An Assignment that Prevents Plagiarism

A qualitative study of plagiarism reported that although students know that plagiarism is wrong, most are quite confused about what actually constitutes plagiarism. The availability of so many online resources has exacerbated the problem. Cut-and-paste features expedite using the material of others. Studies are also showing that students do not think the principles of ownership apply to online resources the same way they do to print material. Finally, many faculty are still struggling to master the rules of referencing that apply to Web-based resources, which does not excuse but certainly explains why students find referencing these materials so confusing.

McGown and Lightbody, authors of the article referenced below, explain how they arrived at the conclusion that there is a need for a different kind of assignment to deal with plagiarism issues. Currently, most students are taught the principles of referencing using detailed guidelines that include examples of how the principles should be applied to individual sources. Most of the time, students are taught about using the material of others and crediting those sources in some sort of composition course. Then students are expected to apply what they’ve learned when they prepare written materials in subsequent courses. McGown and Lightbody felt that students needed instruction beyond the guidelines and that they needed repeated instruction in subsequent courses, especially those courses in the major. Not all fields handle the use of sources in the same way. Once students are in a major, they need to learn the particulars of referencing for that field.

McGown and Lightbody teach accounting, and so their assignment deals with accounting content. They write that they hoped to achieve two goals with the assignment: they wanted to increase students’ understanding of the nature of plagiarism in the accounting field and they wanted to use the assignment to develop students’ knowledge of a particular accounting issue.

Here are the details of the assignment. Because they didn’t want to devote class time to covering the plagiarism content, they had students complete an online workshop that described the nature of plagiarism, the consequences of plagiarizing, and how students could avoid doing it. Students also read a referencing guide.

With that background, students were given a short (900-word) faculty-prepared essay. It included arguments and evidence relating to the accounting topic. It also included references to a variety of sources—some Web-based and some in library databases, including an academic journal, a professional publication, and a newspaper, among others. The essay contained 10 examples of plagiarism. Some were copied word for word from the resource. Others paraphrased sentences and paragraphs, and still others used author ideas and research data without acknowledgment. Students had to consult the original sources and use them to identify the plagiarized content in the essay. Then they had to resubmit the essay with those instances of plagiarism corrected and appropriately referenced. They also had to prepare a correctly referenced, 250-word conclusion to the essay.

Student scores on the corrected essay—they had to identify and correct at least 70 percent of the plagiarized content and correct at least one example of each kind of plagiarism—indicated their understanding of plagiarism. They were able to identify it and make the necessary corrections. The authors also asked students for their perceptions of how well they understood plagiarism before and after the assignment. In the two years when the assignment was first used, 32 percent and 40 percent, respectively, rated their initial knowledge of plagiarism as good. That percentage jumped to 85 for both cohorts after they had completed the assignment. A number of student comments in the article speak to the effectiveness of the assignment. Even more telling, no further cases of plagiarism were detected in that course, and the instructor of a subsequent course taken by these students “noted a substantial decline in the number of cases of plagiarism.” (p. 281)

Reference: McGowan, S., and Lightbody, M. (2008). Enhancing students’ understanding of plagiarism within a discipline context. Accounting Education, 17 (3), 273-290.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, 25.4 (2011): 2.