Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Overcoming student plagiarism

Western teachers in Asia often have to contend with plagiarism. Besides wondering to what extent the very notion of plagiarism may be part of western culture and somewhat foreign to other cultures, we often wonder what simple or creative steps can be taken to eliminate it.

Extremely broad definitions of plagiarism can be an impediment to the free flow of information and knowledge to the developing world. Wikipedia never cites sources, but its much less successful predecessor Nupedia cited obsessively cited sources and had a rigorous regime of peer review also. One could argue that Wikipedia has pretty much redefined plagiarism. Here is Wikipedia's definition of plagiarism:

"Plagiarism is the use of another person’s work (this could be his or her words, products or ideas) for personal advantage, without proper acknowledgement of the original work."

Did I just commit an act of plagiarism by not citing the source? No, because there are links to the source in the quote and above the quote and I mentioned the source which is pretty easy to find with a Google search: "plagiarism wikipedia". I've even seen whole legitimate history books written by highly respected professors without any citations at all. Sometimes merely commenting that any scholar who is familiar with the subject will know the source is deemed enough. David Wyatt's A Short History of Thailand is one good example [my review].

It's better to give students an easy and explicit way to cite sources they use. Teach students to quote and paraphrase texts and to cite sources with an easycitation system like "(Smith, 1977, 123)" with simple bibliography entries like "Smith, John (1977) The Meaning of Life(New York: Profundity Press)". Then insist they use it all the time without exception. Soon citation of sources will become habit.

Another approach is to teach students how to immitate and adapt texts without plagiarizing. Copying verbatim without thought won't lead to language acquisition, but reflective adaptation of individual sentences, using perhaps select subject-object or adjective-noun collocations, is essential for language students to acquire language patterns for future reuse in freer speech and writing. Example sentences from learner's dictionaries and language corpora can be mined for patterns to re-use. To play it safe, always have students provide the citation for the source that was immitated or adapted.

At another level, the notion of inter-textuality is a rich source of ideas for teaching students legitimate ways to appropriate texts. One definition of inter-textuality from the definitions on the web reads: "When a media text makes reference to another text that, on the surface, appears to be unique and distinct" (www.medialit.org/reading_room/article565.html)

Doesn't this sound a lot like plagiarism? As Daniel Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners observes: "Gerard Genette proposed the term 'transtextuality' as a more inclusive term than 'intertextuality' (Genette 1997). He listed five subtypes:

"intertextuality: quotation, plagiarism, allusion;

paratextuality: the relation between a text and its 'paratext' - that which surrounds the main body of the text - such as titles, headings, prefaces, epigraphs, dedications, acknowledgements, footnotes, illustrations, dust jackets, etc.;

architextuality: designation of a text as part of a
genre or genres (Genette refers to designation by the text itself, but this could also be applied to its framing by readers);

metatextuality: explicit or implicit critical commentary of one text on another text (metatextuality can be hard to distinguish from the following category);

hypotextuality (Genette's term was hypertextuality): the relation between a text and a preceding 'hypotext' - a text or genre on which it is based but which it transforms, modifies, elaborates or extends (including parody, spoof, sequel, translation).

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