Preventing Plagiarism: Librarians and Profs Need to Be on the Same Page #cheatmooc

For my #cheatmooc, Understanding Cheating in Online Courses, I watched a presentation by Dr. Robert Harris called Identifying and Reducing Plagiarism in Online Courses (AKA Plagiarism Prevention). The presentation was hosted on Google on Air on Monday, June 3, 2013, and I watched Part One live and Parts Two and Three via recording. I have questions and comments about Parts Two and Three, but since I watched the recording I couldn’t ask Dr. Harris directly.

I definitely want to say that Dr. Harris had many excellent and practical suggestions that I can very easily imagine using as a writing instructor. I also especially appreciated the shout out to reference librarians. Dr. Harris suggested that ideally, professors would work with a plagiarism specialist such as a reference librarian. The practical ideas that Dr. Harris suggested in Part Two, “Plagiarism-Resistant Assignments,” reminded me of the Information Literacy course I took in library school. Likewise, it reminded me of the time I spent working at Zollinger Library, UNM-Gallup. I recall many students coming in with assignments in which their bibliography had to include two scholarly articles, one newspaper article, one book, and two quality websites (or some such combination). Dr. Harris has suggested that this is a way that a professor can plagiarism-proof an assignment. It is unlikely, for example, that a research paper obtained dishonestly (purchased, copied, borrowed, etc.) would have this exact combination of sources that the professor specified.

Dr. Harris mentioned something he called citation theft, and he defined it as using the works cited list from someone else’s paper. In other words, you can find an interesting article about your topic, take its citation list, and then locate those exact articles for further reading in your own research. Dr. Harris called this a short cut, and he suggested preventing this short cut by requiring students to submit an annotated bibliography and then discussing with each student the articles listed on the annotated bibliography.

OK, now wait a minute. It seems that the professors and the librarians really need to talk. What Dr. Harris is calling citation theft is referred to as citation mining in library school, and here’s the thing: it’s presented as a legitimate way to locate resources on your topic. In other words, librarians recommend to students that they use this technique. Here are some examples: Kennesaw State University, Georgia State University, University of Calgary. I am sure there are plenty of others.

Dr. Harris mentioned that the process of research, not the final product of the research, should be considered the purpose of an assignment. Given that point of view, which I don’t disagree with, I can understand why Dr. Harris might not want students to mine citations. If a student uses exactly and only the citations from someone else’s works cited list, then that student has not learned to conduct a unique literature review. However, if professors and librarians are going to work in partnership to address the problem of plagiarism, then they need to be on the same page about whether this activity of getting ideas from someone else’s works cited list is mining or theft. I don’t think students appreciate the mixed message of a reference librarian recommending a technique that the professor prohibited (or at least frowns upon).

Another idea that struck me…

Dr. Harris suggested that the use of colons and semi-colons are a stylistic clue that plagiarism might be taking place since most college students don’t use them. I can remember back to about eighth grade when I used both colons and semi-colons, and I used them correctly, I might add. My English teacher was surprised that I was using them and asked where I had learned them. My answer was, “Last year, in English class.” I still use them, and I think you will find two colons in this blog post. Also, Dr. Harris mentioned that the use of a noun as an adjective is an unlikely structure and possible red flag. I love to use nouns as adjectives, but it doesn’t mean I’m plagiarizing. I have two thoughts about this. First, it’s a shame that facility with the English language is a red flag. Second, I assume that Dr. Harris means that these things are red flags if they are not normally present in a particular student’s writing. Please don’t suspect a student of plagiarism just because she paid attention in seventh grade English class!


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