Assessment & Response

Cindy Wambeam’s direct and insightful response to the Illyssa Green’s initial post brought immediately to the fore the basic problem plaguing most discussions of plagiarism: nobody knows exactly what it is. Admitting that she had "mellowed" in her stance on plagiarism over the years, Wambeam offered several reasons why such a mellowing might be necessary in today’s educational environment:

There are just so many grey areas involved here, that making blanket assumptions about plagiarism is problematic. I’ve come to realize that much of what I used to think of as plagiarism really is more about misunderstanding, lack of experience with research, or an overreliance on help/collaboration from others (which we teachers need to really think about – since many of us are preaching collaboration, then pointing fingers at "using other’s work").
My own remark in a subsequent post that "it’s getting very fuzzing indeed just what constitutes plagiarism" stemmed primarily from Wambeam’s parenthetical insight here regarding collaboration. In today’s literary environment, I stated, "boundaries between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ are fading fast," especially as we embrace "more ‘collaborative’ forms of discourse."

Concerned that there are enough cases of "grey area" or "near plagiarism" to merit caution or "mellowing" on the part of the instructor, Wambeam advised the following steps for assessing and responding to acts of supposed plagiarism:

As Wambeam intimated, and as Kate Coffield later agreed, direct confrontation with the student will more often than not reveal that "the plagiarism [was] inadvertent and owing to a lack of experience in using sources." Nick Carbone insisted that such a lack of experience, rather than an instance of student ignorance or naiveté, may derive more from instructor or institutional confusion about rules of use and citation. Given the "complexity" of the issue, "students are almost never going to get it right the first time. Add to that professors (let alone disciplines) that can’t agree on what to cite and when and where and how to introduce the citation and then the problem of what to do with it in the paper, and the problem for students of not being trusted as authorities, and well, I’d be very careful about suspected plagiarism." Carbone also agreed with Cindy Wambeam’s cautionary advice to carefully distinguish between plagiarism as misunderstanding of citation customs and plagiarism as outright fraud: "these two types of error are talked about as equivalent all too often, especially in terms of penalties."

Frank Coffman interjected quite prophetically that computer technology, perhaps responsible in part for today’s plagiarism problems (easy access to online data, cut-and-paste functions, etc.), may in fact provide a solution in the near future:

In truth, plagiarism ought to be easier to catch in the future of digital text, since comparator programs already exist and in the not-too-distant future could be part of an integrated composition instruction module to scan any submitted "paper" for blatant and obvious passages of plagiarized material.
In the meantime, however, the problem of assessing and responding to apparent acts of plagiarism remains a difficult one. Ilyssa Green summed it up quite nicely: "Now let me get this straight. There seem to be just about as many views on what constitutes plagiarism as there are professionals out there."