Beyond Plagiarism: Developing Author, Authenticity & Authority in Graduate Students

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By Nadine LeGros , Wilfrid Laurier University

Instructing students how to avoid plagiarism is analogous to “looking for a good way to teach the infield fly rule to people who have no clear idea what baseball is.”

A solid understanding of academic integrity is critical for graduate students for several reasons: 1) As teaching assistants, they need to be able to mark assignments effectively. If TAs cannot recognize plagiarism or teach about it, the work of the “next generation” will be compromised. 2) As future faculty members, they may mentor their own graduate students. 3) Graduate students need to demonstrate academic integrity in their writing and research to be successful scholars who can communicate appropriately about their work and be published and hired. One might think students ought to have a thorough knowledge of the conventions of attribution by graduate school and the skills to observe them.

One might therefore think it unimportant to discuss plagiarism—but in the absence of such pedagogy, the need for academic sanction may arise. So rather than penalty, what pedagogy befits graduate students and piques interest about a “stale” topic?

Where to begin?

 Many students are unaware of the finer intricacies of plagiarism. Perhaps the undergraduate experience limits exposure to the entire panoply of academic integrity: For example, one-third of American undergraduates were unaware that one could plagiarize one’s own work (Russikoff, Fucaloro, Salkauskiene, 2003). Students may think this rule pertains only to plagiarizing one’s published work, and hence may think if one has not published, one need not worry about this rule. Students do not recognize that handing in an assignment from one class to a professor in another class is an infraction of this rule. Student knowledge may also be distorted: 48% of these same students actually believed that elaborate paraphrasing equated authorship. These statistics represent American students who had been told since high school to cite the work of others even when they used their “own words.” International students, on the other hand, may simply not have their own academic words in English. In addition, practices that might warrant academic penalty at Western may actually reflect accepted academic norms in an international student’s home culture due to differing perspectives on collective knowledge and reverence for “traditional wisdom” (Russikoff, et al., 2003, p.112). Clearly all graduate students need instruction on how to avoid plagiarism— but how?

Hunt (2002) suggests that instructing students how to avoid plagiarism is analogous to “looking for a good way to teach the infield fly rule to people who have no clear idea what baseball is” (cited in McGowan, 2005, p. 292). However, research also suggests that when students do learn about “baseball,” a high percentage demonstrate awareness and intolerance of plagiaristic acts (Russikoff, et al., 2003). Moreover, teaching about baseball is especially important for students who play sports that resemble baseball but which have different rules— such as cricket.

How do we explain to students why they should develop academic integrity?

Academic integrity goes beyond preventing the theft of intellectual property. In fact, Abasi & Graves (2008) suggest that institutional focus on the rules of plagiarism results in students avoiding plagiarism rather than including their interpretations of texts. Therefore, even when the students know the rules of a game, they must still learn to play the game to include their voices and assert themselves as legitimate authors with appropriate authority. Students need to step back from plagiarism per se to consider the benefits of observing academic integrity.

Consider the following from The University of Melbourne’s website:

One of the central purposes of Australian higher education is to produce graduates who are independent thinkers, able to critically analyse information and ideas. This means that during your time at university in Australia you will be asked not just to become familiar with the ideas of scholars and experts but to examine these ideas closely and to decide how much or how little you agree with them. You will learn to form opinions about ideas and to communicate these opinions verbally and in writing. These opinions must be based on evidence and one common source of evidence is the ideas of others. You are likely to find yourself using the ideas of one scholar to analyze and perhaps criticise the ideas of another. This is considered excellent scholarly practice in Australia.

There are two reasons, then, why Australian university students are expected to acknowledge the source or origin of the words of scholars they use in their assessment tasks. The first is that you need to let readers know where you found your ideas so that they can check to see they are reliable and valid ideas for the point you are making. Secondly, you need to make it clear which ideas are yours and which are those of others. (McGowan, 2005, p. 52)

Academic integrity is thus the portal through which budding scholars must pass to develop their own scholarly voices. Graduate students need discipline-specific tuition on academic integrity—and discipline-specific practice. The challenges international graduate students face when dealing with academic writing practice and academic integrity magnify those a domestic student may also experience, and examining these issues will influence our approach to all students.

Writing difficulties of international students
International students may arrive with precious little writing experience in their own language, let alone in an additional language. They may have only been evaluated with examinations as undergraduates, and when they come to Western to do their master’s degrees, they are expected to transition very quickly to being able to write academically —possibly even to write a thesis. Some PhD students have done master’s degrees based on course work—but are expected to be able to write a dissertation, which is a challenging task even for native speakers who are good writers. Without going into a treatise on teaching academic writing, I will focus on three difficulties that international students face that sometimes result in academic sanction or penalty.

Some of the greatest challenges international students face when writing is engaging in “inferential thought processes,” (Yamada, 2003, p. 251), dialoguing with the text, and paraphrasing. Inferential thought requires students to be able to summarize a text that they have read and weave the significance of the information into their writing/research (Brown & Day, 1983, cited in Yamada, 2003). For example, they may read an article about research similar to theirs in which the author focuses on four central findings. Students may not know whether they need to address all the findings or how much they can speculate about the findings relative to their own work. To complicate matters further, inference is an aspect of communication that causes misunderstandings between individuals from different cultures. Students may infer something from the journal differently than their supervisors might, which may be perceived as deliberate misrepresentation on the part of the student.

Students need to engage in a dialogue with multiple sources to position their own research with any degree of authority, but students do not know how to highlight their own contributions. The following is an illustrative quote:

I am not quite clear where to draw a line to distinguish my ideas from other authors’ ideas. For example, I read a book and had some ideas of my own. So when I write, maybe half of the sentence is a summary of the author’s ideas whilst the other half is about my new ideas drawing upon the ideas in the book. Should I make a reference to the book? …. I find that quite difficult and don’t know what to do (Gu & Brooks, 2008, p. 345).

The difficulty students have with paraphrasing is that they will rely on a “patchwriting” technique, a strategy they learned while learning their additional language. Patchwriting involves “copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one synonym-substitutes” (Howard, 1993, as cited in Gu & Brooks, 2008, p. 347). When international students patchwrite in order to paraphrase, they face two dangers: 1) they may be too faithful to the original, which could result in inadvertent plagiarism; or 2) they may use a synonym that is imprecise, which may distort the author’s meaning.

Pennycook (1996) maintains “we do not create language but are created by it” (p. 209) and suggests that “texts produce authors” (p. 222). Using discipline-specific texts to teach about academic integrity can transform students into authors who have the language to write authentically— and with authority.

Strategies to employ to teach academic integrity to international and domestic students:

  • Present students with a list of quality journals in your discipline that illustrate the quality of writing to which your students should aspire. Students will initially be intimidated by the writing and doubt their ability to achieve such high quality. To mitigate against this, also show them previous students’ assignments.
  • Engage with the students in genre analysis (Swales, 1990; Wingate, 2012). Genre analysis is a method of dealing with written or spoken discourse that is discipline specific. Through in-class activities and assignments, instructors get students to recognize and utilize language structures and patterns from texts specific to the discipline. For example, if one were to engage in genre analysis of letters of complaint, one might find the words, “I am writing to express my dissatisfaction about…” Students then begin to enter stock phrases from that genre of text into their lexicon.
  • Create materials for your students from the above noted journals with which the students can engage in exercises in academic integrity—without the fear of losing marks. In the materials, include examples which are not covered by the rules but which still factor into academic integrity. For example, how far back does a student have to trace a concept in your discipline? When would it be appropriate to cite their own previous work with citations, and would it ever be appropriate to use the first person singular or plural and write, “In previous research, I/we …”
  • Do not issue empty warnings to students such as writing, “You need to be careful to avoid plagiarism” on assignments. If you suspect plagiarism, deal with it immediately—educating before sanctioning. If warnings carry no penalties, the students may continue to write in the same manner when they write their theses.
  • Highlight the benefits of academic integrity compliance in sessions at the beginning of each term (Handa, 2006).
  • Come to agreement with other faculty members in your discipline about where the line is between acceptable textual borrowing and plagiarism. Also discuss what constitutes acceptable amounts of editing.
  •  View academic integrity as an issue of professional development—view the graduate students as being in an apprenticeship.
  •  Scaffold writing tasks with low-stakes assignments that encourage learning early in the student’s academic career at Western. For example, ask for an outline, an executive summary or an early draft for review for partial marks.
  • Have a “throw away” mark. For example, assign five assignments, but have only four of the assignments count towards the final mark. If the students do badly on an initial assignment, it will not count.
  • Create original assignments that students cannot plagiarize (Handa, 2006; Hunt, 2002).
  • Send your students to the Writing Support Centre, where they can receive individual support.

REFERENCES

Abasi, A.R. & Graves, B. (2008). Academic literacy and plagiarism: Conversations with international students and disciplinary professors. Journal of English for Academic Purposes (7), 221–233.

Brown, A.L. Day, J.D. (1983) Macrorules for summarizing texts: The development of expertise. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 22, 1-14.

Flowerdew, J. (2008). Scholarly writers who use English as an additional language: What can Goffman’s “Stigma” tell us? Journal of English for Academic Purposes. 7, 77-86.

Handa, N. (2006). Taking the mountain to Mohammed: Transitioning international graduate students into higher education in Australia. The International Journal for Educational Integrity, 2(2), 29-42.
Howard, R.M., 1993. A plagiarism pentimento. Journal of Teaching Writing 11, 233–246.

Hunt, R. Four reasons to be happy about Internet plagiarism. Retrieved from: www. stthomasu.ca/~hunt/4reasons.htm

Russikoff, K., Fucaloro, L., Salkauskiene, D., 2003. Plagiarism as a cross-cultural phenomenon. Retrieved from: www.csupomona. edu/~jis/2003/RussikoffFucaloroSalkaus. pdf

Gu, Q. & Brooks, J. (2008). Beyond the accusation of plagiarism. System, 36, 337-352.

McGowan, U. (2005). Plagiarism detection and prevention: Are we putting the cart before the horse? Retrieved from: www.itl.usyd. edu.au/herdsa2005/pdf/refereed/ paper_412.pdf

McGowan, U. (2005). Academic integrity: An awareness of development issues for students and staff, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 2(3), 47-57.

Pennycook, A. (1996). Borrowing others’ words: Text, ownership, memory, and plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly, 30 (2), 201, 230.

Sutherland-Smith, W. (2005). Pandora’s box: Academic perceptions of student plagiarism in writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 4, 83-95.

Swales, John M. (1990) Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wingate, U. (2012). Using academic literacies and genre-based models for academic writing instruction: A ‘literacy’ journey. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11, 26-37.

Yamada, K. (2003). What prevents ESL/ EFL writers from avoiding plagiarism?: Analyses of 10 North-American college website. System, 31, 247-258.