Dealing with Copy/Paste Culture

Hafsa Ahsan presents to teachers the plagiarism detection ‘tool-kit’ for safeguarding the work of their students from copy/paste culture 

This trend is, perhaps, as old as it is new. With the increasing knowledge and know-how of the Internet among the youth, there have been many pitfalls, which sometimes seem to outweigh the benefits of new technologies. A copy/paste culture among students is one such consequence of unlimited access to information, which is seriously undermining the education system in more than one way.

Gone are the days, when an assignment was actually worked upon, books were consulted, and then the final thing meticulously written down neatly. Now, an assignment is tackled by logging onto the Internet, putting in some key phrases in the search engine, surfing relevant web pages, and then combining their content to produce a coherent printed material. It goes without saying that such an assignment has no list of references in the end. Ask most students, why they didn’t put it, and chances are that more than half of them will express their ignorance about it.

However, even more astounding is the fact that in most cases, teachers fail to detect such blatant plagiarism, and students, who engage in copy/pasting, are actually given higher marks, much to the dismay of those, who work hard on their assignments. Thus, the latter students are termed as nerds and encouraged to take the shortcut of copy/pasting. These students then also stoop down to the same level for ensuring that they get a good grade.

A copy/paste culture undermines the teacher-student relationship as well. Students, who get away with plagiarism, actually look down upon their teachers as being inferior to them. They see their teachers as technologically incompetent, simply because they have failed to detect that the work of their students is ripped straight off the Internet. And those students, who get lesser marks, simply because they didn’t or couldn’t copy/paste, respect their teachers even less.

So how to put an end to this? The author has some humble suggestions for the teachers. Firstly, the teacher can have a discussion in the class at the start of the term, explaining what he/she considers as plagiarism. If told from the very beginning that copy/pasting from the Internet will be heavily penalized, students will be more careful. In that case, they won’t take the teacher to be an Internet novice, who can easily be fooled. In this regard, “The student’s guide to avoiding plagiarism” (http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/TM/curr390_guide.shtml) can be distributed and discussed with the students.

Moreover, a teacher can make the students do some rigorous class work before giving home assignments. This will ensure that the teacher has a good idea about the skills level of each student, including their way of expressing themselves, grammar and punctuation, vocabulary, knowledge of current affairs, etc. The teacher can then use this knowledge to detect plagiarism – an assignment that digresses too much in structure and expression from class work has definitely been copied. There are also some specific characteristics of a copied assignment, which give it away. These characteristics have been listed at Plagiarized.com (http://www.plagiarized.com/deadgive.html).

Teachers can also make their own use of search engines. Putting certain sentences or some key phrases from the assignment in the search engine will turn up the location from where it was copied. He/she can also make use of some well-known websites, offering free essays and term papers, and conduct a search there to find out, where the assignment was copied from. Once the teacher has a collection of web pages, he/she can then take a printout and show it to the student before penalizing him/her.

For the above purpose, specialized software “Plagiarism Prevention” is available on the “Turn it in” website (http://www.turnitin.com/). All that teachers need to do is simply copy and paste the assignment in the software, if they suspect it to be copied off the Internet. The software will search its database of term papers, web pages, and essays and turn up the results. Any copied material will be highlighted and linked to the original website. Even though the software is not for free, it is definitely an investment worth making for any school.

Also, teachers can benefit from a unique, yet effective way employed by the International Relations teacher of this author to ascertain the authenticity of the assignments. On the day of the examination, when the answer sheets were distributed, he gave the students fifteen minutes to write a short summary of the book review that was submitted to him during the semester. Naturally, those who had copied the review from the Internet without even going through it, let alone bother reading the book, were stumped.

A possible technique can be to introduce the concept of a list of references. It isn’t entirely a sin to quote from a good article or research paper, if it is properly credited to its original author at the end of the assignment. Students can be taught to put quotation marks around the text, which they have copied, or put in separately in textboxes, when they are formatting their assignments in Microsoft Word. Such assignments give a good impression of being thoroughly researched and worked upon.

Another way of preventing plagiarism is giving specific assignments followed by short presentations. With assignments like “write a note on genetic engineering” students are more likely to have a field day on the Internet copy/pasting material. A specific assignment like “What do you think are some of the disadvantages of genetic engineering?” is much more likely to have students thinking more and relying less on the Internet.

And finally, there is a comprehensive “Plagiarism Stoppers: Teacher’s Guide” (http://www.ncusd203.org/central/html/where/plagiarism_stoppers.html), which deals with detection tips, offers preventive measures, and lists essays and term papers websites that every teacher should know about.

The widespread notion that electronic plagiarism is impossible to detect is nothing more than a myth. It is very possible to detect copy/paste attempts and penalize them; however, this can be achieved only if the teachers themselves are a little tech-savvy and dedicated enough to make their students do their own work.