More on Plagiarism Detection Services

In my discussions with opponents of [plagiarism detection services], it’s unclear that any methods of plagiarism detection at all are acceptable. Too much zeal to trust students can lead to a tacit “look the other way” practice which is naive, irresponsible, and just as likely to breed resentment among students who do the writing as PDS do. The alternative offered is something along the lines of “start a dialogue with students about authorship and intellectual property.” “Require students to submit multiple drafts and monitor the writing process closely.” “Talk to students about the importance of speaking for oneself and what a meaningful act that is. Frame it in such a way that shows that copying a paper from the internet is basically letting someone else speak for you.”

Fair enough, those are all valid practices. But professors who do those things can end up with plagiarism cases in spite of all of it. What exactly do you do at the moment of encounter with that paper that you’re 99.9% sure is plagiarized? —Clancy RatliffMore on Plagiarism Detection Services (Culturecat)

I started a comment on Clancy’s blog, but it grew, so here it is.

Clancy notes that and similar commercial services are not our only options for detecting plagiarism. She lists several — using Google, asking students to come in for a conference with a paper trail showing a submission is their own work, requiring multiple drafts, etc.

Faculty members who don’t think of themselves as writing teachers, and those who think of the essay as a passive vehicle for conveying information (rather than the laboratory in which ideas are formed) aren’t confident in their own ability to discourage plagiarism through non-technological means. Some feel that writing is not their job, and they see as a tool to free them from the drudgery of having to teach the stuff that is the bread and butter of our discipline — all that stuff about writing being a sign of intellectual investment in one’s education, etc. In a comment on Clancy’s blog, Joanna notes that the software takes authority away from both the student and the faculty member. Let’s hope that somewhere at a big institution a decision-maker does not decide to cut the writing center budget in order to pay for a PDS, on the idea that it would be more efficient to have 1000 students in a Psych101 course to run their papers through software rather than sit down with a writing tutor.

Yet this year, I’m experimenting with having students submit pretty much everything through I experimented with a paperless semester last year, though I mostly used our content management system (neither Blackboard nor Web-CT, but something called Jenzabar, which does not impress me very much).

Since I’m horrible at filing paperwork I like the fact that the system handles that drudgery for me. No more schlepping stacks of ungraded papers home, and schlepping them back (too often ungraded) the next morning.

I also find the peer-review feature very useful. Students can trade anonymous peer reviews within the system. I find I have to ask very specific questions, since the system doesn’t permit students to cross out a sentence or draw a wavy line under a confusing passage.. the system doesn’t really encourage global revisions, but this limitation does force me to decide, for each peer review, what are the specific things I most want students to be looking for when they review each other’s work. And that forces me to focus on whether I’m actually teaching those skills to the students.

I consider what the computer shows me to be one piece of information that I can use in order to assess the situation. It is rare that a student who has shown no signs of struggling in the course will suddenly plagiarize out of the blue. But people in our discipline are trained to diagnose all kinds of intellectual maladies based on a student’s paper trail. Most faculty are not trained to do this kind of thing. In a perfect world, everyone would value rhetoric the same way writing teachers do. Well… at least, if the world were ruled by people who were once writing teachers, then we’d be able to enforce our biases. But in the real world, we teach alongside faculty members who see a PDS as an efficient time-saver.

I’m reminded of the two levels of rhetoric that were used in the early 20thC, by Dictaphone salesmen. The bosses (overwhelmingly male) were told that Dictaphones never went on lunch breaks or called in sick, so they’d always be available when the boss wanted to take a letter. The secretaries (overwhelmingly female) were told that if their bosses could turn on the machine whenever they wanted to take dictation, that would free up the secretaries so that they could make more decisions on their own, and they would be like junior executives who could manage their own resources, making their own decisions about which letters had to be transcribed now and whether their transcriptions would have to go back to the boss for clarification.

This is the first time SHU has offered a Basic Comp course (we used to have a two-semester course in Thinking and Writing), so I can’t fairly compare my experience this year with what has happened before, but I do get the feeling that more students are choosing to submit no paper at all rather than risk getting caught plagiarizing. I’m not sure, then, that is really helping me teach, but it may be affecting the way students act out their alienation from the demands of the college workload.

Still, just today a student who re-used too much boilerplate text from a routine assignment was shocked to see that tagged chunks of her text as non-original. The tagging showed that she inappropriately re-used some material that should have been fresh. I probably would not have caught that, but the student sought me out and eagerly asked for permission to redo the exercise. (I let her.)

Hats off to Clancy and Mike, and everyone else who continues to ask us to doubt the words of the fast-talking salesman who convinces The Man that the new-fangled technology can do the work for which we’ve been trained.