Monday 9th January, 2006

Debbie Jacob
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Arresting plagiarism

You can’t beat Carnival for creativity, but Carnival has also become a cesspool of plagiarism. Every year I am appalled at the number of songs that use “borrowed” pop melodies, many of which are not credited to the original singer.

Even those songs that do receive credits on CD jackets succeed in fooling many young listeners into believing that they are original tunes. It’s easy not to give Jack his jacket on new wave radio programmes that often fail to announce the singers or their songs, let alone point out the history of the recycled melodies being used.

It’s clear that teenagers today don’t blink twice about plagiarism. They’re not bothered by the lack of originality in the music they listen to or even their own essays.

In May 2001, Rutgers University published the results of a survey which claimed half of the 4,471 high school students admitted to using stolen sentences and paragraphs from the Internet and 74 per cent admitted cheating on a test. 

What’s even scarier is that many students fail to see using anything directly from the Internet as cheating. There is a misconceived notion that if it’s on the Internet, it’s fair game.

Every school needs a plagiarism policy. Teachers need to teach what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. They also need to give assignments that make plagiarism difficult. 

An assignment which asks students to write a book review on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen leaves open a whole host of plagiarism possibilities as does an assignment such as write an essay discussing themes in Pride and Prejudice. 

Teachers have to think of questions and assignments that require analysis rather than gathering facts or accumulating a list of literary elements. History and science essay assignments have to be analytical rather than factual.

One of the best assignments my daughter, Ijanaya, ever had in history class was to tell the story of a slave girl who was brought to the Caribbean. She had to do research on which African people were enslaved, who enslaved them, the Middle Passage and slavery in the Caribbean. She had to do research about language, African names and historical events such as the Cedula of Population. Then she had to create her own story.

Clearly students have to be taught how to be original thinkers and how to avoid plagiarism. I start every school year by demonstrating how to rewrite passages I take from the Internet. I help students identify a writing style that suits them by demonstrating how to write different types of beginnings: a funnel, thesis statement, attention grabber and anecdote. I show students how to use quotes to support their position. 

I do this with all my classes, at every level. I never assume anyone else has taught students about plagiarism and I never assume that preceding lessons on plagiarism have stuck. Once teachers have laid down the law about plagiarism, the next step is to monitor students’ work. Students should be forewarned that most teachers can recognise an individual student’s style of writing very quickly. It only takes a couple of in-class writing assignments to assess the writing level of your students and you don’t have to be an English teacher to have that skill!

Students should also be warned how easy it is to check for plagiarism on the Internet. All you have to do is plug in a few key words from an essay and voila! You can trace the origin of the essay.

The biggest misconception students seem to have about the writing process is that teachers want to feel that everything in an essay belongs lock, stock and barrel to a student. Because they have this misconception, they often plagiarise to try to pass off an entire essay as original thinking. Students need to know that what is most important is the focus of the essay—the thesis statement—and the quality of the support. 

Generally, teachers don’t look for essays that only include students’ opinions. We’re looking for a position that has support and if students can find support for their ideas, that only strengthens their arguments. In other words, we want to see some good quotes, credited to reputable sources.

Students also need to know that paraphrasing means more than changing a couple of prepositions in a sentence. It means putting information into your own words. It’s probably best to read something and then try to write it in your own words without looking back while you’re writing it. Afterwards, you can check your paraphrases against the original source to make sure you haven’t accidentally repeated key phrases.

Teachers can spend endless hours trying to track down plagiarism. I’ve cut down my hunting time by requiring my students to write their essays in class. This helps students to get used to timed essays that are a part of their lives from SEA to CXC and SAT. It also allows me to interact with my students while they’re writing. I can see when they’re having problems and they can articulate their problems with me while they’re writing. It’s a fast, easy way to straighten out writing difficulties and ensure original thinking.

There’s really no benefit in sending students home to write their essays if they have writing problems. They’ll either cheat and get help from someone or plagiarise.

Plagiarism is clearly a problem that teachers must address so that we can maximise the full creative potential of our students. If we’re on the road to academic success we need original thinkers—not a generation of students who think stealing is all right once it pertains only to intellectual property.

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