Spotting Plagiarism In Swarthmore Classrooms

Swarthmore’s College Judiciary Committee (CJC), a group of deans, faculty, and students that deal with cases of academic misconduct and determine the verdict, encounters around three to six cases of academic misconduct each semester, mostly due to various forms of plagiarism.

Plagiarism cases have a wide range of types and severities, including improper citing, sloppily copying and pasting without crediting the source, surreptitiously integrating someone else’s words into an academic paper and buying pre-written essays online, according to Associate Dean for Student Life Myrt Westphal. Westphal oversees the CJC, along with Dean of Students Liz Braun. The majority of the cases that professors bring to the CJC, Westphal explained, are valid incidents of plagiarism, since professors need substantial evidence before presenting it to the committee. The first floor of Parrish hall has a board with the last two years’ worth of cases, details stripped out.

“Usually a professor will recognize something that they’re reading,” Westphal said. “They can type in a phrase or a couple of words into Google and will find something. Because a lot of the faculty is familiar with lots of sources, they can detect and investigate these cases pretty easily.”

Westphal has found that most people are not aware of their sloppy and seemingly innocent mistake, though some students admit to the academic misconduct immediately.

“The cases that I’ve seen have tended to be people who are in a jam,” she said. “They had to get something in, so they took some shortcuts, either by not checking their notes or not having quoted their notes. So part of it is a sloppiness.”

Westphal recalls that most of these incidents occur around the time of midterms or finals, when students are under pressure and, usually, procrastinating. Director of the Writing Associates Program Jill Gladstein, who occasionally deals with cases in which a Writing Associate suspects a student plagiarized part of a draft of a paper, agrees that it usually transpires because of a time issue; in her experience, however, the issue could be a reason unrelated to school, such as relationship issues.

The consequences for plagiarism at Swarthmore vary depending on the situation, with a warning and expulsion at either extreme. Warning and academic probation are the most common punishments, with a second time resulting in suspension, either for the rest of the semester or for the following semester.

“If we looked at three potential reasons why there’s a judiciary system, one’s punishment, one’s deterrent, and third is educational,” Westphal said. “It’s the education we really stress in these hearings. We want students to learn about mistakes and resources and how to avoid getting yourself stuck in a corner or making bad decisions. So the goal is not punishment, although you have to take responsibility for bad decisions.”

In regards to a student’s grade in the class, there are several options for penalties. While the CJC can make recommendations on what the proper penalty for each case is, ultimately the professor of the class determines the consequence. Often depending on how much was plagiarized, punishments include a 0 on the paper, a paper redo with a grade automatically knocked off or failing the class.

One of the most common types of plagiarism occurs in the introductory biology classes — Cellular and Molecular Biology (001) and Organismal and Populational Biology (002) — in which students sometimes copy each others’ labs.

“Where it can be pretty confusing is when two students overlap,” Westphal said. “We don’t say in our handbook that the giver is guilty of academic misconduct, but obviously if the giver didn’t give it, the taker couldn’t take it. There have been some cases where the taker did it surreptitiously.”

Course Coordinator for Biology 001, Kathy Siwicki, says there is an average of between one to three plagiarism cases in the course each fall. These usually occur when students “cut and paste,” either from an online source or from a classmate’s paper.

“One factor may be that most students in Biology 001 are in their first semester at the college, and have never written a scientific paper,” she said. “While people are learning how to organize information in this structured format, they’re also trying to express new concepts with new terminology — in a sense they’re learning to write in a new language. When people are struggling to find the words to express new concepts clearly, they may be tempted to think that someone else has already expressed it much better than anything they could write themselves.”

The Biology 001 and 002 laboratory sections use Turnitin.com, a website that not only reports how much of a paper seems to come from other sources but also finds matching phrases from these sources. These courses discuss the idea of plagiarism at the beginning of the semester in every lab section. Additionally, information on plagiarism is in the Laboratory Manual and on the course Moodle. In fact, every course at Swarthmore is required to say something about plagiarism, either in class at the beginning of the semester or on the course syllabus.

“We hope that by having relatively minor penalties for late papers, students who run out of time will not get overly stressed and desperate,” Siwicki said. “Our goal is to encourage students to build confidence in their ability to express their own arguments in their own words.”

Peter Schmidt, an English professor who served on the CJC in the early 1990s, also uses Turnitin.com, though primarily for the convenience of the commenting system the website offers. Separate from the website, though, he thinks there are simple ways to detect plagiarism. In Schmidt’s experience, sometimes two papers that the same student has written have completely different voices or maturity levels. Other times, an essay feels patched together, often cleverly. With the Internet, Schmidt explained, it is much easier to verify plagiarism suspicions than it used to be.

“Compared to 30 years ago in the humanities, we have much more of an emphasis on collaborative learning and encourage students to do research together or work on a project together,” he said. “The thing with being strict about plagiarism is that it goes against other kinds of learning where we encourage people to borrow from others. It’s one thing to borrow, it’s another thing to steal.”

Once professors experience plagiarism, according to Schmidt, they become paranoid and actively look for other plagiarized papers. To discourage the issue from recurring, then, professors try to encourage positive learning experiences.

“We try to do it in a way that encourages students to think it’s great to borrow from other people’s thoughts,” Schmidt said. “This is all part of a conversation with generations of people who have all read the same texts. But to do that right, you need to give people credit.”

Gladstein, too, focuses on the positive ways to approach encouraging students to write with integrity. Although the Writing Center has no direct connection to the CJC, Gladstein spends one class talking to the sophomore Writing Associates in Training (WAITs) about the ethics of being a Writing Associate (WA).

“We work with drafts, so we have no obligation to report potential plagiarism,” Gladstein said.  “However, we work with students on how to write well, which includes proper citations, how to incorporate sources, all that stuff.”

A few years ago, a group of WAs created a committee to explore a protocol and created a document on what to do if they suspect someone has plagiarized. No WAs have suspected plagiarism with students they have worked with in a couple of years.

“If a WA comes to me and suspects plagiarism, we talk through the options of talking to the student or the professor,” Gladstein said. “Sometimes they feel an obligation to the professor or the department, and sometimes they feel an obligation to the student.”

Gladstein plans to hold a conference in the spring about who owns an idea. So far, President Rebecca Chopp is already one of the speakers at the roundtable conference.

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