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Internet Research - The Copy And Paste Dilemma
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What goes around, comes around!

It's funny to think that so much is made of the problems of plagiarism these days. The simplicity of copy or cut and paste from a website to an assessment task blinds us to the fact that plagiarism has been occurring for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It just takes less time these days.

Don't get me wrong here. I don't condone anyone passing off someone else's work as their own. However simply telling our students not to do it isn't enough. It's like telling a smoker to stop smoking. No internal motivation means no real chance of change. There has to be a reason. Failing that, there have to be a lot of support structures in place to encourage the desired behaviour and discourage the undesirable.

There is another important adage at work here too. If you want to effect lasting change, get them early.

One simple way of providing support for your research projects is in the way you set them out. Giving students a closed question on a particular topic begs for problems.

'Find out about the contribution of Alexander Fleming to our understanding of antibiotics' is simply asking for a cut and paste job. You'll get the answers you are after, but there will be minimal student engagement with the material. Why would they want to? Type Alexander Fleming into google, click, highlight, copy, paste and hey presto, job done.

Change that to a more open question: 'evaluate the contributions of Alexander Fleming and Howard Florey to our understanding of antibiotics' is not only higher level (Bloom's-wise) it's not as easy to do the cut and paste (unless someone else has set the same question somewhere else AND asked their students to post the answer on the wiki or unsecured school website.

Perhaps we are getting a little too paranoid here. Anyway, I did say get them early and even though the second question above provides a nice opportunity for differentiation, it probably isn't appropriate for your budding scientists. This brings me to the tabular approach to research.

My two biggest bugbears with research are avoiding plagiarism (which is teacher speak for make the students actually interact with the material) and acknowledging sources.'d have less of a problem with students passing notes or with Ali's work being copied if everyone who did it acknowledged him as the author. So to overcome this, start the research lessons off with well set out tables. One of my favourites for Year 7 students is the famous scientist one. I provide an electronic copy of the table they need to fill in. It includes the name of the scientist, birth and death, gender, nationality, scientific field of research and one quote (the allowable copy and paste) attributed to that scientist and a final column for the urls of the web pages they used for each scientist. It is very important to me that students begin early getting into the habit of acknowledging their sources directly on their work. They must complete 10 different scientists, and get 1 mark for every box which is completed. 70 in all, 12 of which they already get from one completed example and 5 additional scientists (provided they return the sheet, either by printing or email). They can choose their own final four and we make sure there are a few extra conditions, such as minimum of 2 locals (let's wave the national flag) and some attempt at gender equity and time proximity.

It is a simple assignment and the content is nowhere near as important as the technological process. Not this time. Later on, when the process is more secure, and we wean them slowly, we can head for the evaluative, analytical and creative tasks. Transitioning between interactive word docs and open ended puzzles with any number of solutions is a key part of the learning process. It would be great if students were comfortable enough in a range of software applications to look at a question and select the most appropriate tool to help them research, solve and present their work. This is definitely the goal towards which we are striving. But in the end, sometimes I'm just happy when they've done something by themselves.


Street Talk

Hmmm. It seems to me that many young people today grow up not understanding the nature of plagiarism. At the outset of my writing 'career' [which is in semi-quotes because this goes back to student days and unpaid work just to get some clips], an amateur press editor who published much of my early work suggested that authors who do get published in amateur press need to do Internet searches on their byline(s) every quarter year or so to make sure that their in-print material hasn't been posted wholesale to the Internet by someone with no rights to the material. Article spinners . . . especially those originating in places like India and China also often generate websites composed 100% of articles either spun from or even lifted wholesale from the better known content sites like Ehow. Writers who write for those sites sell all rights, so if anyone goes after the plagiarizers it is the company behind the site from which the matieral got plagiarized: but it happens on a regular basis. A friend of mine, who happens to also be the same editor, has worked in several universities as adjunct faculty over the years and confirms that her experience both as an editor and as a faculty member involve that people just have no awareness that there are legalities to copying material that someone else owns the right to. They have no concept whatsoever of Intellectual Property law. I've never found my own in-print, amateur material on the Internet, but then that editor does that every few months check herself and contacts plagiarizers informing them they must take down the material. I HAVE found paid material on the Internet that, technically, I only offered First North American serial rights to on the 'Net, but in that case I didn't mind. [Interestingly, it was from a religious wire service that should know better, but I'm not sure the Internet posting didn't come about from someone not associated with the wire service.] Others who have a professorial background have said the same thing: those who grew up in the Internet age simply don't even undrestand the concept, often, of published material belonging to rightsholders.

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  about 6 years ago
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