Stopping Plagiarism Takes More Than Software

This article caught my attention because at my institution we’ve never adopted software to detect plagiarism. I’m sure that detection software can have a deterrent affect for some students, but as the plagiarism researcher profiled in the article points out students are savvy when it comes to doing just enough to avoid detection. I confirmed this with my college-age son. They use a well-known plagiarism detection software product at his university. When asked if it works he replied that students determined to cheat can do so any number of ways, from changing what they’ve cut and pasted from internet sites just enough to get past the detection software to outright paying other students to write their research papers for them.

The simple advice offered in this article makes good sense, but it’s much easier to preach it than it is accomplish it. Sure, if parents and teachers made it clear from early on that plagiarism is unacceptable it might have an impact on young, impressionable students. By the time they get to college it’s probably too late to change bad habits. That where the researcher’s other observation, the one faculty at my institution are working at, is worth more attention. It’s the prevention versus detection debate. Developing more creative assignments that avoid repetition, that require the use of local or locally unique resources, that call for a series of drafts, and that have higher expectations for research methods and content can all make plagiarism more difficult. But, these methods require more front-end development and greater effort from faculty. It’s certainly easier to require the same term paper assignment year in and year out, and then let a piece of software catch those who weren’t clever enough to mask their plagiarism.

Academic librarians have certainly been doing their part to combat plagiarism on their campuses. Through workshops, creative digital learning materials, and efforts to promote sensible research, we are on the frontlines of helping faculty to help our students to avoid plagiarism. But if the researcher has correctly determined that plagiarism, like many problem behaviors, must be confronted early on by parents and teachers, then we may need to realize combatting plagiarism will be an ongoing challenge.

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