It’s a common complaint about online education that students plagiarize, but my horror stories aren’t about students. My horror stories are about developing online courses. (Some details changed to protect the not entirely innocent.)
How NOT to Hide Your Tracks When Plagiarizing
I was reviewing a course from someone who had just left the company when I discovered some sentences that just didn’t fit quite right. The tone shifted drastically mid-paragraph—always a red flag. So I started to highlight some phrases so I could Google them…and suddenly realized there were links embedded in the text.
As it turned out, this course included extensive copying from other sources. One of the sources was a website that frequently linked to glossary terms. But the person who copied the content didn’t know how to remove the links after she pasted it in Word, so he just changed the blue text to black and removed the underline. As soon as I hovered my mouse over the offending passages, I could follow the links right back to the original source. At least he made it easy for me to find the source and prove the content was easy.
Oh, the Irony
I’ve seen a number of subject matter experts plagiarize content for courses, but my all-time favorite story isn’t from a course I worked on myself. Another instructional designer had a SME who, frankly, really wasn’t a great writer. She had been struggling for weeks to coach him on the writing style and content. Finally, she received a draft that was right on track. She was so happy that she was getting better quality work from him…until she did a routine plagiarism check on it. More than one entire paragraph had been copied from a website without any attempt to paraphrase or cite the original.
The topic of the copied and pasted content? Business ethics.
Patti Shank asked recently whether people plagiarize because they don’t know or don’t care. I think it’s a combination of the two. Many people really haven’t been taught what plagiarism is or how much paraphrasing is really required to make something your own. A lot of people don’t have a good system for keeping track of citations when they research, which makes it easy to lose track of which ideas came from which source. Especially in education, many people think that “fair use” covers any educational purpose, regardless of the amount of content or how much you share it. Most people couldn’t tell you the four factors for determining fair use. This Fair Use Evaluator helps walk you through all the factors and gives you a time stamped PDF to document your analysis.
Did I Plagiarize? is a great resource for explaining the types and severity of plagiarism. The same author also created a resource called Can I Use that Picture? which helps explain image copyright laws in the US. If your client says, “We don’t need a budget for images. Just go to Google Images; there’s lots of stuff there,” this might help explain why that isn’t a good plan.
Of course, educating people doesn’t help if they don’t care whether they plagiarize or not. Especially in higher education settings, where plagiarism can mean losing a job, I always tell SMEs at the start of a project that I’m sure it won’t be a problem but that I routinely check for plagiarism. I also explain that I expect everything to be cited, even if it’s paraphrased. Just setting the expectation helps reduce plagiarism.
- University of Minnesota Copyright Information (Can I Use This? What Do I Own?)
- Educator’s Guide to Copyright and Fair Use
- A Fair(y) Use Tale: Video using clips from Disney videos explaining fair use
- The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education
- Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video
- You Call This Academic Honesty? Blog post sharing a fairly typical example of plagiarism by a professor admonishing his students against plagiarizing)
Your Horror Stories
What about you? Do you have a great story about copied and pasted content finding its way into an online course, either as part of course development or as a student submission? What are your horror stories?