December 10, 2013 @ 3:43 pm
I’ve read a lot of student papers in the last ten years, and I’m a pretty good reader (all those fantasy novels). It’s not hard for a trained reader to spot differences in author style, especially when those authors are not of the same skill level. Plagiarism pretty much jumps out at us. With a search engine (much less a specialized tool like TurnItIn), it’s equally easy to source the copied material. After all, if the student could use a search engine to find a source, so can the grader. It’s not magic, the way the students act when you call them on plagiarizing. It’s a question of investing the time to do it, and whether the grader is willing to invest that time (fairly sophisticated student strategy, actually, if you’re into game theory).
So over the years, I’ve flunked quite a number of papers, especially in online courses. Students either rewrote those papers or they didn’t, and that was more or less the end of it. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about their motivations for copying, beyond the obvious one – it’s easier. Duh. I also tried not to waste time and energy being mad about it, even in those cases where there was clear and deliberate deception (citing one source and copying from another). Given our human cheater-detection social circuitry, those two responses, questioning motivations and reacting to those imagined motivations, tend to go together.
This weekend, though, looking at my senior projects papers, I’ve got multiple cases of what I’d call disturbingly blatant plagiarism – unquoted sentences lifted from a paper, changed by one or two words, and cited correctly. Do they think I’m an idiot? That I’m asleep? Or is something else going on?
Kirby Ferguson, in his excellent web series Everything is a Remix, is very clear that “copying is how we learn.” There’s really no such thing as an entirely original thought. Scientists recognize that to some extent, which is why we cite things (well, one reason). It’s fine to lift an idea, as long as you put it in your own words. Why do the students refuse to do this? An economist would probably build an equation for comparing the risk of getting caught to the amount of time saved. I think our cheater-detection modules work something like that. We assume that deliberate cheating is the only reason to copy.
So today I did a quick little search, applying the concept of surface features from the educational literature, where they study how people use analogies to solve problems. I know that my students do that, and that they often use the wrong analogy. Two examples from last week:
“I chose smooth endoplasmic reticulum because lipids are smooth and slippery,”
“I chose it because it starts with S and S sounds slippery.”
They choose some superficial surface feature, rather than
understanding the deep structure of the problem or the question, the actual
cause and effect relationships that they should be using in their analogies. Lots of people have studied this in physics, in math, in biology.
Sooooo . . . what if the plagiarizing student is simply copying the wrong information? Again, it’s fine to copy an idea. What if the student is copying the surface features of the text, the word choice and the word order, what writers call conventions, because that’s all she sees? What if she doesn’t see what an educator would call the deep structure of the idea, doesn’t understand what the journal article's author is actually saying, can’t rephrase it, and so has little choice but to copy the surface features in desperation?
Or, invoking a different brain system, a social one, what if the student is simply copying the surface features because that’s how scientists sound, and she’s trying to inhabit that social role, the role of the expert? We use big words partially because big words can be very precise in meaning, but at least partially to sound important and smart. We write in the passive voice, although noone talks that way, in a really transparent attempt to sound objective. Sometimes it seems impressing our peers is more important than being clear and falsifiable, because we humans regard being falsified as criticism. I’ve actually had students smile this semester when I call them (gently) on that one, going into minute detail about things they understand and trying to gloss over things they don’t understand, rather than just admitting that they don’t get it and asking for help. There’s a whole stand-up routine in that behavior, just waiting to happen.
It was interesting to feel my righteous anger draining away at even the possibility of another explanation. Doesn't mean I won't flunk them if they don't fix it, just that I won't feel so self-righteous about it.
Share | Comments