What I've done this year to try to head off plagiarism

Dear Academic Integrity Committee

After last year’s fiasco regarding plagiarism on the class blog, I thought a great deal about what to do this year. Particularly helpful were discussions with the STEM Gen Ed discussion group (their horror stories also added to my motivation). Several articles I was directed to had an impact (1, 2, 3, 4), as did the advice of the ever energetic Julia Kregenow who has actually done courses on promoting academic integrity in our student body (sad that such courses have to exist, but good that she does them and passes on accumulated wisdom). So these are the changes I instituted.

  • Whenever I was discussing plagiarism in class, I asked the students to turn off their phones. Phone-induced inattention was the only alternative explanation for one of last year’s cases (though I still maintain that case was just plain and simple dishonesty).
  • I instituted a fourteen question plagiarism test, which tested the students knowledge of what plagiarism is, what good and bad practice looks like, how the policy and penalties are implemented on SC200, and resources to turn to. I took much pleasure in using as examples of bad practice the writing you got to see last year, and more pleasure showcasing a blog post from a student who really could write complex things in her own words because she the took the time to understand what she was writing about.
  • I required students to get 100% on the plagiarism  test. They got as many goes to do it as they wanted, and the test was live on Angel for six days.
  • That test ended six days before the end of the first blog period, and I made clear in class that anyone who had realized that they might have stepped over the line could still edit out the plagiarism before the first blog period deadline.
  • I refused to grade any blog work for anyone until they achieved 100% on the plagiarism test. This meant 21 students were excluded from Blog Period 1.
  • In the syllabus, I greatly extend my discussion of academic integrity and in particular, the discussion on plagiarism. In class, I implored the students to read that discussion, although we know of course that most never read that part of syllabi. But I know you do when you are reviewing the cases I bring to you. I hope you like the wording this year. Personal highlights:
    • I tried to be as positive as I could (“My promises to you…”)
    • I tried to explain why cheating is bad, beyond the risk of getting caught.
    • I tried to make clear what is honest work, and what is cheating.
    • I made very clear my sources, and made clear that much of the wording was lightly edited from Julia’s syllabi, used with permission.
  • In the syllabus, I made explicit the penalty for plagiarism on the blog. I did this to make it clear to the students how serious this is and more importantly to limit wiggle room when we (me and you) are post-hoc trying to figure out what penalty to impose. I think it important that the penalty be very significant, totally transparent and applied equally to all offenders. The bottom line is that on SC200, plagiarists will get a maximum score for the entire course of a C+ on first offense. In practice, their score will likely be a lot lower and they may even struggle to pass.
  • Most onerously, I made it clear that if anyone wanted to use anyone else’s words in a blog post or comment, they had to email me before hand, explain why and get my express permission. This was Jackie Bortiatynski‘s suggestion. It generated a lot of email, but also made clear to me that many students really do have to be taught what is fair citation practice and what is plagiarism. If all the e-traffic heads off even one offender, that will have been more time efficient than bringing a student before you.
  • I reduced the workload in all Blog periods, but especially Blog Period 1. There is a strong indication that students are tempted to cheat if, close to a deadline, they find an overwhelming amount of work and not enough time to do it in. So I cut the number of required posts and comments from 5 and 13 to 3 and 10 for the first blog period, and made it 5 and 15 for the other two Blog Periods (from 6 and 16). I am not sure what I make of challenging students less in order to try to prevent a cheating few.
  • I discussed in class how much time blog posts might take, so students who left it close to the deadline would not be taken by surprise. I got the TAs to join this discussion, so current SC200 students could hear the experience of former SC200 students.
  • I added extra credit for students who blogged ahead of deadlines.
  • I added extra credit to encourage students to post in the first blog period so they would not be overwhelmed in later blog periods.
  • I said in class, and restated in an email to the class: If you ever feel even the slightest hint of temptation to commit plagiarism, don’t….. Instead, reach out to me. I am always available to discuss any circumstances that got you to the point of thinking about it. But not after it has happened. Once you have tried to pass someone else’s work off as your own, whatever the circumstances, I will begin academic violation procedures, as described in the syllabus.

These were on top of the things I did in previous years, namely I

  • discussed plagiarism in class, using examples from past class blogs of bad and good practice, and making clear the severity of the issue and the consequences of commiting plagiarism,
  • took class attendance on the day that discussion happened so we know who was there to listen to the class discussion, and
  • e-mailed the class discussing the seriousness of plagiarism, how to recognize it, avoid it, and reiterating the details in the syllabus.

Today is the deadline for the First Blog Period. So as the graders and the plagiarism software go to work, we will discover over the next week if all this has made any difference. We discovered three serious cases last year, two egregious beyond belief. I hope all my extra efforts this year lead to zero cases. And that if it does not, and I again find myself in front of you, that all this extra work means we can more efficiently and fairly penalize the offenders.



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