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Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Preventing Plagiarism...It's a Whole New World

One of my favorite lessons each year is the opportunity to talk to students about preventing plagiarism. The world of plagiarism is very different than what it looked like when I was a young student. Plagiarism used to take effort; actual scissors and paste were involved in cutting and pasting. Handwritten reports copied from the family encyclopedia set sometimes took longer than writing the words myself. I don't even remember hearing the word plagiarism until I was a senior in high school completing my research project on Utopia by Sir Thomas Moore. I still have the book, complete with my notes and it's definitely true that painful memories are the clearest. But that's another story.

Today, plagiarizing is much easier and can even happen unintentionally when students use technology to take short cuts during the research and writing process. As the first post of this blog states, just because you can doesn't mean you should. In the 6th grade, I share plagiarism scenarios with students who act as lawyers and a jury to determine whether or not the student in question has plagiarized. Many of the scenarios contain gray areas without clear or easy answers. The scenario we talk about extensively is the one I see most frequently in the middle school. It always starts with note taking. It is very common for students to want to copy and paste digital information to a word document as a note taking method. We strongly discourage this method. Yes, it is time saving, but it creates problems in the long run. Students who don't clearly delineate which notes are direct quotes and which are their own interpretations or lists of facts, inevitably end up including chunks of text in their final documents that they did not write themselves. They typically do this unintentionally, but there are consequences anyway. Cutting and pasting, rather than reading and interpreting, limits the brain's ability to process and analyze text. Students are short-cutting themselves and their learning by skipping this essential step.

To prevent this common type of plagiarism, we encourage students to work through research in chunks. Chunks can be different sizes for different people. Whether it is a paragraph, a section or a page, students read a "chunk" and then set aside or turn away from the source material to jot down the most important facts, information or ideas they gathered from their initial reading of the material. They can glance back and check for dates, spelling and other particulars. Notes should look like lists of facts, information and ideas rather than complete sentences or paragraphs. This also saves time and creates notes that are much more useful when working on a final project.

We discuss many plagiarism related scenarios that students might run into during their academic careers: recycling old projects for a new class, being asked to share answers with a friend, or whether or not to purchase a paper from an online essay "shop." We also keep talking about it every year and during most major research and writing projects to ensure that students have the tools to make better choices.

This year, when I spoke with the 8th graders, I used some real life examples to demonstrate that plagiarism issues never really go away, even as adults and that, in some cases we're all still trying to figure out what's acceptable and what isn't. The three examples I showed them are linked below. Interestingly, when I happened upon the Bob Dylan example, I found an image on a blog that reminded me of the types of charts I usually see in major newspapers, like The New York Times. The blog author did not attribute the chart to any source, causing readers like me to assume the chart was created by the author. I was skeptical and went straight to The New York Times. Sure enough, I was able to locate the original article including the chart image created by the Times. The students thought this was pretty amazing, since they would most certainly have been in trouble if they had done the same thing for an assignment. Of course, I never saw a single comment on the blog page noting the problem.

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