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Plagiarism: A Teaching Experience for Both Student and Instructor

Plagiarism: A Teaching Experience for Both Student and Instructor

Learn more about transportation and logistics management degrees at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management at American Public University

In college, weekly student papers are routine. In addition to many reading assignments in preparation for those essays, students receive instructions about what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

A first week’s written assignment, for instance, may include an acknowledgement that each student has read the handout on plagiarism. It is essential for all students to understand the concept and implications of a plagiarized paper.

Many professors remind students several times during the semester to properly reference their sources in their papers and to follow a specified citation style for quotes and facts. That citation style might be American Psychological Association (APA) or the Chicago Manual of Style.

Instructors Must Ensure that Students Read and Understand Plagiarism Policies

Students today come from all occupations and all ages. Some have previous college experience, others are in college for the first time and a few are right out of high school. The problem professors face is trying to make sure their students understand the plagiarism policy and how to write a proper citation.

One way professors can help their students understand plagiarism is to make a short instructional video. I have one YouTube video on plagiarism and another on how to create a citation. Both are presented in an informal style.

The consequences of turning in a plagiarized paper vary. Punishment ranges from a grade of zero on the paper to an F for the course if the practice continues.

You would think that written instructions and videos would be enough to make sure that the problem of plagiarism does not arise. Unfortunately, they are not. For most students, these tools are merely reminders that they have to do the work and learn how to write a properly formatted paper.

We professors must continue to engage the students who err.

When I use the word err, I am not referring to the plagiarism of one student copying another student’s paper outright or using content copied directly from a journal or newspaper without attribution. Those kinds of plagiarized papers are rare.

I am talking about the error that comes from paraphrasing material taken from several sources and then writing a three-page paper. The paper includes data, facts and processes but not citation information such as the authors and links to the referenced sources.

For instance, I have had students from foreign countries where “copy and paste” activities or simply copying someone else’s work are accepted practices. Once my logistics class in Alaska included several Russian students, and one of them handed in a term paper that was very well written. However, I recognized the text from a recent Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction. I told the student that the term paper was plagiarized. I said he would receive a zero on the paper and an “F” for the class.

The student explained that he knew I was familiar with the author and the book he used. He wanted to impress me by showing how clever he was by finding just the right 10 passages and copying them. That student thought his paper was a gift to me; he imagined that I would be pleased by all the hard work he had done to read the book and find the appropriate pages to copy.

A Case of True Plagiarism

I also recall the time an Army officer in my class was up against my strict deadline for turning in the final written assignment of the semester. When he finally did hand in his paper, it was extremely well written. There were three to five citations per page throughout the 28-page paper and a list of 35 references, all in the proper format.

I thought his paper was suspicious. How was he able to do such a voluminous amount of research and writing in the short time he had to turn in his paper?

Rare Book Provides Clue to Student’s Plagiarism

My software searches failed to find any evidence that the student’s paper had ever been published elsewhere. But I found a clue in his citation of a rare book published in London. We had no copies of it in our library. When I checked how many copies there were in the U.S., I found only three. I knew he had no access to any one of them.

When I called in the student, I simply said, “Did you purchase this paper from someone in London?” He bit his lower lip, stood up and admitted he had paid $1,000 for the term paper, which someone in Britain had indeed written for him.

I told him his grade would be zero for the paper and “F” for the course. He would have to come back next year to take the course again. He apologized and turned to leave.

Then came one of those learning moments for which we professors must be ready.

I called him back into the office. I acknowledged that I knew he was under stress from work and family. We spent the next hour chatting. I mostly listened.

That officer returned to class the next year. He sat at the front of the room, asked questions and took notes. Moreover, he took pride in his written assignments.

Two years ago, I had an online student who was very upset that I had identified his submission as plagiarized. He attacked me in print, writing letters to the Dean, the Provost, the President of the university and every student he knew. He demanded that I be fired. He stayed in school but changed his major.

Six months later, he wrote a letter of apology to me. He said other professors had also been tough on his written work. He realized he nearly failed other courses due to his lack of writing skills and that I had been trying to be helpful. He also sent a letter of apology to the Provost and to the President. When he graduated, I got to shake his hand.

That student now uses my teaching methods and classroom models in the courses he teaches as a college professor. He calls me every few months. We are working on a joint research paper.

Plagiarism Is the First Step in Guiding Students to the Right Path

Branding someone’s work as plagiarism is tough. But the errors our students make can be corrected; they can be encouraged to learn what to do and take pride in the result. Writing well becomes part of their professional reputation at work.

This discipline takes a lot of time and engagement from a teacher. But the result is worth it for both the student and the professor.

Plagiarism is a tough word for me to use and even tougher for the student to read or hear.  But, in the end, students do not stand accused of plagiarism. They are merely being informed that their work is not complete as a college paper.

Even as we support our students’ hard work and ingenuity in crafting thoughts into words, we must convince them that we stand by them as their editor, their coach, their mentor and their college professor.

If we do our job of teaching plagiarism errors properly, our students will then become editors and teachers to others who enter the world of academic authorship.

Learn more about transportation and logistics management degrees at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management, and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.