How to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments

by Carl Dyke

A short, droll post by Kathy at Edge of the West concerning an instance of the “plagiarism-industrial complex” has, as is the wont of that site, produced a lively and interesting discussion in the commentary. Much of it concerns the merits of the commercial plagiarism-detection services, including their helplessness to detect truly “artisanal” plagiarism. If you’re willing/able to pay enough to have someone else do boutique work for you, and you’re careful never to submit any of your own work for damning comparison, that will probably work for you. Getting other people to do your work for you being the chief advantage of wealth, after all.

(Sad/amusing aside: a number of us suspect one of our best students of the past decade of ghosting papers — not for money but as a favor for friends. Oddly enough, this special critter was a compulsive perfectionist and almost never turned in its own work no matter what inducements we tried — and we became pretty creative — so if we’re right, we only got to enjoy its gifts at an odd second-hand.)

I’ve made a couple of brief comments there about why I don’t use the plagiarism police. For one thing, I think inconveniencing and anxietizing the honorable to intercept the dishonorable is an ugly way to live. For another, on (quixotic) foucauldian grounds that participating in the creation of docile bodies through the installation and extension of surveillance regimes is profoundly self-defeating. But my main reason I’ve only been able to sketch there, and want to elaborate here: I don’t use the plagiarism police because my assignments are functionally plagiarism-proof.

Howzat? There are a couple of key strategies that I’ll get to in a second, but let’s start with an ethos. You have to be loyal to students learning, not to covering content. It’s not impossible to do both, but starting with the second tends to fubar the first. And you have to give up the idea that there is essential content every student must master. Standardization of content outcomes is the single greatest stimulus and enabler of plagiarism there is. What you’ve got to want is for students to learn critical uptake, thinking and production skills in relation to content, where the skills are essential and the content is contingent. If you’re stuck with essential content, you’re stuck with some plagiarism. Take a moment to make sure there’s no way to get unstuck. I’ll wait.

OK. The first thing to notice is that shifting your loyalty to students learning (note: ‘students’ learning’ is a different subject) changes the moral environment of the classroom. Why? Because now what you care about is each student, not the material; which, if you communicate this properly and consistently, creates a social psychology of reciprocal obligation among you. It’s just much harder to cheat on someone who cares about you than someone who’s using you as a means to other ends (reproduction of content outcomes). There’s nothing magical or foolproof about this, however, so if you stop here as some of the more touchy-feely teacher ed. fads do you’ll still get plenty of plagiarism; maybe more, once they figure out what a lightweight you are. Furthermore, although it’s good and right to care about the students as whole people, it’s essential to care specifically about their development as thinkers and doers, which means they don’t get to derail the process or skate to passing grades just by dropping by your office to chat about the weather or tearing up over their abusive childhood.

As thinkers and doers students in my experience are a pretty mixed bunch. The ones who already have some critical uptake, thinking and production skills are rarely the plagiarizers, especially once you get them on the hook by caring about them. They can do the work cheaper and better themselves without plagiarizing. So once you’re caring about students learning and you get the moral environment sorted out so they care back, plagiarism becomes obviously something the ones who do it are driven to by missing elements in the necessary skillset. The task then becomes filling in those skills. Essays shift subtly from being a ritually formalized way to test content knowledge to being part of a longer process to develop practical intellectual capabilities. (It helps a lot to ‘sell’ those skills. All but the geekiest of them, who will become us later, think the various specific contents of the humanities are useless, they’re right, and trying to argue otherwise is counterproductively delegitimating.) This process orientation means among other things that for students at all but the elitest schools there will probably have to be lots of explicit instruction on how to write papers as a way to organize and communicate thought, including not just rules and recipes but rationales; peer reviewing of drafts (I do both intro paragraph and full draft); and a rewrite option, at least for the first paper until they get their chops together.

Classroom time has to make the same subtle shift. There are probably a lot of ways to do that. What works for me is to teach content through skills. So for example in World History I might want to cover some modern African history in relation to the Atlantic complex. Let’s say the skill we’re working on today is reading critically, and we happen to be doing that this time around using a 16th-century letter from the King of Kongo to the King of Portugal. This letter is a pretty subtle little piece of work, with a lot of information to be gleaned about culture and politics in Kongo; activities and attitudes of Portuguese merchants there; early phases of the slave trade; and so on. Of course we’ll need to crack the textbook to fill in some context to better understand what the Portuguese were doing on the coast of Africa, why they were welcomed by the Kings of the Kongo in the first place, what the slaves might have been needed for, etc.

Small groups and competitive/cooperative reporting are good ways to get most of the students involved and invested in the process of puzzling it all out. Classroom work has to be personal and recursive, including for example lots of interaction with the groups during their investigations and pauses to allow students who don’t know answers to find them or think them through, so that each student develops a personal class voice and habit of analysis that carries over to written work. Reasons and foundations always have to be specified, by them and us. Expectations should start high and get higher, so there’s always something of value to be accomplished for every student to be proud of. It’s a lot easier to convey the importance of scholarly apparatus to respect and communicate other people’s authority when the students are in touch with their own. I’ve done this directly with classes as large as fifty, by the way, and with discussion sections for classes in the hundreds.

And still all this is not enough to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments, although it’s a pretty good start. To knock out the last lingering vestiges of moral depravity, bad habit and performance anxiety, the last line of defense is to make it harder and riskier to plagiarize effectively than to write the paper straight. Here’s one way to do that with actual pedagogical value: design essay assignments that are unique to each class, its discussions and resources.

The simplest trick is to require students to write source-supported essays, to use only the course texts as sources, and to use more than one. By ‘require’ I mean if they don’t do it, they fail. This has the pedagogical value of forcing them to: engage with good sources you selected on purpose; mine available sources thoroughly rather than skipping around superficially; crosscheck sources rather than taking one at face value; synthesize information into their own analysis rather than just doing stock book reports; and appreciate the difference between mere opinion and informed opinion. All of these skills are supported by the reading work in class. By the way, this doesn’t help much if you don’t mix up your course texts. Publishers’ text ‘n’ source suites are a nice convenience for lazy teachers and plagiarizers alike, as is keeping the same texts and topics year after year. And stay away from stereotypical topics and sources. The easiest and most tempting paper in the world to plagiarize is yet another reaction paper on famous poem/article/book/event X. When you can google your topic and the first hit is a plagiarism site, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

The idea is to make it vanishingly unlikely that they’ll find any mass market boilerplate that adequately addresses your assignment. Here’s an example of such an assignment: “Using only the course texts for evidence, analyze the relation of agency to happiness in rural Ming China,” where the course texts are a primary source reader from one publisher and a world history text from another. (Research comes later in the term once skills and habits are better, but course texts are always required.) What would it take to plagiarize this? Most of the standard strategies – cutting and pasting generic information on China, e.g. – would result in an incoherent, nonresponsive paper that would fail on its own merit without getting into plagiarism detection. Furthermore, they’d fail without regular and accurate citation of the course texts. (I usually get about a third with this error, innocent or otherwise, in the first batch of papers. I don’t even read papers with epic fails, I just hand them back to be fixed. Obviously you have to know, communicate, and enforce your standards for this to work.)

OK, here we are at the end of this post and I have to confess, it’s still not impossible to plagiarize under all these conditions. Easy, in fact, for the resolute scallawag. Here’s how. As mentioned above, they can pay an artisanal plagiarizer big bucks for completely customized papers. At least three of them, in my classes, which would only be prohibitive for really rich scoundrels if all my colleagues were also plagiarism-proofing their assignments. Or if the determined rabscallion wants to save that bling for beer, they could scour the ‘nets for snippets of information about agency and happiness in Ming China, stitch them together with topically-relevant analysis, then invent plausible citations to the course texts. To do that, all it would take is to understand the assignment and its rationale, properly identify relevant information, produce focused and coherent analysis, and know the course texts well enough to target the fake cites effectively. And at that point they might as well write the A paper those skills indicate they’re capable of writing.


16 Responses to “How to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments”

  1. Yes – this is basically how I do it / and why. Plagiarized stuff fails because it isn’t done according to instructions.

    And – as an undergraduate I ghosted papers a couple of times and was ghosted a couple of times. A friend and I did it once for the same class: I wrote her paper and she wrote mine. We were both feeling uninspired and it made us feel less neurotic to write in each other’s names (and it felt creative and freeing somehow to work on the idea the OTHER PERSON had come up with). I don’t think it was a bad thing to do – we never did it for a big term paper, just for those 5 page exercise-like things – and we were all A- students anyway, it didn’t change our workloads or grades.

  2. I guess I should be outraged, but I actually think that’s a pretty neat way to reframe your motivation and engagement.

    I spend a lot of time with the students on the idea of ‘authority’ – in the sense of authorship and also credibility. Plagiarism of course is a theft of authority out of ignorance or disregard; yours was more playful, even admirably ironic. I don’t imagine most instructors would see it that way, of course.

    Where the issue gets tricky is when the work has authority but not author. In a sense, you two were able to get away with your scherzo because your work was already interchangeable, lacking the distinction that comes from authorship. Is this possibly why you were both getting A- despite what I imagine was technically proficient work?

  3. Some of the students in one of my courses this past term came forward at one point to complain to their tutor that my course was too difficult because, unlike their other courses, they couldn’t slightly revise an existing essay they had previously written, tweaking it to fulfil the requirements… They seemed quite confused to learn that what they were discussing was plagiarism – and that they were complaining my course was too hard because of the plagiarism proofing… ;-P

  4. I don’t know that the papers didn’t have authorship – just not the actual name of the author on them. A- was about the highest grade you could get at that school/that department, and there were at least hundred people in the class. There was a midterm, a paper, and a final, on the quarter system. Most of the rest of the work involved translating Virgil.

    That friend and I studied together so much that when we went on the academic job market people couldn’t understand why we hadn’t applied for the same jobs. We couldn’t have – our profiles did not match at all, nor our ideas or work. People who knew us were not willing to believe that but people able to be objective, certainly did.

  5. AHA, however: authority but not authorship is a name for the problem I contracted later, in assistant professordom. You were supposed to be so careful, so careful, not to publish anything that might offend anyone, especially not the men, etc., etc., that I lost interest in academic writing altogether for a long time. I *still* fear authorship, having been told so many times it was unsafe financially, career wise, etc. I hadn’t put the issue in terms this concise, however. Now I can! 🙂

  6. “unlike their other courses, they couldn’t slightly revise an existing essay they had previously written, tweaking it to fulfil the requirements”

    I keep getting this request, too. I wonder what courses these *are* where they are allowed to just revise an essay from another course? I don’t personally know any faculty who allow this, but they are mentioned by students all the time.

  7. You’re right Cero, under those conditions it would be very difficult for the reader to keep distinct author profiles in mind across a batch of essays. And there are departments that set the bar very high. I think my point is a good one for a lot of essays I read, though.

    Another possibility: one of my favorite undergrad professors, Rod McGrew, who had as much to do with me ending up in History as anything, never graded me higher than an A-. At one point he admitted that I was doing more interesting work than anyone else in the class, but he thought (rightly) that I was coasting and could do better.

    NP, that’s really funny. No doubt you’ve recognized the sneaky correlation in my post between plagiarism-proofing and (what we think of as) good teaching. Changing the game, whatever the game is. If we can make the students think rather than just turning on the memorize/report/dump auto-pilot, the rest is easy.

    Last semester I had a heartbreaking moment when a junior looked at the paper I had just handed back, got real quiet, and told me that I was the first teacher who had ever commented on the substance of his writing. I know colleagues here who do that too, but still it’s not hard to imagine how a student with little disposition for formal education could decide based on that interactive vacuum that it’s all a series of empty exercises.

  8. Cero, I’m not sure they’re allowed to. It’s just that the assignments are so stereotyped that it’s easy to do and never gets caught, so they just do it without ever finding out there’s a problem.

    Then again, I go the other way: I sequence the short papers during the semester as rough drafts of parts of a larger synthesis in the final, and a number of students always ask if they have to quote and cite themselves. No, because the earlier work was explicitly defined as a partial draft, its inclusion in the larger work requires substantial revision, and I’ve told you it’s ok. Otherwise not.

  9. Just to complete the thought, there’s something admirable about a student who notices overlaps among classes. That should be encouraged, in my view, but in the sense of deepening and broadening their understanding, not just lazily recycling their work.

  10. Oops! Just saw #5. That’s a powerful insight! It’s my impression that the expansion of higher ed. and the proliferation of boutique publications to serve the publish/perish imperative has taken a lot of this pressure off – not by eliminating arbitrary, repressive judgment but by enabling the publicity of a much wider variety of narrow discourse communities.

    Of course in the early moments of this process the condition of entry for various categories of subalterns, including blonde women ;-), was often a certain forced docility, just as you say, and the traces of that linger in the default responses of its victims. I really regret it, not least because of how hard and frustrating it must be to self-edit like that, and how hard and frustrating it is to talk with people who are self-editing like that.


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