"Preventing Plagiarism"

From the March, 1988 issue of Academic Leader

A student's final grade hangs in the balance. The paper in your hand sounds vaguely familiar, and both you and the professor suspect it's been plagiarized. But neither of you has any idea what the original source was; so, there's no way to prove your suspicions. Until now.

Barbara Glatt has developed two computer programs to teach students about plagiarism and detect those who copy, borrow, or buy their compositions. Professors can use the Plagiarism Teaching Program to teach and test students about the difference between paraphrasing and plagiarism, and when and how to cite sources. In the Plagiarism Screening Program, faculty can detect plagiarists by presenting students with pages from their own compositions -- leaving every fifth word blank. The suspected plagiarists are then asked to fill in the spaces.

A passage from a paper about the 1859 duel between David Broderick, a U.S. senator, and David S. Terry, chief justice of the California Supreme Court, might begin:

"Broderick's pistol went off _______ and the bullet struck _______ ground from six to _______ feet in front of _______ before he could take _______ . Terry's shot lodged in _______ adversary's breast. Broderic fell to me _______, mortally wounded." (The original words in the blanks -- accidentally, the, ten, Broderick, aim, his, ground -- are from the text California: A History, by Andrew Rolle.)

Students remember the missing words a whole lot better if they really wrote them, says Glatt, who received her Ph.D. from the U. of Chicago (Her dissertation was on "The Cognitive Consequences of Parroting.") Glatt adapted her system from a reading-comprehension test, the "cloze procedure," devised in 1953 by Wilson Taylor.

Glatt puts completed tests through a number of statistical analyses. Inconsistent substitutions for the missing words suggest plagiarism, while synonyms may not. "Nobody ever gets them all right, and nobody gets them all wrong," she says.

How many students do it? Of course, no one knows for sure. At the recent Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco, where Glatt introduced her programs, some educators were saying half do it; but according to Glatt's research, it's probably more like five to 20%. "The ultimate crime," syas Glatt, "is that no learning takes place."

Often, plagiarists will confess while taking the test. Others have to be confronted. "About two percent stick to their guns," says Glatt. In that case, there's no other choice: The original source must be found. Many student plagiarists "plagiarize innocently," she says. "They get into trouble because they really don't know what plagiarism is." That's one reason Glatt's teaching program "allows students to test themselves to discover, have they ever plagiarized or not."

Glatt says the teaching and screening programs complement each other. "Ideally, a school would require all freshmen to take the teaching program." Otherwise it's difficult to tell later on whether a student caught plagiarizing really knew he was cheating.

She also suggests schools adopt the screening program as part of their academic dishonest policy, so there's a way to enforce the testing procedure. When students know the program's in place and that no one's ever been able to outwit it, there's a deterrent effect, says Glatt.

Since introducing her programs to academe in December, Glatt has received more than 250 inquiries.