It appears that the University of North Carolina football program has taken another hit in terms of the team’s academic integrity. Reports are now surfacing that standout wide receiver Erik Highsmith was caught plagiarizing an eleven-year-old’s writing in a communications class last semester. Now, you might think that he would get caught, called on it, and change his ways, but he apparently also copied and pasted something from a GRE preparation site in the same class, and got caught again.
A lot of plagiarism is unintentional and not malicious. I’ve had talks with students over the years – many of them extremely bright – explaining that they can’t simply use another historian’s ideas without citing them, or paraphrase too closely. On the first offense I try to talk to them about why what they did is academically dishonest, and those students are usually horrified and go back and fix their work. In isolated incidents, I don’t really have much of a problem with that, especially when they’re still learning about historiography.
I have zero sympathy, however, for students who have been taught since they were in elementary school that copying something word-for-word is wrong and still try to do it. I can attest to the fact that students will copy and paste just about anything, try to pass it off as their own, and then believe they’ll get away with it. In my teaching career I’ve seen more than my share of it. Regardless of the students’ age or academic aptitude, many of them try to pull it off on a regular basis. And they almost always get caught. I don’t know why, but students always think they’re the first person to ever copy and paste an entire assignment, and the teacher just won’t care enough to check the material, or will simply think that on this particular task, they pulled off a feat of brilliance.
Kids, let me just knock that assumption out of the park now: Don’t even bother trying. We’ve seen it all.
The rote copy-and-paste plagiarism I’ve seen come across my desk over the years would put some of the best “world’s dumbest criminals” stories to shame. Everyone makes the exact same mistakes, and nearly always gets caught. So, if you’re an amateur academic thief and are considering going pro, here are some tips for how to make your poorly-thought-out cheating schemes truly amazing.
1) Leave hyperlinks in. In my AP U.S. History classes I assign a list of several dozen vocabulary terms at the beginning of each unit, and the students have to write a paragraph about each term that are due on the day of the unit test. During my first year at Robinson I was checking my students’ terms when I came across something that, on paper, looked like this:
Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis KG (31 December 1738 – 5 October 1805), styled Viscount Brome between 1753 and 1762 and known as The Earl Cornwallis between 1762 and 1792, was a British Army officer and colonial administrator. In the United States and the United Kingdom he is best remembered as one of the leading British generals in the American War of Independence. His surrender in 1781 to a combined American and French force at the Siege of Yorktown ended significant hostilities in North America.
This was, obviously, so blatant that it was just sad. Here’s how the conversation with the girl went:
Me: Kate, why are there random underlined words in your IDs?
Kate: I thought they were important terms to remember, so I underlined them so I’d study them.
Me: “Colonial administrator” is an important term?
Kate: I mean, it has to do with the Colonies, so yeah.
Me: Interesting. Do you also underline numbers that link to footnotes that aren’t actually on your paper?
Kate: Um… yeah?
Me: Kate, I know you copied and pasted this from Wikipedia, so just let it go.
Kate: I don’t even know what Wikipedia is, Mr. Drake! I didn’t copy this!
You’re a high school student and you don’t know what Wikipedia is? Wow, and I thought you were full of shit before. Idiot.
2) Outkick your coverage. I caught a lot of APUSH students plagiarizing their take-home essays because they ran afoul of one important concept to remember when cheating: the teacher knows that your writing didn’t go from being a cluster to being textbook-ready overnight. This can be easy or hard to catch based on the ability and smarts of the student who may or may not have perpetrated it; since most essays available to be copied from the internet are good or at least serviceable, there may have been some upper-level students of mine who got away with it over the years. My last year at Robinson I graded a take-home document-based essay from our student body president that was literally the best APUSH essay I’ve ever seen. I was disappointed, though, because I was afraid he’d plagiarized it. It’s not that I thought this guy would copy an essay, but I also thought it was too good to be true. I spent probably an hour scouring the internet trying to find that essay somewhere, but never did. It was just that amazing.
Another student on that same assignment, though, completely outkicked her coverage. Her introductory paragraph was something that would’ve made renowned historian and alleged fellow plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin bow down in praise. Then, something happened that was just weird. After the copied introduction, she did her own work on the rest of the essay. Maybe she thought it was less of a sin to copy only a portion of it, but the stark difference in writing style and quality between the introduction and the rest of it was so night-and-day that it would’ve been obvious cheating even to someone who didn’t know a damn thing about AP history writing.
To this girl’s credit, she didn’t try some ham-handed denial like the aforementioned case. She readily admitted to it, and I called her mother, who is a teacher. I think she was grounded for a long time. That’s something else to keep in mind, kids. This ain’t Vegas; what happens at school will make its way home.
I really hope this isn’t the method that the UNC communications professor used to catch Erik Highsmith. Who knows, maybe those 5th graders he copied are future Pulitzer winners, but more than likely, it’s just unimaginably sad.
3) Completely ignore the assignment’s parameters. This one happened the other day in our World Civ class. We had our students create “trading cards” of famous figures from Roman history. They were supposed to put a picture on the front along with the person’s name and “position” (senator, general, emperor, whatever), and then put “statistics” (birth/death dates, accomplishments, interesting facts) on the back. The stuff on the back was supposed to be little blurbs of a few words – not complete sentences, and not incredibly detailed. We even gave them samples to use as a template of sorts.
One student who has not turned in much work on time gave me his card, and initially I was excited because he did something. Upon further review, however, he had turned in a card on which the front was done more or less correctly, and then the back was full of paragraphs detailing Emperor Diocletian’s life in exhaustive detail, and they even had the hyperlinks included! The paragraphs had a lot of information, but in addition to being obviously copied, they did nothing towards fulfilling the clearly-laid-out requirements of the project. This damn-the-torpedoes approach has gotten countless students caught over the years, and is by far among the easiest methods to catch.
4) Copy your fellow mediocrity-dwellers. This isn’t from-the-internet plagiarism, but it’s still half-baked and it’s still hilarious every time I catch some kid who thinks they’re being clever do this. Three of my students left the classroom during the last test to take it in our special programs classroom. Upon grading them, I discovered that these three students missed the exact same questions, and had the exact same wrong answers. With the assistance of our math teacher, I was able to calculate that there was a 0.000000095 percent chance of this happening by chance. When I confronted one of the students, holding up 0.000000095% printed on a piece of paper in 100-point font, he admitted to it.
The identical test alone wasn’t why this was so easy to catch, though. It was sad because they worked together and still only managed a 79. Since I was feeling snarky that day, I split a 79 three ways and gave all three of them a 27 instead of a 0 to kind of prove a point.
The same thing happens on regular assignments that students turn in; they’ll get the same answers wrong, misspell the same words – no, the Roman Empire did not reach its peak under “Emporer Trojan” – and turn in identical papers at the same time so they’re back-to-back in the grading so that I see them literally 30 seconds apart, and expect to get away with it. You really thought that one through, Danny Ocean.
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I’m aware that many of my students over the years may not have been properly educated on what constitutes plagiarism, as I mentioned above when talking about the more unintentional forms of it. In addition to just being sad, though, copying and pasting work does nothing to help you learn. You’re in school for a reason, kids! Don’t waste it by copying stuff off the internet, not even bothering to read it or tailor it to fit the assignment, then turn it in. What do you get out of that? Even if you’re cheating because you’re afraid to get a ‘0’ for not turning anything in, don’t you think the 50 or whatever that you’d get for mediocre work will still carry with it more rewards than copying something that’s going to get a ‘0’ anyway because we’re going to catch you???
Just do your own work, people. I’ll miss being able to tell the hilarious stories of how I caught you red-handed, but at least you’ll be learning something.