Sunday, 27 May 2007

Cut-and-paste plagiarism

Reading one student’s written assigments my suspicions were raised by one piece of writing that, righ from the outset, seemed to have a totally different style from the rest of her work. Indeed, it contained such vocabulary and sentence structures that I just had to google some sentences out of it. And lo and behold, it didn’t take me long to track down the two articles out of which the student had cut and pasted her work.

Luckily, or rather alarmingly, this isn’t a Finnish problem only. In her thought-provoking article in the latest TIME magazine, Julie Rawe, illustrates how students’ cheating has spawned a profit-making business assisting schools to catch the cheaters. Interestingly, a group of students in McLean high school, Virginia, are now preparing a law suit against one such company. The students claim that as the company saves all the students’ work submitted by schools for check-ups in their database for future reference, they should be paid their fair copyright share. Way to go McLean High students! I feel a real affinity for their case, as 10 years ago I lived in McLean for a year during my Fulbright teacher exchange - and even visited this High School.
Yet, whether the McLean students succeed or not, the problem of cheating still prevails. When it comes to essays written in a foreign language and plagiarism from native language sources, it is usually easy enough for a teacher to have a hunch of a possible cheat. It gets rather more complicated when students present their peers’ essays as their own. Maybe we should demand all their written work in digital form, and make our own school database of English essays for the teachers’ use. On second thoughts, though, this would probably just lead the students to get essays from their friends in another school… It’s a vicious circle, isn’t it? In fact, in the words of Tim Dodd, quoted in the above-mentioned article: “We will truly lose the battle if we think we’re going to fight technology with technology. Kids will always be two generations ahead of us.” The challenge, in my opinion, is to give our students some hands-on guidance on how to use the Internet or other sources for their benefit without forgetting to write a list of references at the end of their essays.

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