Although there are software-based services that can help instructors check the originality of student writing and discourage students from deliberately copying the work of others, many instances of plagiarism stem not from a willful disregard of the rules but from simple ignorance of them.
Elizabeth Kleinfeld, an English instructor and director of the writing center at Metropolitan State University of Denver, has studied plagiarism and students’ use of sources for the last seven years, mostly among students in first-year writing courses. She has found that many students don’t understand the differences between paraphrasing, summarizing, and plagiarism.
In an interview, Kleinfeld revealed three key lessons from her research that can help instructors curb student plagiarism.
1. Students need explicit instruction in the proper use of sources.
Plagiarism detection services can be useful tools for enforcing academic integrity. But students also must be taught how to use sources properly, just as they would learn any other aspect of writing, Kleinfeld said.
“Telling students ‘don’t plagiarize’ is not a teaching strategy. It is a warning,” she said. “To my mind, it’s like saying to students, ‘I’ll fail you if you don’t give a thesis statement,’ and then not giving any instruction on that.”
Kleinfeld recommends that faculty have conversations with their students about how to use sources correctly. Show them examples of summarizing, paraphrasing, and directly quoting a source. Talk about when it might make sense for students to use each of these techniques in their writing: How does each affect the reader? How does it frame the way the source is being used?
2. When discussing the sourcing of material, explain that context matters.
Making the issue more confusing for students is that the rules regarding proper citation depend on the context in which the writing occurs.
“We don’t talk to students enough about how much context matters. Students might do something that is considered plagiarism in an academic paper, but it wouldn’t be considered plagiarism in another composing situation,” Kleinfeld explained. “And we expect students to understand the nuances of these different composing situations naturally, without giving them explicit instruction.”
For instance, using boilerplate copy without attribution is a commonly accepted practice in many instances—and this happens frequently in the syllabi that instructors hand out to students at the beginning of a course.
“When students see that, and they’re told not to plagiarize, they might not consciously recognize there’s a contradiction there,” Kleinfeld said. “But on some level, they might realize there is some ambiguity in the rules regarding academic integrity—and that seeps into their writing.”
3. Make the connection between students’ use of sources and their credibility.
When discussing the issue of academic integrity with students, it’s important to explain how their use of sources reflects on their ethos, or the sense of credibility and authority they project as writers, Kleinfeld noted.
“Students are really interested in the why,” she explained. “If you just tell them, ‘Don’t plagiarize,’ that’s not very helpful. But if you tell them why using sources a certain way is a strong way or a weak way, and then connect it to how they come across to their reader, I think that’s much more compelling to them than just saying: “Don’t plagiarize because it’s wrong.’”