The Plagiarism Perplex

January 23, 2003

The world wide web is the greatest resource for student plagiarism since the creation of the encyclopedia, writes Alan Shapiro. What's a teacher to do?

The world wide web is the greatest resource for student plagiarism since the creation of the encyclopedia. With a near infinity of resources at their disposal, budding plagiarists at nine can surf the web and delight their fourth-grade teachers who want them to do research on, say, Germany with a savory stew of information on everything from the depredations of the Huns to the latest products of Hamburg and, with not even a modicum of effort, pass the requisite portion of the potpourri from screen to paper to teacher without the slightest disturbance of neuron activity more profitably spent with Playstation 2 or 3 or 4.

The savvy high school teacher of seniors may warn her charges that she has a program to detect plagiaristic propensities, but any 18-year-old, having won his spurs in the art of word thievery years before and far more interested in gonads than in, say, foods of the first settlers, will agilely surf the web, cut and paste and cut and paste again, misspell a word or two, misuse a comma here and a footnote there, even insert a hot dog to establish his bona fides and come away from his limited labors with a B and time to play on websites more congenial to his lusty appetites.

A fourth grader is incapable of research. So are most twelfth graders. We contribute to the impoverishment of the language when we use the word "research" to describe what they are able to do. And anyway, how would you like to produce a paper on "Germany" or "foods of the first settlers"? We get what we deserve.

What is to be done? First, we need to abandon the mania, imposed on students, for collecting and displaying within pretty covers what Alfred North Whitehead dismissed as "inert ideas." We should halt the effort to produce what Whitehead called "a merely well-informed man" ("the most useless bore on God's earth"). What is a 9-year-old to do with the hamburgers of Hamburg? the 18-year-old with the wieners of the first settlers? Release from this pedagogical mortuary would in itself provoke an educational revolution.

Second, we need to teach inquiry. Which means finding and/or helping to develop the intellectual interests of students. Which means teaching how to think. Which means teaching the art of asking good questions, the skill of answering them, the understanding of crap detection. (Asked what was essential for a great writer, Ernest Hemingway answered, "A built-in, shock-proof crap detector.") Which means time, lots of time.

Each of these subjects — inquiry, the interests of students, worthwhile subjects, thinking, questioning, pursuing answers, crap detecting — is worth its own essay. But this one confines itself to the elimination of that pedagogical incubus of incubuses — plagiarism.

Let's assume you have engaged students in worthwhile class work and it is time for them to involve themselves in an inquiry related to it and of interest to them. Forget about "research," forget about "the term paper, abandon the often calcified list of "subjects." Here is a proposed series of steps and assignments for the process.

1. Explain to the class the purposes of the coming inquiry:

  • significant learning* about what is of interest to the individual student
  • developing skills of question-asking
  • learning how to locate information and to examine it with a working crap detector
  • learning how to take notes, to organize information and one's thoughts and to communicate them logically and effectively to others.

* "significant learning — that which raises questions and problems whose answers and solutions promote further curiosity and learning that have the potential to develop into a lifelong pursuit.

Assignment A: Ask students to prepare three carefully worded questions on a matter related to classwork whose answers they might like to pursue.

2. Engage the class in a close examination of a sampling of student questions. Consider such questions as:

  • Is the question clear? If not, how might it be clarified?
  • Is the question answerable? If so, how? If not, why not? How might it be reworded to be answerable?
  • Does the question require, at least in part, a factual answer? If so, where will the facts come from?
  • Does the question call for someone's opinion? If so, whose? If an expert's, what makes the person an expert? Are there any reasons why the expert might exhibit any bias? If so, how?
  • Are there words in the question that call for definition before the question can be reasonably answered? If so, how shall each be defined?
  • Does the question contain any assumptions? If so, what are they? Are they reasonable to make? If so, why? If not, how might the question be reworded?
  • Does the question require a prediction as an answer? If so, what kinds of information and/or opinion may improve the quality of an answer?
  • What other questions might this question provoke? How might they be answered?

Assignment B: In light of the above, ask students to select and possibly re-word the question they wish to pursue.

3. Meet with each student to discuss and ultimately to approve his or her question and to consider how the question will be answered.

Assignment C: Ask students to prepare a tentative list of sources of information they propose to use in pursuing an answer to their question.

4. Examine and approve each student's list and possibly discuss further with each student.

Assignment D: Ask students to submit their first set of notes for you to examine and approve and possibly discuss with each student.

Assignment E: Ask students to submit their second set of notes for you to examine and approve and possibly discuss with each student.

Assignment F: Ask students to submit an outline or draft of the results of their inquiry.

5. Examine each student's outline or draft and written response and possibly discuss further with students.

Assignment G: Ask students to submit their final piece of work.

Of course it may be necessary at various points to have class or small-group sessions on such matters as note-taking, locating information, crap detecting, etc.
I submit that if you rigorously follow such a process, budding plagiarists will be nipped in the bud and practiced thieves have their nimble hands tied, their runaway legs hobbled. If you feel there is no time for such a procedure (and if you are correct in your assessment), then you have the following options:

  • Launch a campaign with other teachers directed at the problems and/or people responsible for making time unavailable so that it can be made available. If that fails, at least eliminate "research" and "term papers" from the curriculum on educational grounds.
  • Use as much of the procedure as you can to promote inquiry and to eliminate as much plagiarism as possible.
  • Continue to teach as in the past.
  • Quit and find a more honorable line of work.

This essay was written by lifelong educator Alan Shapiro. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: