Close to 15 years ago, not long after I had switched from committing journalism to teaching it, a student turned in an "Introduction to Mass Communications" research paper that contained a phrase near the end of the paper that I remember as: "We have discussed Aristotle's 2,000-year-old theory of catharsis….”

 

After reading that, which came with no previous mention of Aristotle, I thought, "No you haven't."

 

That led to my persevering in finding the plagiarism in that paper, which was more difficult in those days before ubiquitous computer searches. The student's boyfriend in another state apparently perpetrated the plagiarism for her.

 

My communications department chairman was forward-looking to have me create a syllabus and begin teaching a course called "Ethical Issues in Mass Media" in 1999, more than three years before the Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and fabrication scandal at The New York Times was revealed.

 

That first fall I was checking a research paper for the class and discovered one paragraph cited text from a page that contained nothing but tabular matter. The entire paper turned out to have been cited from another source.

 

I gave the student a zero for the paper and made plans for the next class. I choreographed my moves, so that I took one step to the seat of a chair and another to the top of the desk. Loudly I proclaimed, "Now hear this: Do not plagiarize."

 

The culprit was not present, but the word got to him. However, the exhortation did no good. On the next paper he did exactly the same thing and received exactly the same grade. Two zeroes resulted in his failing the course.

 

I began teaching as an adjunct in 1985 and became a full-time instructor 12 years later. The university allows a lot of individual discretion in penalizing plagiarism, apparently ranging from zero tolerance to just about the opposite.

 

I adopted what I consider a responsible—perhaps Aristotelian—middle-of-the-road approach. A few words of what appears to be plagiarism could be coincidental or inadvertent, but the more there is, the more it deserves to be punished. I might take off anywhere from one point for a little plagiarism to all of the points for a major transgression.

 

When I deduct points, I staple the original source to the paper, so I rarely hear much denial from my students. I suspect that sometimes I miss plagiarism, but I try not to make an accusation unless I think I have evidence that would stand up before a grievance committee.

 

In a "Beginning Newswriting" class, a student turned in a final project news story that I checked over carefully. I determined that it was good enough to have been published in a daily newspaper, such as the Birmingham News. Unfortunately, it had been. She received a zero for 15%  of the course’s total grade, and instead of trying to pull out a D with a good enough grade on the final examination, she skipped the final and earned an F for the course—which she took again in a later semester.  

 

A student in "Feature and Editorial Writing" turned in a plagiarized editorial. I returned the paper to her with a zero on it. After the class, she came up and said, "I accept this grade, but I want you to know I didn’t do this. I didn’t have time to do this paper, so I asked my sister to do it for me." I was so flabbergasted I didn’t reply, but friends hearing this story have suggested a few responses to me, such as, “OK, that's a zero for your sister and minus 100 for you."

 

Just a few years ago, a student turned in a feature story several weeks before the final examination. I discovered it was pure plagiarism of a story he found on the Internet, with the exception of the names. He deleted the original names and substituted the names of his cousin and some other classmates to make it look local.

 

With the evidence of both plagiarism and fabrication in hand, I returned the paper to him and told him he could begin studying for finals in his other classes. He didn't have to take the final in my class, because he had already earned an F in it.

 

When a student fails a course because of any form of cheating, the faculty handbook calls for the instructor to notify not only the student, but also the department chair and the dean of the college. I think it's worth the trouble to avoid having my university named as the alma mater of the next Janet Cooke, Jack Kelley or Stephen Glass, who damaged the reputations of their publications, the Washington Post, USA Today and the New Republic, respectively—as well as their own career credibility.

 

An interesting twist preceded the last time I taught "Ethical Issues in Mass Media." An adjunct instructor was scheduled to teach the course, but as the weeks passed, his transcript still hadn’t come. The department chair eventually discovered that the would-be adjunct didn't really have a master's degree. Evidently, the applicant wanted to teach ethics so badly that he was willing to lie for the opportunity. I ended up teaching the course one more time.

 

The department chair seemed to need my services in other classes after that semester, so he's taught the ethics course ever since.

 

I still check for plagiarism in all my courses. I explain to my "Beginning Newswriting" classes that the statistical laws of probability suggest that, even on a short paper, it’s unlikely that two students will turn in papers with identical words, typos and misspellings.

 

When two students do turn in identical papers, I confer with them and explain that I can split the points two ways, or they can tell me who did the work, so that one can get the points and the other takes a zero. Only once have the students stonewalled me and accepted half the points apiece.

 

The 21st century has brought technological aids for plagiarism-checking, such as turnitin,com and SafeAssign. I’m in favor of technological advances. However, I think there’s no substitute for the practiced eye of an editor/teacher.

 

In my experience with turnitin.com, it seemed that all quoted and cited material was counted statistically as plagiarism, even though—if given a citation—it was not. It also appeared that new and original plagiarism was not caught, because the computer had never seen it before.  A faculty member at a nearby college recently told me that turnitin.com now casts a wider net.

 

As I'm writing this, I'm using SafeAssign in my classes, which so far seems to find more real plagiarism, but I expect to supplement it with my own efforts. Here are my pointers for others: 

  • By all means, use whatever technology your institution has available. But don’t stop there. Just as spell-checking is not foolproof, because fools are so ingenious, neither are other means.
  • Word usage and gut instinct sometimes lead to the discovery of plagiarism.
  • The presence of anachronisms sometimes will be a tipoff.
  • Words—and logic—beyond the student’s normal vocabulary should inspire the instructor to check a little harder.
  • A format that is not what the instructor prescribed could be a hint that the paper didn’t originate in the student’s own research and mind.
  • And if the student mentions Aristotle as if his name had come up before, and it hadn’t, that might mean part of the plagiarized material was deleted to meet the prescribed standard for length.

 

  • The best students, not the kind described in this article, have kept Coke Ellington coming back to classrooms in Montgomery, Alabama, since he started as an adjunct communications instructor in 1985.  He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.