Friday, June 22, 2012

Combat Plagiarism

Combat Plagiarism.

I write on the board: "The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain." After having students identify the quote, I ask them to paraphrase it.

Volunteers write their versions on the board, which tend to fall into two categories:

* those that keep the same syntax but substitute synonyms, and
* those that keep the original words but change the word order.

The following are extreme examples of the actual results:

* Synonyms: The precipitation on the Iberian Peninsula descends most on the flatlands.
* Syntax: In Spain, it rains on the plains most often.

I encourage students to ask themselves soul-searching questions like these:

* Are the new versions really in my own words?
* Am I still going to use quotation marks even though I haven't quoted directly?
* Why should I bother referencing, since I have changed the wording so as to make it nearly unrecognizable?
*  Did I make changes for valid reasons or merely to avoid quotation marks, as in a paper already overloaded with them?
* Have I really improved on the original or merely allowed stilted, flowery language to replace the simplicity of the song lyrics?

Most students ultimately come to see that they must give credit for ideas they did not originate. They also discover that they have distorted the meaning of the original -- in this case, an elocution lesson to change Eliza Doolittle's cockney accent into that of a highborn "lye-dy."

I stress to students that proper documentation, in addition to being "fair play" to the author, is a safeguard for themselves. If a strange thought has been quoted exactly and referenced, the strangeness will be laid properly at the doorstep of the author. If taken out of context, the thought can be checked by the reader. In the event of an error on the author's part, the careful student remains blameless.

I am convinced that paraphrasing -- making changes line by line -- inevitably leads to plagiarism. Paraphrasing has a legitimate place only in rare cases, such as translations of colloquialisms like "Chill out!" or in technical documents that must be digested for a lay audience (as in computer manuals).

My students have three options for documenting:

* direct quoting,
* summarizing (no quotes at all), or
* discussing two sources in the same paragraph (again without quoting).

All of these entries must be referenced to give the authors credit. Some students, believing that quotation marks are necessary only when they appear in the original source, are shocked at the notion of secondary quotes being plagiarism.

In my class, I teach how to plagiarize and then trust that no one will commit plagiarism knowingly. I also help students to avoid lifting whole chunks of text to patch together quotes without comment or analysis (input- output, with no processing), often a result of desperation from time pressures. We work hard on summarizing, outlining, discussing, and careful quoting so that my students have alternatives to paraphrasing or "chunking."

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