APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Online Teaching Lounge Podcast

Addressing Academic Integrity and Preventing Plagiarism

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Academic integrity is an essential part of online education requiring both students and faculty to do their own work. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares the basics behind academic integrity for online educators, tips about several forms of plagiarism and related violations, and strategies to help establish trust and set the tone for faculty and student success.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. Today’s topic is plagiarism. This is the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas, and passing them off as one’s own. Some ideas that are similar might be copying. Piracy. Theft. Stealing. Appropriating. The word has Latin roots that mean “kidnapping.” If ideas have life, then kidnapping brings to mind vivid imagery. Plagiarism is a serious issue, and there are many different types of plagiarism. But it’s also part of a larger category we like to call academic integrity.

Today, we will dive into the idea of academic integrity in online higher education. We will look at the faith students and teachers both invest in the educational process, some of the issues we face in this area, ways in which we can follow up when it occurs, and how we might adjust to reduce the likelihood of plagiarism.

There are many types of plagiarism, and we will investigate a few of these so that you can identify them and consider your approach as the faculty member educator. And we will explore possible actions that you can take as an online educator to address it when it happens, and ideas to reduce the likelihood of repeated academic integrity violations. Basically, we’ll have an introductory discussion about academic integrity to give you some awareness, tips, and strategies.

What is Academic Integrity?

Academic integrity is this idea that students honor the faith that is placed in them to do their own work, to write their own assignments, and submit work that represents their own learning and abilities. There are some basic assumptions in education, and these include taking responsibility for one’s own learning and following the rules and conventions of academic writing and scholarship.

As the student, you cannot take someone else’s writing or a sample essay you find on the internet and put your name on it, then turn it in for credit in a class that you are taking. And if you submitted a paper for a class you took in the past, you cannot re-format that exact same paper and turn it in again for another class right now.

The concept of plagiarism and its opposite, originality, are important in online education. An online student puts faith in the educational process, the teacher, the institution, and the accreditation that says their course credits will mean something in the academic and professional world.

And the teacher, the institution, and those same stakeholders involved in recognizing and honoring the course credits, put faith in the student that he or she honestly earned credit and learned what the credits represent. There is faith on both sides of the table when we’re engaged in educational pursuits. And this faith means that each of us expects integrity and originality in the work we produce, whether we are the faculty member teaching the class, or the student who has come to learn.

Academic integrity goes way beyond the student. It also means that faculty members and the institution itself set priorities for effective, fair, and efficient grading practices across courses, programs, and subject areas, as well as across the entire institution.

According to the Turnitin.Com Blog, “everyone—students, educators, administrators, and researchers—will uphold the high expectations of academia by ethically conducting research, accurately citing sources, and responsibly adhering to the guidelines set forth by institutions when producing and publishing work.”

This means that it isn’t just about someone copying and pasting in a section of their Philosophy 200 essay. It’s a culture of integrity that includes everyone, and it focuses on ethical behavior. It’s a commitment to live by the values of honesty and integrity, and to practice responsibility in one’s work.

Plagiarism threatens the academic process. Academic integrity is an assumption that our educational system is founded on, and we maintain some confidence in the process as a result. When a student graduates and takes their diploma, it’s based on the expectation that the work was done by that student, and they are informed and capable in the areas they studied.

When academic dishonesty comes in, it can invalidate the entire degree, and it can have real-life consequences for everyone involved leading to expulsion from the institution and a pattern of dishonesty that creates workplace problems later in one’s career.

What is a violation of academic integrity?

When academic integrity is violated, this can be called academic dishonesty. Sometimes we have a shorter name for a specific type of academic dishonesty and might call it “cheating,” “copying,” or “plagiarizing.” This all depends on exactly what is happening, and if the work was intentional or unintended.

If you’re teaching online, and you have originality-checking software included in your online classroom, it can be alarming the first time you come across a situation in which unoriginal content is detected, especially if it is a very large percentage of the student’s work.

About 11 years ago, I faced this situation myself. Although I had been an educator for many years, this was my first serious instance of academic dishonesty in the online environment. While evaluating some essays my college students submitted, I found a situation in which it appeared that a student had copied an entire essay off a website. The Turnitin report gave it a 98% match rate to a complete essay with date, another student’s name, and the course and session listed in which the initial essay had been posted. The evidence clearly indicated the student copied and submitted an entire essay, and it even told me whose essay it was.

At first, I was not sure what to do with it. I had not experienced this before, and I was surprised that this student had apparently copied the entire essay and placed their own name on it, then turned it in as their own work.

In the years since that time, I have seen a wide variety of unoriginal content. It’s ranged from just a few sentences where a student failed to quote or cite appropriately, to a mish-mash of source content all mixed together into an essay that the student crafted from all of this source content but did not write from their own thoughts, and some interesting approaches at paraphrasing another person’s entire essay without actually copying and pasting it into their own writing but still copying another person’s entire work without citing it. And even some instances of students having someone else write their assignment for them and submitting this other person’s work as their own.  Maybe you have experienced some of these academic integrity issues yourself.

For our listeners who are less familiar with the types of academic dishonesty typically found in the plagiarism category and which they might find in online education today, I’ll provide a few descriptions here to increase awareness:

  • Self-plagiarism: This is the instance of using something we wrote for another class or another situation without quoting it or making any kind of attribution to our own work. Once we have used the work for a class and received credit, or published it somewhere, we need to give ourselves attribution to make it clear what is happening there. If it’s for a class, the student should ask their instructor whether they would accept work previously submitted or whether a new assignment should be written. We can never assume that just because we wrote something, we can repeatedly use it over and over again without mentioning the other times we have used it.
  •  Contract cheating. This is a situation in which a student has hired someone else to do their work. It is difficult to detect, and because someone else is writing the assignment, it is unlikely to appear in an originality report through verification software. In this case, a few ideas to reduce the likelihood of contract cheating could be to design unique assignments where a shared experience or classroom discussion is part of the final product, assigning video essays instead of strictly written assignments, which would enable you to see your student and know they are reporting themselves, and using proposals and multiple drafts with peer reviews throughout the process, giving students a lot of support in the process and also a lot of exposure to what they are submitting.  
  • Word spinners. According to Christine Lee on the Turnitin.Com Blog, “Word spinners or text spinners are one tool available online that promote short-cut solutions to students. They often market themselves as being able to “avoid detection” while taking advantage of students who aren’t knowledgeable about the nuances of plagiarism. Word spinners go by different names: they include text spinners, rewriting tools, article spinners, and paraphrasing tools. They take existing text and make changes with the purpose of evading plagiarism detection software. Word spinners vary in the ways they offer their services; some are subscription-based while others are free internet sites.”

Lee provides a paragraph of text and then the same paragraph, rewritten through a text spinner site to give you an idea of what this might look like in a student’s work.

Here is the first paragraph:

“While the goal of word spinners is to retain the meaning of the original text, they don’t always succeed. And they certainly don’t replicate the student’s authentic voice. However, if a student uses word spinners throughout a course, instructors won’t be able to have insights into the student’s authentic writing style and voice.”

And here is the second paragraph, after going through the text spinner:

“While the objective of word spinners is to hold the significance of the first content, they don’t generally succeed. Also, they positively don’t reproduce the understudy’s credible voice. Be that as it may, if an understudy utilizes word spinners all through a course, teachers will not have the option to have bits of knowledge into the understudy’s genuine composing style and voice.”

It is easy to hear the wrong words that seem totally out of place in that second paragraph, the material that the text spinner manipulated. But if we are not aware that this is out there, we might just think the student did some strange thesaurus work, or simply chose some wrong words.

As Lee mentions in her blog, that second paragraph has issues. She wrote, “The word replacements are inaccurate. Sometimes “student” becomes “understudy,” for example. The introductory phrase, “Be that as it may,” is an awkward substitute. The phrase “positively don’t reproduce” doesn’t make sense. And so on.”

Several additional types of plagiarism shared in a blog article by Audrey Campbell include the following:

  • Inadvertent Plagiarism: Forgetting to properly cite or quote a source or unintentional paraphrasing.
  • Paraphrase Plagiarism: Rephrasing a source’s ideas without proper attribution.
  • Word-for-Word Plagiarism: Copying and pasting content without proper attribution.
  • Computer Code Plagiarism: Copying or adapting source code without permission from and attribution to the original creator.
  • Source-Based Plagiarism: Providing inaccurate or incomplete information about sources so that they cannot be found.
  • Mosaic Plagiarism: Weaving phrases and text from several sources into one’s own work. Adjusting sentences without quotation marks or attribution.
  • Manual Text Modification: Manipulating text with the intent of misleading plagiarism detection software.
  • Data Plagiarism: Falsifying or fabricating data or improperly attributing someone else’s work, putting a researcher, institution, or publisher’s reputation in jeopardy.

Can plagiarism be accidental?

Yes, plagiarism can be accidental. In situations where a student reads the plagiarism policy in the student handbook or in the class but who is new to the academic experience, this person might really not understand what is being addressed. It’s difficult to know how to use sources effectively and to fully understand that a person must read the source, understand it, draw conclusions from it and somehow internalize the information, and then formulate it into something that is their own original thought.

In cases where sources should be used and cited, students early in the academic journey might think it’s enough just to list the source at the end of the entire assignment, or once in parenthesis without quotation marks. And still others might not understand anything in the plagiarism policy they receive, thinking that if it’s a problem, the teacher will tell them what they did wrong and how to fix it. This is especially problematic if their first teacher ignores the plagiarism issues and fails to address them, and the student moves on to the next class without any awareness that they are actually plagiarizing by failing to use sources effectively.

Can we be wrong about plagiarism?

Yes, we can suspect a student has copied from sources when it’s really their own work. I’ll give you an example of this from a class I taught earlier this year. One of my students joined me in the Q&A discussion space, where most students don’t. This student wasn’t asking about an upcoming assignment or formality, he was trying to understand a concept in music. This music appreciation class was out of his element. He wanted to really get the terms he was supposed to use and to compare these new ideas to the music he listened to everyday.

He came back to the Q&A space many times, bringing examples of his music and asked if his ideas about them made sense, given the music terms we were using. And later in the class, when he wrote his essay, he included a reflection comment stating that he had to play the music several times and practice using the terms to describe it before he wrote the paper confidently. This was helpful information to me when I evaluated it, because it was written so well that coming from a non-musician, I might have suspected that it was not original writing.

How Faculty Can Detect and Proactively Address Academic Dishonesty

One way to detect potential plagiarism is by using automated software. Tools might be integrated into the learning management system that automatically detect originality of students’ work, but sometimes an item might need to be manually submitted. Some of the tools might be present in the classroom but have to be set up or turned on.

Tools that may be available can include:

Once an item is submitted through an originality checking site, you might receive a report highlighting any content that is not original, or which came from a source. In some cases, you can also view the source and download a report.

How you choose to address potential plagiarism with a student can be a range of responses, starting with contacting the student to ask for more information or share what was found. You might find that based on the course level, the student’s academic experience, and what was found that you can teach the student and request revised work, even if this is for partial credit. In some cases, you might find that a failing assignment grade is warranted, and in cases of repeat plagiarism, you might find it necessary to fail the student based on the work submitted.

It can be helpful to consult your department leader or academic integrity office for guidance on a plagiarism report especially if it should be filed and what an appropriate follow-up action might be. Institutions vary on that guideline, so ask you department. In some cases, a few sentences cited poorly can simply be revised, and yet there are other situations in which a report is needed, such as when an entire essay has been submitted that the student did not write, and this is clear from the evidence as well.

Here are some ideas about how you can reduce the likelihood of plagiarism:

  • Give students an idea about how the class they are taking is important to their life and work, and focus on real-life connections they can make to their career plans, their future, and their next courses. When students understand the relevance of what they are learning, this can increase their desire to really learn and understand the content, reducing potential academic dishonesty that comes  from disengagement.
  • Teach students about it. Some institutions include academic integrity lessons in the first-year English or composition class, an introductory digital information literacy course, or in lesson modules that can be used at various times in the educational journey. When you teach students about academic integrity, one goal is to help students understand that their work must be original, and it cannot include copied in or re-used items from other work. Another goal is to teach students how to appropriately quote, paraphrase, summarize, and attribute any information they include in their work. Even if you don’t teach writing in your courses, you can prepare mini-lessons on this topic or provide handouts that give students main ideas about their work and source attribution.
  • Rotate assignments or vary them over time. If a standard assignment is used over and over in your class, especially if it’s a large-enrollment general education course, soon you will find sample answers and entire assignments that have been shared over the internet to a variety of sharing websites where students can trade in their own previously completed assignments for points through which they can download other students’ example work. While many of these websites claim that they are “study help” sites, students can use the downloaded materials to copy and paste into their own work, rather than writing an original essay or other assignment. By rotating or varying the assignments in your class, you reduce the likelihood of students being able to buy copies of other students’ answers off the internet.
  • Include a mix of personal experiences, reflection, low-stakes and higher-stakes assignments, and applications of learning. Students typically introduce themselves during the first week of class, and if they can draw on their life experiences regularly throughout the course, this encourages originality. It encourages them to be authentic and really engage in the learning process. And when you offer a lot of low-stakes assignments along the way, students are less pressured from one assignment to the next and have more exposure in their work.
  • Teach students the skills they need to be able to use a textbook appropriately, take notes on what they read or see in the online classroom, and work with the knowledge they are gaining in order to write their assignments  and develop academic habits. And when needed, give them flexibility or additional time to complete their work. Some academic dishonesty comes from overlapping deadlines and desperation.

Teaching online is rewarding, and it can be an engaging, fun experience for both faculty and students. But the positive rewards we gain from the online education modality are reduced if we spend a large amount of time handling plagiarism cases. And there are things we can do to help students engage more fully that reduce the likelihood of academic integrity problems, as well as ways in which we can be alert to address then when they do occur.

Ultimately, if you are familiar with the many ways in which plagiarism occurs and other academic integrity concerns occur in online education, and you have a plan to address it, you will be able to respond well and focus your efforts. Best wishes in your online teaching this week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is the Department Chair of Religion & Philosophy, Art, and Music an ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC) for the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is a Professor, coach, and teaching excellence strategist with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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