Plagiarism - A teacher's-eye view

By Rob Taylor

Sean Murray is an old friend of mine from my U of T days and is wicked smart. As a teacher, he's had quite a bit of experience with plagiarism. As a student at University of Toronto, he was accused of plagiarism by a professor. Now Sean is one of the straightest arrows I know. He never has and never will be a cheater, but he is a brilliant student and academic. The reason he was accused of plagiarism was that his essay was too good. He had to get other essays and tests he had handed in to other professors (and the word of the other professors themselves) to prove his innocence.

Enough about how much I think Sean is super-cool. I asked him about his encounters with plagiarism as a teacher and here's what he told me.

Rob: How easy is it for you to catch plagiarists and their work?
Sean: There are a few ways to catch a thief. The one I use most frequently is a(n Internet) search looking for an exact phrase (putting quotations around a suspicious phrase). If the student was stupid enough or lazy enough to use the Internet I can usually find out in 5 - 10 minutes. If they were more sophisticated in their cheating (changing every third word around) then I can get them by entering a portion of the essay into a plagiarism Web site for teachers. They do this for free and have a one-day turn-around. Another strategy I use to reduce plagiarism is to insist on a proper bibliography for all research projects. This does not always work as a student who is cheating has an interest in putting down phony sites and I don't always have time to check it out.

Rob: How has the Internet affected plagiarism and bad work in essay writing?
Sean: The use of the Internet for research papers has resulted in intellectual laziness on the part of students. The Web can be a wonderful tool for research when used properly, however, it usually isn't. I have found that unless I impose limits on how many Web sites students can use, that is the only research they do. Students' over reliance on the Internet leads to sloppy research, rampant plagiarism and a serious reduction in the quality of written work.

Rob: Anything else you want to rant about? Um, having to do with handing in work not your own.
Sean: You might be interested to know that on occasion I have encountered outrage when I confronted a student about their plagiarism. One argument I often get is: "I only copied a small part of it." I will respond that stealing only a chocolate bar from the corner store is still a crime. Many students today have difficulty recognizing the notion of intellectual property.

Another problem that students have when producing a research paper is that they do not know how to summarize main ideas from their readings. I have spent a great deal of time, particularly with my Grade 10 students trying to help them develop this skill. I think a large part of the problem is the lack of reading that takes place in our society.

Students are entering high school now with much poorer reading skills than in the past. Without good reading comprehension, they simply cannot summarize ideas effectively. Many students read one word at a time, which means that they do not get a sense of the cohesiveness of a particular thought or topic. The result is that plagiarism of book sources is also becoming rampant and often the student does not even realize they are doing it.

Modified on April 23, 2009