issue what we hope will be a stern warning with a description of the penalties that will follow if the same thing occurs again. Most faculty I know are even willing to forgive a second instance of what might seem like plagiarism, particularly if it occurs in the same assignment. It is less likely that a student forget quote marks twice but faculty, by and large, do not want to rush to judgement. When we get a third instance, however, or even more, then there is a pattern. 

I'll not give specific examples because those involve real individuals and I want to respect their right to privacy. I've been head of Canadian Studies at Mount A for going on two decades now, however, and in one way or another most instances of academic dishonesty that occur in the program pass my desk, either because the faculty member has come to talk to me or, equally likely, a student has come to plead their case. In all instances, every single one, the cases involved multiple instances of plagiarism, sometimes across several courses. 

Now, we can acknowledge that there are problems with reverse onus offences but I am sure you can see the point  that I am making: because it is reverse onus, faculty are amazingly reluctant to act until they are sure that something has gone on. This involves something that is also problematic: potentially giving a cheater a break or not following the rules of one's institution (which might require faculty to report instances of academic dishonesty). But it seems to me that this is the right balance. There is nothing wrong with being sure of an accusation before you make it, particularly if it carries heavy penalties (which at most Canadian schools is actually not the case). One might be willing to accept that a student made a mistake and forgot to cite their sources or forgot their quotation marks once or twice but many times -- say, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times? -- across more than one class? The chances that this was a mistake look pretty remote now, don't they? 

You are still OK

Even after a student has been reported for academic dishonesty (say, plagiarism), they are still not in bad shape. There are repercussions, to be sure. But, most institutions in Canada -- and the one I work for as an example -- will strive for an educative solution. In other words, if a student cheats and is caught, there will be a sanction. That sanction usually involves some combination of the following: 
  • A grade sanction, whereby the student loses points or even fails the course 
  • A requirement to take some sort of workshop on proper citation
  • A student might be placed on probation (indicating that if they were caught again a suspension can follow) 
  • Some sort of note is often included on a student's transcript: place on probation for disciplinary reasons (or words to that effect) but that notation can often have a sunset clause; that is: it automatically disappears after a number of years. 
I've never seen a student suspended for a single incidence of plagiarism. It happens in the US at honour code schools (with the difference that those sanctions are imposed by the students on themselves), but not to the best of my knowledge in Canada. 

What this amounts to is this: to be "convicted" of plagiarism, a student needs to have committed incidences that are plagiarism on multiple occasions. This will result is grade loss and an educative sanction but not suspension. To be suspended, the student would require at least a second -- but more likely a third -- allegation often across more than one semester involving multiple courses. And, the same proviso are in place. Because faculty do not know if a student has ever been accused of plagiarism or found to have plagiarized (or, committed some other act of academic dishonesty), they assume (rightly) that the student has done nothing wrong and so again they will wait and see if they can find multiple instances of plagiarism before acting. 

Its just school ...? 

Even with this, someone might say ... gee ... its just school, what is the big problem? So, a student copied their essay, why should we be concerned about it? Bretag (2013), puts the nature of the concern like this: 

"Plagiarism is one of the most vehemently derided breaches of academic integrity because it undermines the premise that scholarly work will make an original and honest contribution to an existing body of knowledge."

And, this is a good starting point that succinctly captures the nature of concern. Plagiarism "undermines" the fundamental premises and work of the university. We assume that the research done by the chemist into, say, new medicines is honest and original and needed to advance cures for various diseases. We assume that research in biology is honest and original because it might help us address global warming or pollution. We assume that the political scientist's study of an election is their own and helps us advance the cause of democracy ... and so on down the line.

Plagiarism is a form of dishonesty. This is important for a range of reasons.  If the chemist or political scientist or literary critic plagiarizes (the professor, I am talking about), they are, in effect, not doing the job for which they were paid. We pay the literary critic to assess and interpret literature; the sociologist to study society, the physicist to study the stars, or whathaveyou. If they cheat and plagiarize, they are in effect, getting paid for *not* doing their work but instead claiming (falsely) that simply cutting and pasting from someone else is good enough for them to be paid. Would we accept that in any other occupation? I expect my plumber to fix my pipes, and not print off a copy of a fixed pipe form the internet and show it to me.

For students, it is important to note that plagiarism is theft. I get that for some students it does not seem like that (and, I suspect that is one reasons why a very small number of people do cheat). But, it is it. If someone takes, say, my words and pretends they wrote them (which is what happens if you don't give me credit), it is similar to going into my house and taking my TV. If someone came to my house when I was not home, took my TV, and put it in their house ... it is still my TV. It does not become theirs because it is in their house. Likewise, my words do not become someone else's because someone pastes them into a paper.

If we accepted cheating -- be it plagiarism or some other form of academic dishonesty -- most of the rest of what we do becomes irrelevant.  How does one determine what is good work (and, say, worthy of support) from what is not? How does one determine good research -- that might help people solve problems or which will enrich cultural and intellectual life -- from that which is just, in effect, a print off or something someone else said or did?

There are, to be sure, all kinds of problems with the competitive admissions standards of North American universities. From what I understand they are biased in favour of groups with power and influence. Does anyone think that marginalized social groups will benefit from a situation that permits cheating as a standard of success? Or, does anyone want to say to school kids: don't work hard, don't learn things. You will be assessed in school not by your knowledge of math or literature or music but by your ability to print off someone else's work. Does anyone think that legalized cheating will teach kids math or poetry or biochemistry? I'd argue that opposite: like Bretag, I believe it would undermine the educational process and make it, in effect, irrelevant.

I don't think this will create a scholarly extinction level events because, as I said, most people -- the vast majority -- are honest. After all, that is why plagiarism is not allowed: most people think it is wrong. But, letting people cheat will not solve problems and will not help anyone learn. And, this was something I thought everyone knew and so its periodic emergence in the public sphere and its period occurrence in university confuse me.  More on that in the next blog ...

No comments:

A Blue Outlier: Or, Free Agency and Blue Jay Land

For those who are Blue Jays fans the Ryu signing is important for a number of reasons. It tells us something about the willingness of the Ja...