Thinking About How to Avoid Student Plagiarism

“Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

The above gem of English locution is from a British television comedy show from the 1980’s and ’90’s called A Bit of Fry and Laurie. The sketch, called “Tricky Linguistics,” calls this an example of a unique sentence, one that—despite being made up of ordinary words—has never been said before “in the history of human communication.”

Most of the time uniqueness in student writing is something good. It can reflect a student’s personal engagement and original thinking, and display their “voice.” Many of us consider voice or personal style in writing a mark of writerly maturity, and if we think about our own favorite writers we can probably identify words and phrases that instantly tell us who we are reading. This tendency of writers to use and reuse words is the basis of algorithms like Amazon.com’s Statistically Improbably Phrases and term frequency-inverse document frequency (tf-idf), both of which can help determine what role particular words and phrases play in a text or body of texts.

At this point you may be asking yourself, what does all of this have to do with Writing Across the Curriculum? Well, in preparation for the upcoming workshop on avoiding plagiarism, I wanted to talk a bit about one electronic resource available to City Tech faculty that uses the kind of technology mentioned above to help spot, as well as educate students about, plagiarism.

The Blackboard learning platform (available for all courses at City Tech, not just hybrid or online classes) has a tool called SafeAssign. This allows students to turn in their writing through an electronic system that checks the text for exact or near-exact matches to documents publicly available on the internet, on the closed-access database of publications ProQuest ABI/Inform, and in archives of documents previously submitted by City Tech students. The system then produces a report that marks passages of concern and links to their possible online sources, as well as providing a calculation of the percentage of the paper that matches existing text.

This may seem like a wish come true to time-pressed faculty members—an instant plagiarism detector!—but as with all tools it makes a real difference how you use it. Rather than its capacity to alert the instructor to possible issues of citation (intentional or unintentional) I want to suggest that one of the great things about SafeAssign is that the reports that it generates are not only visible to the instructor, they are visible to students. Even better, there is an option to allow students to run their drafts through the system without turning them in, so that they can see what the problems are before it is too late.

In many cases, what looks like plagiarism is actually poor citation practices and a lack of understanding of paraphrase. Using a tool like SafeAssign to allow students to see where their work is falling short in these areas at the draft stage can take some of the pressure off of the instructor and improve the overall quality of the finished product. More importantly, it can encourage students to be proactive by providing an opportunity for them to self-correct or to seek outside help.

No single tool is the answer to when it comes to student plagiarism. There are lots of ways to address the issue before it becomes a matter for the Academic Integrity Committee. For more ideas join WAC fellows Jake Cohen and Claire Hoogendoorn, and library faculty member Bronwen Densmore for the Avoiding Plagiarism and Using Library Resources workshop this Tuesday, November 11 at 1pm in Namm 1105.