As instructors of introductory composition and general education courses, we are well-acquainted with the threat of plagiarism. In graduate school, our teaching practicums devoted hours to the student “temptation for plagiarism,” and every semester, instructors receive the same emails reminding us of our institution’s plagiarism policies. Despite this constant influx of information, we are consistently surprised by the number of unintentional plagiarism incidents that occur in our classrooms:
- Tyler scored consistently low on his work due to his lack of in-text citations. After four office hours visits consisting of his instructor exhaustively explaining MLA formatting, he confided that he had never typed an essay; his rural, farming community still relied on handwritten documents. Tyler estimated 85 percent of his high school classmates did not have a computer in their household.
- Jordan proudly turned in an essay composed of nothing but an introduction, conclusion, and around a dozen copy-pasted quotes from articles they’d read. When asked about their sources, they proudly said: “I used even more sources than the assignment asked for! I’m showing you how much I read.”
- Nadia submitted a research essay containing no sources whatsoever. Since her earlier drafts had included plenty of sources, however, Nadia’s instructor asked her to meet. Nadia explained she had never been good at introducing sources, and she thought her writing could stand alone (and score better) without them. She did the work of learning the information, she explained, so why would someone else need to be cited?
Each of these cases involved a student breaking the code of academic integrity. If we were relying on an automated plagiarism site, it would have detected high plagiarism through the improperly cited quotations or paraphrasing these students relied on to evidence their claims. We would have been well within our rights to fail them. Instead, we investigated each student’s methodology. We asked Tyler questions during office hours and listened when he explained his situation. We offered post-paper conferences, where students like Jordan and Nadia explained their methodologies. By talking to students rather than assuming maliciousness or deception, we could create a supportive environment and a meaningful learning opportunity about academic integrity. Unfortunately, many students never have a chance for this opportunity.
The recent arrival of ChatGPT, just one of many AI-driven essay-writing programs, has only reinforced the panic-driven discourse about plagiarism that we’ve seen for decades. For example, there has been a similar shift in the last few years in discourse surrounding the use of Turnitin: packaged, sold, and potentially useful as a tool for enhancing originality in student work, in practice the software has evolved into a fear-inducing weapon to deter students from inappropriately using source material. This conversation falters from the outset because it assumes that plagiarism is the norm rather than a rarity and that instructors’ primary role is to police students who, implicitly, are always looking for new and innovative ways to avoid learning.
As faculty-facing staff, we have already had our share of questions about deterring students from ChatGPT and how to look out for AI-generated essays. Instructors ask how to monitor student work, wondering whether there is other software that can recognize AI-written work. Others bring us assignments, asking how to incorporate strategies they’ve seen online, such as requiring sources unfamiliar to ChatGPT (e.g., lecture notes) in those assignments (Mondschien 2023). Even in writing centers, staff and tutors have been increasingly concerned about how to respond to students who may bring in AI-generated writing, asking what the limits of a writing tutor’s scope for helping students are and how to negotiate complex discussions about what constitutes academic integrity. Ultimately, little we have seen in the discourse surrounding ChatGPT and other AI-driven essay writing software is new. Rather, there’s a reinvigoration of discussions educators have been having for decades as new technologies and means of gathering information have emerged.
These conversations continue to hinge on that easy assumption that all students are out to cheat the system. What about students like Tyler, Jordan, and Nadia who are just working to complete work in an unfamiliar system? Where does “accidental” plagiarism fall into these conversations? Taking a creative approach to reevaluate assignments deemed quintessential to university education (see the recent Atlantic article proclaiming death of the college essay) is necessary and merited, but shouldn’t we be doing this as innovative teachers, not policers of “cheap knowledge” (Marche 2022; Shrivastava 2022)?
In these moments, how do we strike a balance between adhering to policy, helping students to understand why plagiarism policies are in place, and working together to develop the tools that each individual student needs to grow as a writer and thinker? Student plagiarism, even when accidental, is frustrating (Nelms 2015). When our assignments are products of our own labor and thought, it seems personal when students make seemingly careless or malicious choices. Yet, where we may see thoughtlessness, they may see themselves as putting forth a strong effort. For many students, as for scholars, writing is a mode of thinking and a method of learning; what we see as plagiarism is for students like Tyler, Jordan, and Nadia a written representation of the time and work they put into the assignment—and academic writing as they understand it. As important as it is to keep up with technological intervention in the sphere of education to acknowledge plagiarism’s potential consequences outside the classroom space, it is equally important to remember that our students are complex and multifaceted individuals who deserve a chance to both learn and practice the genres of academic writing. Assignments immediately labeled as plagiarized, when approached with empathy, can help us construct crucial learning spaces for students to understand our expectations for their written, academic labor.
When we took a research-based approach to assignments that showed challenges with citing sources, it enabled us to begin a compassionate and educational dialogue with our students. Laying assumptions aside, we were able to make changes to our curricula, incorporating reflective writing alongside scholarly writing, meeting with students before and after major assignments, and building space to discuss the purpose of using sources to enter a professional conversation. All essays can be a space for collaborative learning. Rather than focusing on catching students making mistakes, instructors can build on the opportunity plagiarism provides to foster growth and advancement in their students.
Marche, Stephen. 2022. “The College Essay is Dead.” The Atlantic, December 6, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2022/12/chatgpt-ai-writing-college-student-essays/672371.
Mondschien, Ken. 2023. “Avoiding Cheating by AI: Lessons from Medieval History.” Medievalists.net, January 2023. https://www.medievalists.net/2023/01/chatgpt-medieval-history
Nelms, Gerald. 2015. “Why Plagiarism Doesn’t Bother Me at All: A Research-Based Overview of Plagiarism as Educational Opportunity.” Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed, July 20, 2015. https://teachingandlearninginhighered.org/2015/07/20/plagiarism-doesnt-bother-me-at-all-research.
Shrivastava, Rashi. 2022. “Teachers Fear ChatGPT Will Make Cheating Easier Than Ever.” Forbes, December 12, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rashishrivastava/2022/12/12/teachers-fear-chatgpt-will-make-cheating-easier-than-ever.
Sarah Pedzinski is an instructional consultant in the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning and a PhD candidate in English at Indiana University Bloomington. Her pedagogical interests include inclusive teaching, general education courses, and student-faculty partnerships.
Sean Sidky is the program coordinator for Indiana University’s Writing Tutorial Services. He has a PhD in comparative literature and religious studies and has taught and written extensively on literary history, American religions, pop culture, English composition, and pedagogy.
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