A Sidebar on Plagiarism and Cheating

I’m currently reading SOAR, a unique new story by Joan Bauer. SOARThe backdrop is a baseball steroid cheating scandal at a small town high school. The uniqueness comes from Jeremiah, the 12-year-old narrator. He’s also a heart transplant survivor. I’ll post a review next month of this great new title.

Reading this book got me thinking more about the topic of plagiarizing or taking shortcuts. It’s an easy task with the help of today’s technology. I’ve certainly seen an increase the past ten years.

It can be something simple and supposedly innocent. WordPress gives me a list of search words used when readers find ALWAYS in the MIDDLE through a search engine like Google. There are always several that read like test questions: What is the underlying theme in Dead End in Norvelt? or… What is the source of conflict for the main character in When You Reach Me? I’m sure some poor kid has a book report due the next day and never read the book.

In 2005 I helped a Ph.D. student with her research study on cheating. Her problem statement suggested that kids are more apt to cheat if given the opportunity to get a better grade. She conducted a variety of different tests at various schools throughout the state.

I had a class of 28 sixth graders at the time and our administration agreed to let them participate. The set-up was simple. On day one I would hand out a 15 question multiple-choice pop-quiz on a topic we were studying. I told the class it would be graded but didn’t say anything else.

The next day I came in and recited the scenario the researcher had given me. “I was busy last night (probably very true) and I didn’t have time to grade your quizzes. You can be a big help by grading them in class. I trust all of you to grade your own.”

I read the answers out loud and collected the papers. What my class didn’t know was the researcher had made copies of their original day one quiz and now could compare it with the day two results. Her hypothesis: There would be more than 50% who changed answers.

I made my own guess that perhaps 10% would be a closer number. I had an honest group of kids, the same ones who had already received my frequent reminder to make sure what they turn in was their own words and if they weren’t then they needed to site the original author. They knew about plagiarism, but this was different – a supposedly safe way to cheat.

The researcher called me that night and gave me the results. 64% (18 out of 28) changed at least one answer. I was shocked but the discussions that followed with that class were some of the best I ever had. I told them about the study and also assured them their quizzes were destroyed and had no bearing on grades.

Most said it was parental pressure to do well. A few said it was just too easy. Several of the ten who didn’t change answers claimed it never even entered their minds to cheat. One thing for sure – the entire class was a little skeptical on any test given the rest of the year.

Of course, cheating and plagiarism can happen at any age. During a 2010 and 2011 Master’s degree class I was teaching, I uncovered two students plagiarizing. The term papers they turned in seemed a bit clinical. I typed in one of their sentences into Google and sure enough they had both copied an entire set of paragraphs verbatim from a published opinion paper at another university, never giving credit to this source. I was required by contract to report the plagiarism and they were both disciplined.

I’m very careful to site quotes on here and in my own stories to the original author. I know how much work the task of writing can be so copying words without the writer’s permission or citing the source is plain wrong.

I do keep my trusty writing journal close at hand. This is where I write sentences that I love from books. I do it more for the sentence structure and to get ideas how other authors deal with emotion and using the five senses in their writing. I don’t need their words, but I do hope some of the writing brilliance is rubbing off on me.

I could tell you which writer’s rhythms I am imitating. It’s not exactly plagiarism, it’s falling in love with good language and trying to imitate it. (CHARLES KURALT)

About Greg Pattridge

Climbing another mountain...writing middle grade novels.
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4 Responses to A Sidebar on Plagiarism and Cheating

  1. Oh, boy. 68%! That is kind of shocking and so disappointing. The pressure is great on kids to do well in school. I had a couple of students a few years ago when I was teaching high school who ended up being hospitalized for nervous breakdowns because their families put so much pressure on them to earn nothing less than an A in any class. What a sad statement on our society.

  2. Such s great post. Wow. That’s a high percentage that changed answers.

  3. Great post. I bet your class learned a lesson or two. You were so clever to make your point and then destroy the tests.

  4. Susan says:

    What a fascinating experiment you did with your class. it seems like an exercise that every teacher could do near the beginning of the school year. If it were followed by a meaningful class discussion, it could set the tone for the whole year. It’s interesting that several of the ten who didn’t cheat said it never entered their minds to do so…

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