Not in Their Words: Strategies for Dealing with Plagiarism at Tech

Last year, there were nearly 100 counts of theft at Georgia Tech — not physical theft, but theft of words.

“Plagiarism cases make up 38 percent of all cases we process, and we know there are some cases we never hear,” said Bonnie Weston, director of the Office of Student Integrity (OSI). 

Tech’s policy on plagiarism is straightforward. It states that all cases need to be reported to OSI, and then students who want to challenge the accusation may do so.

But that’s where the simplicity ends. So you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we’ve asked Weston and a few of your Tech colleagues for some insight into how they’ve dealt with plagiarism on campus. Read on for their strategies.

Why Do Students Plagiarize?

At Tech, there are two primary reasons for plagiarizing. Some students do it because they consider the class unimportant, as it isn’t one of their core classes. The other major reason is lack of time.

“Most of the students I see plagiarizing are trying to get everything done within their packed schedules,” said Andy Frazee, associate director of the Writing and Communication Program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication. “They’re stressed, tired, and think they can’t get it done in time, so they copy someone else’s work.”

David Smith, senior lecturer in the College of Computing, noted that non-computer science students often view his classes as a formality, and some fail to learn anything because of this. These students copy work done by others or ask others for help with their programming assignments and fail to learn the programming skills they need to succeed.

“Every semester, I’ll get students whose failure to do their own work causes them to have to come back and retake my class,” Smith said. “I had one student have to repeat my class several times, because he refused to do his own homework, and had no idea how to solve the problems placed before him on the tests.”

How Do You Spot It?

According to Frazee, the first question any professor should ask himself when presented with suspicious work is, “Does this answer the question I’ve asked?” Plagiarizers often take their material from sources where the question answered doesn’t match the one being asked by the professor. So, a paper or answer that fails to fit the question is a warning sign of plagiarism, Frazee added.

Another sign is sudden changes in the spacing or fonts in a student’s work. So, for example, if the font size or type isn’t consistent, this can indicate that information was copied and pasted from another document, Frazee said.   

Many professors use plagiarism checking software, such as Turnitin, especially when it comes to work submitted online. These “cheat catchers” — a term that Smith uses to describe the software — will let professors know if portions of essays or homework were copied. However, Smith acknowledges the limitations of these services.

“We first introduced a cheat catcher in our computer science classes in 2000,” Smith said. “But, the result was that students progressively learned how to get around the program. They weren’t learning anything, and those we caught faced severe academic penalties.”

What Can You Do to Prevent It?

Just one instance of plagiarism can have a tremendous impact on a student’s academic career. For example, it’s unlikely that the student will ever be able find teaching assistant positions or internships on campus, Smith said. For this reason, he does all he can to try and prevent plagiarism from occurring. 

One way he accomplishes this is by basing his tests (worth 45 percent of his grades) off his homework, which is only worth 15 percent. Students who cheat on the homework usually fail his courses as a result.

“Just waiting for plagiarizers to get caught and then punishing them doesn’t work,” Smith said. “I advocate a two-pronged approach, dissuading people from cheating through incentives, as well as punishing plagiarizers after they’re caught. There’s no room for negotiation once a student is caught, so it’s essential to keep as many students as possible from trying in the first place.”

Weston reminds all professors to include a copy of the Student Honor Code at the beginning of their syllabi and to go over the correct formatting for citations and references. It is her hope that this clarification can prevent cases of ignorant plagiarism and prevent many of the cases that come to OSI.

And to help mitigate the dangers of time crunches, Frazee has a solution.

“You have to be willing to be a little flexible,” Frazee said. “While setting deadlines is important, you should make it clear to your students that you can be approached if work is piling up. If you’re willing to give an extra day or two to complete an assignment, it can encourage students to write their own work.”

For more information about dealing with plagiarism at Tech, visit http://osi.gatech.edu. Also, in an effort to safeguard academic integrity and prevent plagiarism, the Office of Graduate Studies now offers a limited number of iThenticate plagiarism detection licenses for use by dissertation advisors. For details, visit http://www.grad.gatech.edu/iThenticate. 

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Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Faculty Development