Friday, February 1, 2008

So now how am I supposed to teach my students not to plagiarize?

When I started teaching, I had to figure out how to handle the possibility that students might cheat. I wanted to create an atmosphere in which students could learn from each other - in my experience, science is a highly social experience, and the stereotype of the Lone Mad Scientist off in a lab creating a monster is a myth. (Well, except in the argon lab in the middle of the night, but we won't talk about those ignoble gases...) But on the other hand, I wanted the students to learn, not to copy answers from one another.

One of my solutions was to model my requirements after the scientific publishing process. If students were supposed to contribute equally to an assignment (and receive the same credit for it), they became the equivalent of co-authors. If they talked to one another, they had to add an acknowledgments section, where they would thank Lisa for explaining how to do a three-point problem, and Joey for bringing the iPod speakers so everyone could rock out during lab. And if something was published, they had to cite it in a list of references.

You can probably guess where I'm going with this, if you read the paleontology blogs. (Or science ethics blogs. Or Nature.) Researchers at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science have been accused of some very serious ethical violations. Publishing a new species name when they knew another group had a paper in review about the same issue? Publishing information that originated in a graduate thesis at another institution? Publishing insights discussed while visiting another museum's collection? These are the sorts of things that I hope that my students learn not to do. I want my students to learn that science is done best when people share ideas openly, but I also want them to be honest and fair about the sources of their ideas.

I'm teaching my department's writing class this semester. One of the things we discuss is professional ethics. We've talked about citations already, but we haven't talked about the ethical guidelines of GSA or AGU or AIPG yet. It looks like I'm going to have a new case study to discuss.


1&2 said...

Make them format all their documents with LaTeX, then they'll be too busy to cheat. Failing that, cane them.

Chuck said...

"Publishing information that originated in a graduate thesis at another institution?"

Was it a thesis that they were reviewing? If so, I hope they nail the f*ckers to the wall.

Johannes Lochmann said...

@1&1: Nono, it's the other way round: Make them use LaTeX and give them a good style - then suddenly they will have a lot more time to think instead of tinkering with formatting problems! :)

The problem is severe, though. At my university they use computer programs to check for ... uhm... incorrect quotes. While I am certainly for checking that students (and professors, by that matter...) don't plagiarize I don't think this is the best way to do it. After all, professors giving out assignments should be familiar with the topic and of course be able to spot plagiarized parts of students or colleagues texts.

And, yes, I think that it is more work to find texts to plagiarize in the context of student assignments than writing it up all by yourself using (and correctly quoting) good sources.

Kim said...

After all, professors giving out assignments should be familiar with the topic and of course be able to spot plagiarized parts of students or colleagues texts.

Well, that depends on the nature of the class. I teach a class that's a bit odd in a science department: it's a writing class, and it doesn't have any specific science content. It serves as the prep class before the students' senior thesis, so they write a couple background papers, and then a thesis proposal. I don't have detailed expertise in most of the subjects (certainly not to the point of having read all the literature), so I won't necessarily recognize the exact words of one of the sources.

What I can recognize, however, are deviations from a student's typical writing style. And with the aid of Google, I can search for strings of words. If I find identical (and uncited) text on the web, then I've got a plagiarism case that I need to bring to the administration.

I would have a harder time catching plagiarism of sources that aren't on the web, but the web makes it easy to copy and paste words that aren't one's own.