Coping with Plagiarism

Students cheat in various ways. Old School cheating involved copying from a nearby classmate’s exposed information, or sneaking microscopic notes, written on paper cups, small pieces of paper, or tattooed on an arm or leg with a ball-point pen. As for assignments out of class such as term papers, fraternities used to file returned and graded papers by the brethren, categorized by subject and professor. What are brothers for?

Enter the internet—Pandora’s box. Students share answers during exams on their smart phones, look up answers online, and purchase term papers written by underemployed scholars. As President Trump would tweet: Sad! There are ways to nab cheating perps with software such as Turnitin, but clever students find ways to expose weaknesses in the algorithm, like mastermind safecrackers.

If you think you can eliminate cheating you should probably get a pet unicorn. However, there are ways to mitigate the damage. Houston Community College professor of English Wayne Stauffer has a nice piece in Inside Higher Ed., offering practical tips you might find useful. He compares faculty rules against cheating to traffic laws. You will never eliminate violations, but most drivers are afraid to run stop signs. Please read the article.

To elaborate on one of the writer’s suggestions, if you can find a way to personalize essays, exams, and assignments, students realize that their work must presumably be unique, and hence recognizable by the instructor as unoriginal. Violations may be hard to prove, but you can communicate to the student that it is highly unlikely for more than one individual in a given class to write about “My Awesome Trip to Waxahachie to Visit My Drunk Uncle Otto.” This technique is harder to pull off in large sections, where such trips may be probabilistically commonplace. You never know.

Some teachers report that, with out-of-class written assignments, you can search Google, pasting a paragraph or so into the search engine and see what pops up. If a student writes, “I turned twenty-one in prison, doing life without parole,” Google will let you know it’s the opening line from Merle Haggard’s classic, “Mama Tried.”

So fry the little perp. Mama failed. Google wins.