Plagiarism in the Pandemic

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Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

Since college classes have moved online, there’s been an uptick in plagiarism across the country. Professors are talking about it on social media and on listservs, providing different perspectives and advice on how to handle plagiarism in student writing. On a Facebook page that focuses on teaching college during this crisis, one professor says, “During a PANDEMIC, plagiarism is a non-issue. During the best of times, students cheat, and they will continue to cheat, but who cares?” Another instructor says, “…my plan is to deal with it as I always have. Plagiarism is theft and universities, like mine, have strict rules.” I thought I’d use this post to voice my own thoughts about plagiarism and how faculty might deal with it during this global health crisis.
First, a little background on plagiarism.
Plagiarism policies in higher education are often positioned in moral terms. Students who plagiarize are often described as dishonest, sneaky, lazy, or just simply unethical. Yes, plagiarism can be intentional. Students might buy a paper off the internet because they don’t feel like writing it. Or they may go to Wikipedia and cut and paste information into a paper because they don’t have time to find resources or read them. Or they might be struggling with personal issues (like many students are right now) and think plagiarizing is the only option for passing a course.
Are there other reasons why people might plagiarize? Yes, and that’s an emphatic yes.
Many institutions and instructors do not recognize the plethora of other reasons why students copy directly from sources or patchwrite (a form of plagiarism defined by Dr. Rebecca Moore Howard as “copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one substitutes.”). Plagiarism can be unintentional. Students might not understand what they’re reading, or they may be unfamiliar with discipline-specific terms and language. If students lack critical reading abilities or feel incapable of navigating a foreign discourse community, they will certainly have a difficult time summarizing or paraphrasing a source without appropriating its language. Students might not have a good grasp on citation practices or how to work within certain citation systems. They may have never learned how to effectively summarize, paraphrase, or cite sources, or they may not even understand what plagiarism is or constitutes (especially students who did not grow up and attend schools in the US).
Whatever the reason, we should try to remember that students are learners and developing writers. They’re not bad people. They’re not thieves or criminals. There’s a reason why they are plagiarizing. In the midst of this global health crisis, we can transform instances of plagiarism into pedagogical opportunities. Below are some guidelines for how you might do so.

  • Rather than immediately report students to the institution or automatically give them an F in the class, consider talking to them first. Ask them if they know what plagiarism is. Ask them if they know they plagiarized. Ask them why they plagiarized. 
  • Remember they are humans living in an extraordinarily difficult moment. Consider giving them an opportunity to revise their papers.
  • Point them to resources that will help them work with sources. (Purdue OWL is a great resource)
  • Suggest they work with a tutor in the writing center.
  • Provide them with specific feedback on how they might work with sources in their papers.
  • Provide them with guidance on how to better understand the sources with which they are engaging.
    At this moment in time, teaching with compassion is critical; I hope these guidelines provide one way professors might enact such a pedagogy.