Monday, April 16, 2007

Should professors decriminalize copying?

An incident this weekend got me thinking again about plagiarism. As a professor, I've always been strict on detected plagiarism incidents in my courses (failure in the course if our judicial process finds the accused guilty). As a pragmatist, I believe there must be a better way to think about and handle this issue though. I appreciate arguments, such as Jason Johnson's recent Washington Post op-ed, that originality is not always the most important, or even most appropriate, criterion for a piece of work. Students naturally need to develop skills at synthesizing and interpreting material as well, which is the standard non-ethics argument against allowing attributed copying (Cognitive Daily has more discussion on Johnson's article). The latter argument counters the former with an expectation of interpretive work on _every_ assignment though. Perhaps that is asking too much.

Courses ask students to demonstrate a variety of skills. If a student shows solid skills at synthesizing and interpreting on several assignments then submits a largely copied assignment with attributions, has the student failed to satisfy the course goals? Shown a lack of integrity? Necessarily gotten less out of the assignment than a student who made practically no progress despite hours of effort? It isn't clear what this student would be guilty of beyond making a decision about resource allocation or time management. The student may have even gained something in searching for substitute work to turn in (though the web can make this too easy) and in deciding how to allocate work efforts that week.

Perhaps professors need to stop fighting the copying and make it acceptable (with attribution) right up there on the syllabus. Reframe copying as a lesson in risk and time management, rather than a crime. Set a grading rubric that allows students to copy sometimes, but with the expectation that they can explain and defend their choice of source. Deal harshly with lack of attribution. Hopefully, more students would provide the attribution since copying would carry no penalty. The time saved in not trying to enforce originality could be used to interview students submitting attributed work to confirm that they did understand it. That in turn could teach more about the tradeoffs of copying than lecturing ever could. It might take a bit more work on the professor's part to run these periodic spot checks, but they'd be far more rewarding than trudging through judicial procedures for plagiarism cases.

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