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More students think plagiarism is not 'serious cheating'

More students think plagiarism is not 'serious cheating'

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Some instructors are noticing more than one kind of plagiarism. One kind is blatant, where students specifically go online and steal or pay for papers written by someone else.

But there is another kind where students will take bits and pieces from other written works and mix those pieces with their own writing, passing the entire newly formed document as their own work. University of Utah Writing Department assistant professor Natalie Stillman-Webb says some scholars are calling this kind of plagiarism "patchwriting."

"[Students] are trying to piece together a quilt of a document. They're trying to make an argument and bring in this support but, just not knowing how to do it effectively," she says.

The University of Utah is not the only school to have this problem. The New York Times (please note that I am accrediting them) cited surveys showing 40 percent of undergraduates engage in this kind of patchwriting, and that the number of students who think plagiarism is "serious cheating" has dropped from last year.

Stillman-Webb says it isn't very difficult to catch patchwriters. There are electronic services that can help teachers find phrases that may have been lifted from other sources. She encourages her students to submit their work through the website

"It tests that paper and runs it against all the papers that have been submitted at our university, everything on the web and everything in the library databases and it flags all the matches," she explains.

She says she's not allowed to require her students to submit their work this way. She cites lawsuits where students have fought requirements to send their writings through electronic screening, and won.

But teachers don't necessarily need that website to catch students who cut and paste portions of other works onto their writing assignments. University of Utah Writing Program Director Maureen Mathison says instructors are good at recognizing a student's writing style.

"Often times, we can see whether or not they are using someone else's language other than their own," she says.

Mathison says if a teacher recognizes something they don't believe that student wrote, the teacher can put portions of the suspect writing into a Google search. Frequently teachers can find the sources where the writing originated.

But are patchwriters deliberately trying to cheat their way out of a writing assignment? Not necessarily. Mathison says many students don't know exactly how to properly give credit to the correct authors. In other cases, the original writings have been passed around on the Internet by so many different people, the student can't tell who the original author is.

Mathison says students may be picking up some bad research habits in earlier grades and may be used to patchwriting by the time they get to college.

"We definitely need to be aware of how students are being trained to use the Internet in the earlier grades," she says.

She says instructors in their program try to help students avoid plagiarizing. She says a process approach in which instructors take multiple drafts of the students' works to give them consistent feedback is very effective.


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Paul Nelson


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