Presenting the ideas of others as one’s own is considered academic misconduct and typically punished not just at NUS but in academia in general. To discourage students from plagiarising, NUS outlines the academic consequences of detected plagiarism on its websites and encourages lecturers to discuss plagiarism during classes. Nonetheless, there are incidences of students plagiarising assignments and one therefore must ask the question whether our efforts to educate students on this issue are sufficient. Can students make informed decisions about the use of published and unpublished sources for their own work? The answer to these questions probably depends on the type or degree of plagiarism (Wilhoit, 1994). One may expect students to be aware of the implications and consequences of submitting a paper as their own that, in its entirety, has been written by someone else. However, students may be uncertain about more subtle forms of plagiarism, such as the omission of quotation marks in verbatim citations, particularly if such omissions were acceptable in prior educational settings (e.g. high school).
I came to realise students’ uncertainties about plagiarism when I first started interacting with NUS undergraduates in 2006. At that time, I was teaching an honours seminar during which I assigned a term paper on the role of emotions for cognition. Although on average students demonstrated good academic writing and reasoning, the quality of their manuscripts varied greatly. Specifically, two manuscripts caught my attention because the writing and reasoning presented there was far superior to that of the other manuscripts. In an effort to identify potential cases of plagiarism, I studied the references cited by the two students. I found a book and a journal article containing paragraphs that matched one of the students’ submission perfectly. Moreover, the student had copied these paragraphs verbatim without the use of quotation marks but took pains to indicate the sources in parenthesis. As her entire manuscript comprised a patchwork of published material, I considered this a case of plagiarism that I had to act on. Fuelled by this discovery I went on to determine potentially plagiarised sources for the second outstanding manuscript. However, in spite of my familiarity with the term paper topic and extended additional reading of available publications, I was unable to identify books or journal articles that were corresponded to the student’s manuscript.
Since I was hesitant to reward potentially undeserving students with a good grade, I decided to confront the students in my seminar. At the end of one of my classes, I announced that I have had identified one case of plagiarism and that I suspected another. Moreover, I asked the students who committed these acts to contact me within the next three days so that we could resolve the matter. After I finished the class, students remained in their seats and talked excitedly with each other. Some of them approached me to ask what specifically was wrong with the plagiarised manuscripts. I explained that information had been copied from other sources and was not properly acknowledged. This did not settle the discussions and even after I left the classroom, many students remained in, what appeared to me, a ‘state of panic’.
Over the next few days, I was contacted by 33 students (two thirds of my seminar). I received messages such as: “This is XXX from your Cognitions class. After the class today, I was very concerned about the plagiarism issue. I re-read my paper, but I’m not sure if what I wrote constitutes plagiarism. So, can I check with you if my paper was ok? If not, I hope to be able to make up for it.” Another student wrote “I refer to your plagiarism announcement. Initially, all was fine, but then everybody starts asking everybody else about the issue and everybody asks ‘Am I the one’? Did I unconsciously do so? Did I not paraphrase sufficiently?”
Among the students who contacted me were also the students whom I suspected of plagiarism. During a private interview, I asked both of them to describe the process in which they generated the manuscript. The student, whose work I suspected was plagiarised, told me that her brother, who had just finished graduate school, helped her with the English but that the structure and ideas presented in the manuscript were hers. Subsequent interactions with the student convinced me of her intellectual merit and she is now working with me as a graduate student. The student, whose work I knew was plagiarised, was very anxious during the interview but had no clear perception of having done wrong. She believed she had correctly acknowledged other sources because she had provided the respective references in the manuscript. This latter student received a fail-mark for her assignment and had to submit a second assignment together with the material that she used to prepare the manuscript. This second assignment still contained a few unnecessary verbatim quotations suggesting that the student had difficulties distinguishing between utterances that are important enough to be cited verbatim and utterances that should be paraphrased. Hence I invited the student for a second interview to explain this matter as well as the grade she received for her assignment.
The experiences with the students in this seminar have taught me a valuable lesson. They drew my attention to the fact that the academic curriculum focuses on content matters but provides little, if any, instructions on how to use and present the information obtained from others. Moreover, while there is a great emphasis on educating students on what goes into an academic paper, students are more or less expected to know how to write it. As informed decisions about the use of published and unpublished sources can only be made if the relevant knowledge is available, we as instructors need to do more than simply raise the issue of plagiarism to students. Specifically, we need to make an effort in explaining and illustrating the various types of plagiarism and promote good writing practices in dedicated writing modules.
Wilhoit, S. (1994). Helping Students Avoid Plagiarism. College Teaching, Vol. 42, pp. 161–164.