Sunday, January 8, 2017

An Exercise in Plagiarism Prevention

As Diane Pecorari [1] never seems to tire of saying, the best way to deal with plagiarism is to prevent it happening by educating students about why we reference other works and how to do it.  I quite agree! Not only has Pecorari put together many good classroom activities in order to achieve this goal, but others such as Margaret Price [2] have also offered good ideas. Price speaks of a classroom lecture of Mike Mattison at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst that she observed in 1999 and describes an exercise that he did with his students:
Another area for possible focus in the classroom is the differences among, and possible intersections of, what we mean by paraphrasing, quoting, and our own words. In an inventive approach to this subject, Mike Mattison distributes colored pencils to his students and asks each of them to create a legend at the top of a peer's paper: one color for what they determine to be paraphrases, one for quotes, and one for the author's own words. Students go through each other's papers, underlining sections, lines, and words in appropriately alternating colors. They then retrieve their own papers and examine the alternation of colors for balance and flow. Although in the class I observed Mike did not ask his students to discuss the problem of distinguishing between "outside" words and the author's own words, his exercise would be an ideal lead-in to this conversation. Students could also try this with their own papers.
That sounds like a brilliant idea, so I adapted it for my Master's seminar in a computing program the other day. The students are currently writing their final theses, due in about 8 weeks. It is, of course, late for such instruction, but better late than never.

I instructed the students to bring two copies of 4-5 pages from their thesis in which they reference the work of others, and one copy of their literature list. They were also to bring highlighters and a red pen. I gave them the instruction two weeks in advance and repeated it 48 hours before class. As more than one student admitted, the 48-hour-reminder induced enough panic to get them to finally quit programming and get some writing done.

We have a block of 4x45-minute-long hours every other week for the course, the first hour of the session we had other topices to attend to.

For the exercise I brought five pages from my book [3] and a sack full of highlighters and colored pens, as I know that my students often forget to bring writing implements.

In the second hour I sat down at our overhead camera projector with three markers and my text. I defined a legend for the colors and then did the highlighting on my own text: What is from me, what is quoted, what is an indirect quotation or a paraphrase. They peppered me with questions! I thought I was only going to need 15 minutes for this, we had to break off after 4 pages and 45 minutes!

Then it was their turn. I paired off the 12 participants so that no one was together with someone with whom they are working closely, and had them get to work marking up one copy of their own writing and one copy of the partners. The readers were given the literature lists and were asked to spot-check a few of the references to see if they were correctly recorded. A red pen was to be used to mark up any spelling or grammar errors encountered. They were made to sit apart so that they didn't get nervous sneaking peeks at their partner. Then they were to discuss the results with their partner.

It took about 25-30 minutes of very intensive work before they had worked through the exercise, then they began very spirited discussions of the differences between their own markup and the perception of their readers. I was called on by all the groups to "judge" differences of opinion. Two groups discussed the issues for the next 60 minutes!

I asked each group for some feedback on the exercise. They all appreciated the exercise, because it taught them how to see what they write from a reader's perspective. They know what they have written themselves and what is from other people, but were not making this clear. It was also hard having peers mark up spelling errors in red - two students sat correcting their spelling errors on the spot. The feedback that was most surprising for me was one student who noted that he felt quite relieved now. There has been an intensive discussion of plagiarism in Germany since 2011 and many students are scared that they are somehow not quoting properly and will get accused of plagiarism. Now he felt secure that he was doing it mostly right, and that he had learned about the points where he needed to make things a bit more clear in the exercise.

I highly recommend trying out this exercise, although I don't know how I would survive a larger group, as I had waiting lists for going around and explaining details to each group.


[1] Pecorari, D. (2013). Teaching To Avoid Plagiarism: How To Promote Good Source Use. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
[2] Price, M. (2002). “Beyond “Gotcha!”: Situating Plagiarism in Policy and Pedagogy”, In College Composition and Communication, Vol. 54 No. 1, S. 109.
[3] Weber-Wulff, D. (2014). False Feathers: A Perspective on Academic Plagiarism. Berlin: Springer Verlag.

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