• Writing class: Dealing with plagiarism (Don’t take it personally)

A learning opportunity

A learning opportunity

In October 2016, Tiffany Martínez, a Latina student at Suffolk University in Boston, was accused of plagiarism by her sociology professor in front of the entire class. Huffington Post plagiarism story   What caused him to be suspicious?  The word “hence.”  On her paper, he circled the place where she had written the word “hence” and wrote in the margin, “This is not your word.”

In my many years as an ESL instructor, I’ve witnessed instructors over-reacting in suspected plagiarism situations.  It seems as if those instructors were taking it personally, feeling like they were being disrespected.  Too often instructors seem to see it as a “gotcha” opportunity.

Plagiarism Learning Opportunities

Unless there is proof, the instructor shouldn’t accuse the student.  It would be more damaging to falsely accuse a students of plagiarizing who had worked hard than to “let” a students who actually plagiarized slip by.  If the student actually plagiarized, and the instructor has proof, it can be viewed as a learning opportunity.

Here are some options depending on the situation.

Situation 1: An ESL student, Eric, clearly plagiarized a paragraph in his essay.  I met with him privately and asked him if he had any help with the essay.  He said no.  I asked him if he used any information from a source like the internet.  He again said no.  I pointed to the paragraph that looked plagiarized and said that the style and vocabulary looked very different from how he usually wrote.  He still denied copying.  I told him that I’ll believe him, and right now, it’s just between him and me.  But I told him that I’d need to research this and if I find out he plagiarized, I’d be required to report this to administration.  At that point, he told me that he may have taken some words from a source.  So I asked him to underline every word and sentence that he had copied, which he did.  Then I told him that he had two options:  (1) He can put quotation marks around those and tell the source.  That would be legal, and he wouldn’t get into trouble.  However, any child can copy something and put quotes around it.  It’s not an advanced way to write an academic paper.  So in his college classes, he probably wouldn’t get a good grade if he just quoted a lot.  The better option is (2): He should paraphrase those sentences.  That way he can show that he really understood those ideas.  Also, I can help him with his style and vocabulary.  If he just copies, I really can’t help him with his writing.  He offered to rewrite those parts, and I agreed.

Situation 2: Another ESL student, Vivian, also clearly plagiarized.  After meeting privately with her and going through the same steps that I had with Eric (above), she still denied copying.  I told her that I would trust her.  She had been aware of all the potential troubles that a student who plagiarizes could get into, so I didn’t feel it was necessary to go through those again.  I mainly wanted to give her a different perspective. So I explained that the reason I had asked was because some students do copy from sources, so I’m not able to help them with their writing skills.  They were missing an opportunity to get my help.  I also explained that when we decide whether a student passes to the next level, we look very closely at their in-class essays.  (These are carefully monitored essays which students write during a class period.)

Raising Awareness

I’ve seen instructors spend hours trying to find the source that a suspected student had used.  I just spent a few minutes Googling Vivian’s sentences but didn’t find anything.  So I had no justification for accusing her.  My only hope was that I was able to raise awareness.

Situation 3: Another ESL student’s situation was similar to Vivian (above).  His name was Ryan.  He denied copying, but I found the source that he had plagiarized from.  I gave him every opportunity to acknowledge it, but he continued to deny it, so I showed him the source and where he plagiarized.  I explained the seriousness of this, told him that I would have to report him to the administration and that this would be on his record.  However, I told him that I’d let him rewrite the essay if he promised never to plagiarize again.  And he did agree to do that.

Avoiding Inner-teacher Turmoil

How to avoid inner turmoil when dealing with a potential plagiarizer: don’t take it personally and be sure to heavily weigh the final grade on closely monitored in-class essays.  If you know students will not pass unless they can demonstrate the proper level of writing skills, you don’t have to agonize about someone “getting away with something.”

David Kehe

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