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What Do They Know About Plagiarism?

I hesitated when I saw the email message.  It was Saturday morning, the tail-end of my holiday break and I was gearing up for my return to the world of work.  I was already looking at a full schedule and much of it was going to be consumed with dealing with the very ugly realities of our budget crisis.  Could I really manage to take something else on?

The message was from a professor in Public Health, who I've guest lectured for in the past.  She was getting ready for the class she'd be teaching in the spring.  It's a required class that the students take the semester before they graduate.  She said, "In talking to one of my colleagues, I found out (to my surprise) that one of the issues in the fall was that they didn't know basics of how to search the literature and how to utilize our library resources."

She wanted to know if I could come in and do a version of my lecture on copyright, plagiarism and research ethics, and include some basic material on resources appropriate to public health students.  For her first class.  On Wednesday evening.  This Wednesday evening.  She did say that if that didn't work we could try for the following week.  But I know how she structures her classes and that it would really make the most sense to kick off the semester with it.  So despite everything else it took me only about half an hour of pondering to say sure.

The daunting part would've been doing an effective portion on public health resources.  What the hell do I know about that?  Fortunately, we have an expert in the library (who not only has been our public health liaison for years, but is currently a student in the MPH program), so I figured I could crib from her.  Turns out she volunteered to come and do the class with me.  The students don't know how lucky they are!

So I did a version of my standard copyright basics, plagiarism basics, issues in research publication ethics lecture.  I've been doing this one for years and years.  Every time I pitch it a little differently and change the examples a bit and update where necessary, but the essentials of it are the same. 

Concerns over plagiarism by students have mushroomed over the past few years.   While the internet has made it extremely easy to commit plagiarism, it has also made it very easy to discover.   Surveys show high numbers of students admitting to cheating during their high school or college careers.   A while back, a rep from one of the big publishing houses told me that whereas a couple of years ago the hot topic at the publisher meetings he went to was open access, during the past year or so it had become plagiarism and other ethical violations.

It is apparent to me, when I do these lectures, that most of the students have only the vaguest notion of the concepts behind copyright and plagiarism and most have only the foggiest notion of what are considered to be appropriate norms of scholarly and professional behavior.  While intentional plagiarism or other ethical violations certainly takes place, I'm convinced that much of what happens occurs through simple ignorance.

Case in point -- a few years ago, I was on an advisory panel for the project of an informatics student.  My involvement was extremely minor.  But the student was appreciative -- and showed his appreciation by including me as an author on a paper he wrote reporting the results of a different project altogether!  I didn't know about it until after the paper was submitted to a journal.  I immediately notified his advisor and the paper was withdrawn before any harm was done.  This was a smart guy doing very interesting work.  He just didn't know any better.

Some junior scholars and scientists end up with good mentors who will model appropriate behaviors, but unfortunately many don't.  I suspect the only formal exposure that most of our undergraduates get to the ethical issues of plagiarism occurs if they read the Honor Code.  But the faculty assumes that the students know all of the rules.  That's a bad assumption.

If we expect students to understand the ethical issues involved we have to take the time early in their college careers to insure that those issues get addressed.  The professor who emailed me was surprised that the students had gotten as far as they had (last semester before graduation in an MPH program) without understanding the basics.  Sadly, I wasn't.



Couldn't agree more, Scott. When I've given the plagiarism talk in the past,

In my experience, both faculty and students appreciate this instruction. Often, faculty have not read university policy until a case comes up and don't really know their obligations. And students truly don't have any sort of nuanced understanding of what plagiarism is, not until they are educated about the matter.

I've always couched my lecture in terms of university policy, rather than ethics. In fact, I never refer to plagiarism as an ethical issue. This has irritated a faculty member or two who insist that students should know that plagiarism is unethical. I've found, though, that if you instead push the message that the library staff can help students with their research and citing materials correctly, you can avoid having the session come across as a "fire and brimstone" lecture on the evils of plagiarism.

T Scott

I try to frame my plagiarism discussion around the notion of professional or community norms, rather than in moral/ethical terms. Since I'm usually dealing with graduate students, this seems to work. I point out that "borrowing" from others is handled in very different ways among different communities -- a jazz musician, in his or her solo, may quote liberally the ideas of earlier musicians, but is never expected to indicate in the liner notes of a CD just where those musical ideas from Monk or Coltrane originally appeared. But in the scholarly community, we are expected to be meticulous about tracking all of those sources.

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