Tuesday 2 October 2012

How To Tackle Plagiarism

I still dip into the Geoblogosphere, and really enjoy keeping up with what colleagues in academia and research are up to. Over a year ago, Evelyn wrote a post about the carbon cycle, from the carbon atom's point of view. It was an endearing and entertaining story written years ago by a 10-year-old Evelyn.

Today Evelyn received a comment from a biology teacher called Mrs Kim:
Please delete this post. I am a biology teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Two students were caught plagiarizing this article for a carbon cycle assignment. The issue has been resolved, but we need to guarantee this does not occur in the future. Thank you.
Understandably, many earth scientists and interested parties have responded. I felt I had rather more to say than could easily be put in a comment. There are a number of possibilities. Firstly, in the age of the internet troll, Mrs Kim could be a bored youngster. However, on the balance of probabilities, she is a genuine teacher at the school in question.

So, perhaps through being a little naive about technology and the internet (I'm really trying hard not to go for the alternative explanation that she's a moron), Mrs Kim has found the source of the students' plagiarism, and decided that the appropriate course of action is to ask the author of the original work to remove it.

If I asked for all the websites my students plagiarise to be taken down, then it's safe to say Wikipedia and About.com wouldn't be half the online monsters they are today. Just in the past two weeks I'd have had to demand the removal of every article on the kidney, nephron, ultrafiltration, the acid-base mechanism, cell structure, mitosis, DNA and protein synthesis. Even if it had at one time been the normal course of action to remove a book from the school library if it was notorious as a "plagiarisable" source, it is unsustainable with so much information online.

And, as is so rightly pointed out by a number of commenters, the burden is on the students and their teacher to prevent plagiarism, not the author of the original work. So, here are my methods for detecting, punishing and preventing plagiarism.
  1. Put the fear of Flying Spaghetti Monster into them at the start of the year, and tell them exactly how much shit they'll be in when (not if) they plagiarise.
  2. When they submit work, make sure they do so electronically. If your institution has been able to afford subscription to TurnItIn then use that. Otherwise, copy the text into the box at Article Checker. If all else fails, type a few phrases into Google.
  3. Strike through every single plagiarised word and only mark text that is entirely original.
  4. Hand the work back and tear student a new arsehole in private.
  5. Issue a general "hairdryer treatment" bollocking to the entire class. Show them examples of academic dishonesty. Make it clear this is one of the most serious offences a scientist can commit within their field.
  6. Promise the class that you will find and punish all subsequent instances of plagiarism with the full weight of whatever disciplinary system you have at your disposal.
  7. Tell them that if they pull this kind of stunt at university they can be kicked out.
Alternatively, ensure every single piece of work set is one with a significant amount of reflective thinking - the sort of personal work that can't be easily copied and pasted off Wikipedia.


  1. Thanks for your insights! The plot thickens as the principal of the high school has informed me that there is no biology teacher named Mrs. Kim at the school. I'm not sure what to make of the comment now!

  2. That's fuckin' bizarre! I know trolls work in mysterious ways, but why ask about plagiarism? Most peculiar. Perhaps they're looking for a dodge, but the only reliable dodge consumes as much time as just doing the work.

  3. At a guess, student X at a different but nearby school, has plagiarised your article and then become paranoid and is trying to prevent it being traceable.

    1. Makes as much sense as owt else, I guess.


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