Preventing Plagiarism without Technology

Anyone teaching in college these days knows that plagiarism is a growing problem. Not just the incidence rate but student attitudes. Here’s an excerpt from a recent NPR piece on it:

Student: Technically, I don’t think it’s cheating because, like, you’re paying someone to write an essay, which they don’t plagiarize, but they write everything on their own.

SMITH: So they may not be plagiarizing, I say, but aren’t you?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: That’s just kind of a difficult question to answer. I don’t know how to feel about it. It’s kind of like a gray area.

Plagiarism happens a couple of ways: Students will find an online essay or use a friend’s previous essay and pass it off as their own. In recent years, this method has become more difficult to pull off since schools have invested in anti-plagiarism software. Basically, tools like Turnitin compare the text of a student’s essay to a massive database of every essay ever turned into the system as well as to webpages, and spits out a similarity score for each passage.

Recently, savvy students have found a technological way around this. There is scrambling software that takes a plagiarized paper and automatically swaps in synonyms and changes word order.

New anti-plagiarism software must now look for digital fingerprints and other features to identify plagiarism.

This approach to preventing plagiarism is a losing battle. When you look to technology to solve a bad-actor problem you’re asking for an arms race. Someone will always find a work-around. The solution to plagiarism isn’t better technology but better pedagogy.

How to Make Plagiarism Extremely Unlikely Without Using Technology

Divide your assignment into 5 steps:
A) Topic selection
B) Create an outline
C) Submit a first version (NOT rough draft)
D) Peer editing
E) Final submission and Responsiveness Score.

A.Topic Selection
If you’re assigning the same general essay topics that you wrote about in your undergrad you’re giving a gift to plagiarizers. There are unlimited online and offline resources for core themes that you might find in an undergrad class.

Instead, assign topics that relate to current events that occurred no more that about 6 months ago. This doesn’t mean you can’t engage classical topics however, students must apply those themes and issues to a contemporary context/TV show/political event/movie, etc…

For example, instead of asking my students to compare and contrast Kant vs Utilitarianism or some shit that’s been done “since the dawn of time,” I’ll find a contemporary news story, TV episode, movie, political issue, campus issue, etc… where these considerations are relevant. If you can’t find a way to apply what you’re teaching to the contemporary world dafuq is the value of what you are teaching anyway?

B. Create an Outline
There are two ways to do this. For 1st and 2nd year students I like to give them a choice of topics and build the outline into the essay assignment. This way they are constrained in how they can present the paper and it also prevents those wild an unruly papers that completely miss the point. Under these constraints it’s obviously much harder to find an essay that matches the outline I’ve required.

Here are a few examples of the kind of papers I’ve assigned in the past:

From my Intro to Ethics class:

Black Mirror “Nose Dive”and the Meaning of Life
1) Give a general summary of the plot of the episode and the core philosophical issue. Explain it in a way that would allow someone who hadn’t seen the episode to understand what happened.
2) (a) Give a one paragraph summary of Epictetus’s core ideas about what is necessary for a good life.
(b) Apply Epictetus’s ideas to Lacie’s situation: What reasons would Epictetus give for why Lacie is unhappy? What is she doing wrong in the pursuit of happiness?
(c) What is the strongest argument you can come up with against Epictetus’s assessment of Lacie’s unhappiness?
(d) Offer a possible reply to the argument in (c).
(e) What is your own view? Is Epictetus’s assessment correct or is there some other reason why Lacie is doomed to be unhappy? Support your view with an argument.

From my American Political Thought class (upper level class):

Topic 1: Hamilton and Trump (Read: Hamilton’s Report On Manufacturers)
Trump has proposed a tariff on imported Steel. WWHS? (What would Hamilton Say?).

Part 1: Explanation: Using direct quotes as support, explain Hamilton’s view with respect to the role of government in the economy—specifically with respect to manufacturing, primary resources, and the roll of tariffs. (Don’t apply it to the case yet, stay at the level of theory)

Part 2: Application: By appealing directly to Hamilton’s view, explain what position you think Hamilton would take on Trump’s tariffs.

Part 3: Evaluation: By appealing directly to Hamilton’s arguments, defend or object to his assessment of the goodness or badness of the tariffs. Whatever your view, consider at least one objection to it and reply to that objection.

Topic 2: Madison and Sanctuary Cities
Continuing a trend that began under Obama, Trump has directed a Federal agency to arrest and deport aliens using ‘expedited removal.’ Critics allege that this process violates several important elements of due process. In addition, there is growing evidence that many of the agents in the federal agency are not following due process. In other words, the current policy and practice in some (but not all!) ways resemble the Alien Acts of 1798. Since some states believe the federal government is overstepping its constitutional powers by violating due process, several States and cities have adopted the policy of ‘sanctuary cities’ whereby local officials and law enforcement don’t cooperate with federal immigration agencies. Before working on this question, read the following article explaining expedited removal: (you are also encouraged to do your own research on the issue).

Part 1: Explanation: Explain Madison’s argument against the Alien Acts (Report of 1800) and why it is a cause for alarm. Use direct quotes then in your own words interpret and explain his view.

Part 2: Application: WWMS (What would Madison say?) Defend a view with respect to how Madison would assess the current widespread use of expedited removal. Be sure to explicitly refer to his arguments and positions in Report of 1800.

Part 3: Evaluation:
(1) Consider at least one objection to either (a) your interpretation of what position Madison would take (i.e., someone might attribute to Madison the opposite position) OR (b) construct an objection to whatever view you attribute to Madison in Part 2.
(2) Reply to the objection.

I’ll bet my bottom dollar that they’re not going to find any existing essays that match the assignments I’ve given. This doesn’t rule out paying an online writing service. That’s why I have them write the paper in steps…

C. Submit a First Draft for Peer Editing.
Students must submit a finished and polished version of their paper. It has to be what they consider to be worthy of being turned in, not a rough draft. How do I ensure this? It’s not foolproof but I explain to them that it’s going to be peer edited by 2 other random students in the class. A few other reasons:
(a) I explain that they are burdening their fellow students if they give them shitty work.
(b) Putting rims on a crappy car can never make it a great car. In other words, it you turn in a D paper, no amount of editing will ever get it to a B or A. To get a top grade, you have to start with a solid foundation.
(c) Peer pressure: Most, knowing that their peers will be reading it, will be reluctant to have their peers read crappy work since it will make them look bad.

D. Peer Editing.
I devote an entire class to peer editing. Each student brings 2 hard copies to class. I have a checklist and worksheet that must be followed. There are very specific instructions–it’s not willy nilly “edit your peers’ papers.” The quality of a student’s peer editing is worth 20% of their total grade for the paper assignment (10% for each peer review). They will not finish doing the peer review in class but I divide class time 50/50 for editing each paper that way if there are any major questions they can ask the author in person in class.

E. Final Submission and Responsiveness Score
Here’s the important part. 20% of their paper grade is for how well they respond to their two peer editors. It works like this: When I read the final paper, anytime there is an error or weakness (content or writing), I look at the peer review sheets. If it was mentioned by a peer reviewer but the author didn’t take it into account, the author loses responsiveness points. If a peer reviewer didn’t catch it, the peer reviewer loses points. I explain all this when we do the peer reviews and it incentivizes them to take the task seriously. Importantly, students must turn in both hard copies of their rough drafts (that their peer editors marked up) along with their final version.

By narrowly constraining the topic and structure of the assignment, I eliminate most of the risk of plagiarism. By dividing the assignment into steps that are connected through peer editing and responsiveness to peer editing, I reduce the possibility of hiring someone to write the paper.

There is a default tendency for our culture to look to technology to solve our problems. It’s true that technology can solve many of our problems but such a narrow view blinds us to non-technological solutions.

What I’ve offered here isn’t the only way to handle plagiarism. My intent is only to highlight the idea that playing with the content and structure of assignments influences how easily students will be able to plagiarize the assignment. I have no doubt there are other pedagogical methods of reducing plagiarism (such as short in-class writing assignments).