Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Monday, March 8, 2010


Be on the lookout for a photocopy of the latest case of plagiarism of a newspaper reporter in your school mailbox or a link to the online article in email from colleagues and/or administration today. Teachers around the world should be prepared to be receiving spam from those plagiarism software companies in the next couple of weeks pointing out the most recent account of plagiarism at the New York Times and how it could have been prevented with their product. Teachers without prompting should be using this latest account in their classes to remind their scholars about the dire affects of plagiarism. Teaching ways to avoid plagiarism and not adding this odious plagiarism software to schools is the teachable moment here.

The latest plagiarist has lost a job, and in these times that is tragic. What is more tragic is that he will never be able to write for a living. His reputation is smeared and his livelihood lost. This is not always the fate of cheaters in other walks of life. We see cheating athletes continue in their game, cheating spouses continue in their marriage, tax cheats merely pay a fine and continue doing whatever it is they do and so on. Plagiarism is the death knell to a writer's career. The account of this latest plagiarist is so close to those accounts of our own scholars, "an accident." The ease to copy and paste and the neglect in being careful is not an excuse. The argument to use plagiarism software continues at the Times. Some are against it because the cost, the inaccurate results, and the basic cumbersomeness of it makes the use of said software impractical; while others argue the embarrassment makes it necessary.

To use the software or not creates problems as stated by Craig Silverman, "it makes many journalists uncomfortable because it seems to assume guilt." I agree and the use of any software in academia implies guilt and sets a bad precedent. Teachers should not need such software. Assigning unique essay topics that can't be plagiarized is a start. Knowing the writing style of our scholars is a second. We should be getting initial and occasional writing samples from our scholars in class so we have benchmarks to use to compare any writing from a scholar we might suspect. Requiring drafts, too, will help rather than simply expecting a final paper. Class lessons in writing should always include how to paraphrase, what and how to cite correctly, and developing one's style. One of my online resources comes from Purdue, which offers a very comprehensive website about plagiarism. Writing is a process and we should be intimate with our scholar's work, rather than depend on a third party software. Paying attention is always an option.

Using said software may give the teacher a false sense of security and safety. The software is not without its failings. For one thing when one scholar uses words and phrases used in class in hir paper, the scholars who submit papers using these class generated thoughts and phrases may be flagged. These packages don't take into account a writer's style from one paper to the next as the writer may use similar phrases and even text from former papers when appropriate. I'm also not sure this is the most ethical, correct, or wise use of technology in our schools. Something is very very wrong with this approach, because it will be abused and sends a wrong message.

When I am suspect of a scholar's paper, I find using a couple of search engines to search for a set of 5-7 words of a questionable essay will help me resolve the question one way or another. Conferencing with our scholars is a way to determine authenticity by asking a pointed question about what was written to determine if a scholar is in fact the author. I should know the writing styles of my scholars and should be able to determine any questionable submission without the use of a software program. The software may seem easier for some teachers, just as plagiarism is easier for our scholars. What's the message being sent? In the long run it will drive the teacher further from the work of the scholar. When I have had situations of plagiarism, it is my fault because I have posed a stupid essay question that is too generic or I have been lazy and used an assignment from the past that I failed to alter enough to make copying simple. In my CyberEnglish classes, plagiarism is difficult unless I mess up as I stated above. Because my scholars make their work public and we engage in peer review, former scholar's work is cited as a way of learning citation methods. The work of my former scholars is available to us, as the third tenet of scholarship: "Pass it on." These papers serve as models and as resources. Since the peer reviewers are using many of the same resources, they can help classmates paraphrase, use correct citation to learn how to avoid plagiarism. Scholarship and the avoidance of plagiarism is a team effort in CyberEnglish classes.

Ironically I discovered that there seems to be a market for cheats to cheat the cheating software. In other words as the cheating software escalates so will the cheat the cheating software escalate. What a waste of time, money, and teaching. Just say No to this heinous software and do what has to be done in the classroom. If we take the easy way, so then will our scholars. Don't send the wrong message.

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