APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

Handling Plagiarism Professionally as an Online Educator

By Helen Driver
Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities, American Public University

Dealing with plagiarism cases can be difficult for online educators, because students may not even understand how they plagiarized. Equally challenging, of course, are the ambiguous incidents. An online educator may waste time playing ‘plagiarism detective,’ trying to prove a case.

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As frustrating and time-consuming as plagiarism in general can be for online educators, it is important to remember not to take these incidents personally. Each case must be handled professionally.

Don’t Fall Down the Plagiarism Rabbit Hole

Sometimes you have a suspicion that a student may have used plagiarized material. Because of this suspicion, you might be tempted to spend hours on Google, hunting for sections of text in an effort to catch the plagiarizer.

Be wary of this practice, though. Having these sorts of suspicions against a singular student could show potential bias, and it is not fair to the rest of your class if you waste instruction time on one student.

Instead, integrate some sort of plagiarism detection software with all of your written assignments inside your online classroom. This type of tool provides key assistance in helping you identify students who have plagiarized their work. These programs not only save you time, they also become “smarter and more adept over time, growing with every paper fired its way,” according to writer Calum Marsh.

Obtain a Clear Picture of the Plagiarism Incident

If you have definite evidence from your chosen plagiarism detection program that a student has plagiarized, then you should contact the student directly and let that student know your findings.  Be direct and professional, and show your evidence.

The student may respond to your inquiry in an indignant manner and refuse to admit what happened. Every educator knows how infuriating this sort of refusal can be, and refraining from emotionally reacting to this denial amounts to “emotional labor.”

However, you still must remain professional. As many educators note, anger is an inappropriate reaction to student plagiarism.

The best practice in this case is to simply respond that you have received that student’s message, and then report that student’s indiscretion to those in authority if required.

Many times, though, you will receive a response from a student that indicates confusion. This isn’t surprising, for, as a 2010 New York Times survey reflects, only 29% of students believe that “copying from the Web” indicates “serious cheating.”

Also, many students do not understand the difference between a paraphrase and direct quotation. Finally, students are often not aware that reusing material from previous courses is self-plagiarism.

In these cases, you need to explain clearly to that student why an incident is plagiarism, so the student understands what went wrong and does not engage in this sort of practice again. Your goal should be to help that student learn from this mistake.

A Great Defense Is Always a Strong Offense

Finally, a great way to defend against plagiarism is to set up a strong offense. During the first week of a new course, educators must be clear about what plagiarism is. Jeff Karon, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggests making the “first writing assignment” involve “plagiarism as a topic.”

Having your students perform this exercise during the first week could possibly focus on your university’s official plagiarism policy, which might save you from fielding cases of unintentional plagiarism later on in a course. Also, having a record of this assignment could be helpful later, if a student plagiarizes material in the future.

As most online educators know, a plagiarism incident can be frustrating because it temporarily removes them from their role as an instructor. However, as infuriating as these instances can be, it is important to get a full picture of the incident, try to not let emotional biases take control and follow university policy.

About the Author

Helen Beth Driver is a faculty member and English instructor of the School of Arts and Humanities at APU. She teaches courses in writing and literature, ranging from English Composition to Mythology and World Literature. Prior to joining APU, Helen taught at various colleges in New York state, including Saint Thomas Aquinas, Mount Saint Mary, and Cayuga Community College. She also has experience working as an English Writing Lab Instructor for developmental and advanced students.

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