Dealing With the Plagiarism Plague Among Students

“You! I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?”
“You know darn well I placed fourth!”
“Exactly! The prize for the first place is worthless to you … because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it.”
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

I just read an interesting online discussion about dealing with students who plagiarize. Suiting the topic, I’m going to self-plagiarize a couple of the points I tried to make here. I think there are two major issues at play when it comes to students who plagiarize: Skill and Mindset.

Skill: And do this, don’t do this, and do this, and don’t do this, …

While most students have some idea of what plagiarism is. But this knowledge — or rather information — is not enough. The work in completely different to what they do outside university. They have to learn a lot of rules while taxed to capacity by researching the paper. And dealing with many sources at the same time is hard. Especially considering the readability of many of these sources.

Looking at students working in the university library, many are still writing with Word. Or any of its clones. Research and writing often overlaps. They do notes on-the-fly and erratic.

How can anyone work well this way?

Yet, there are ways to make this task simpler. Unfortunately, they are rarely taught in writing classes. I am a strong proponent for content outlines. Whether for creating topic notebooks or for the actual paper, I find the invaluable. You can copy and paste at your hearts content. Just put it in outliner cells and tag each cell with the respective source. It allows you to collect information about the topic you are dealing with and deal with the information. You can rearrange it, create a hierarchical structure, fold it in and out, and much, much more. It makes writing a paper — constructing an argument — like playing with Lego(R) bricks. Each brick has a tag showing where it came from. This allows you to build your paper and cite the sources. Not to mention that focusing on the structure first facilitates writing. I strongly suggest looking at outliners like Circus Ponies Notebook.

Of course, these methods work for me — other students might need different approaches. And there are many. Thing is, it’s not about the information you give the students. Telling them how to cite and what to avoid is not enough. They are students! They don’t know how to deal with all that stuff — yet. They need help to deal with their sources and correct citation beyond information on how to “avoid plagiarism”.

At least if they are students who deserve the name and want to avoid plagiarism.

Mindset: “Winning” that hundred-meter dash

The second issue is deeper. It deals with pride in ones’ own ideas and hard work. I think this pride is a prerequisite for wanting to avoid plagiarism. And it’s not always a given.

There are a few things that make my blood boil — in a bad way. Stealing ideas is first among them. But that’s in part because I know how hard good ideas are. You need knowledge. Creative solutions are not only the silver bullet for problems — these bullets are hard to forge.

But there are people who never had — or followed — their ideas. At least, not ideas that took effort to work out. That took research, persistence, dealing with set-backs. For these people there is no pride or respect associated with good ideas. Thus, it’s all up for grabs. They take it like a robber or a thief. There is no stigma attached to it because “nothing gets stolen like in ‘real life'”. You are smart if you make others work for you and gain the rewards. If you know Star Trek (TNG/DS9), it’s a Ferengi mindset. And if you understand metaphors, it’s an extreme capitalistic mindset. There people have a career in large organizations in front of them.

But, this is not the mindset for science. Okay, not the mindset that should triumph in science. In reality, much of Academia has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on plagiarism. I hope things are changing with websites like, but you never know. Too many universities still think that it’s best to avoid any cases of plagiarism. In reality “real boats rock”. Plagiarism will always happen because human beings do science. And human beings make mistakes or sometimes try to get ahead breaking the rules. Like a German university professor said, exposing cases of plagiarism is a boon. It shows the system to detect plagiarism is working. If they “do not happen” it usually means someone is hiding the cases.

Changing Mindsets

The mindset issue makes dealing with plagiarism by students difficult. You have to do what good education should do: Change minds.

Providing information about plagiarism is not enough. It is insufficient for students to sign a honor code defining plagiarism and laying out the punishments.

One way could be to make the issue of plagiarism graspable. Show students what plagiarism means. Suppose a student says something smart in the course. But instead of praising this student, you immediately give praise to another student. After a few more questions and misattributed praise you can raise the issue: This is what plagiarism is ‘in real life’. You notice it now because it is immediate. In academic writing, scientists notice it because there is always a paper trail. It’s just that shameful. Just this dishonorable. You claim credit for something you did not do. Just like you are scum in a social situation like a class, you are scum in science. And even if you do not want to go into science, you are scum in my eyes.

I wonder whether this would work. It should. Not with everyone — nothing is perfect. But it should make the issue clear. If you can pull it off, it should change minds.

Cultural “Factors”

There is some talk about collectivist cultures. That some cultures do not see plagiarism as ‘bad’. That it is the collective effort that counts. I think this is bullshit. With all intercultural competence, but … are you kidding me? We are not talking about mules pulling a log. We are talking about high level creative work. We are talking about years invested in understanding a difficult topic. We are talking about persistence in spite of failures and resistance.

So give me a break.

If you want to be a scientist on an international level, there are some things you have to adhere to. And that’s not oppression, that’s normal in every country. There are things you can do at home, especially in the privacy of your bedroom, that you cannot do in public. There are things you can do in your country you cannot do in others. Not if you want to get beaten up or end up in prison because you are acting like an intolerant prick/bitch. And there are things you can do outside Academia you cannot do inside it. If you cannot adhere to these rules, you do not belong there.

Public Exposure

Some Ferengi-minded students pride themselves on beating ‘the system’. For these students public exposure might be a deterrent. Showing what happened to past cases of plagiarism is a first step. If there are ‘success’ stories of expelled repeated offenders. Especially if these are high profile cases. Students with money. With powerful parents. It shows that the students are not special snowflakes no matter their background. If they plagiarize they get exposed and melt like the rest.

Making the works of the students public is an easier win-win situation. It shows students that they do not work for the trash-bin. They can show their work to the world on the Internet. It forces instructors to come up with new topics each semester. And it will make a public retraction notice due to plagiarism harmful for students. It connects their name to a case of plagiarism. Even for Ferengies there is a loss of face if they get caught cheating.

Colleges and Universities: Short-Term Money and Long-Term Reputation

Some colleges and universities earn a lot from students. They might be reluctant to expose them because it might deter new students. Enrollment rates might plummet. They might curb their growth and lose a lot of money. Yet, this is short term thinking. It is looking at finding the highest gains in the shortest amount of time. If they cater to cheaters, they risk becoming a ‘prestigious university’ renowned for being a diploma mill.

After all, plagiarism happens. If it is not reported someone is covering the evidence. These colleges and universities might get a bad reputation. Even if they have every interest in keeping cases of plagiarism quiet, their cheating students might brag. Later in life but in a public manner. After all, they did beat the system. They showed their smarts by getting a degree with the least amount of work. Their (promise of their) peers/parents/own money made the officials shut their mouth.

So, better speak up against plagiarism. Before it’s too late.


P.S.: How is my writing?

I used HemingwayApp to avoid:
1. sentences that are hard to read,
2. adverbs,
3. complex words, and
4. passive voice.

Did it work?