Saturday, September 8, 2012

Final thoughts about plagiarism

I hope this will be my last post about plagiarism in the Coursera class (now that I have written my final essay, I feel such a sense of relief - since the worst possible score any essay, even a plagiarized one, can get is 1-1, I can be sure of not writing another essay). The reason I am posting here is to follow up on what Satia, who had not just one but two plagiarized essays in Week 6, said in her post: Coursera Plagiarism Deniers.

As you can guess even just from the title of Satia's post, there is now a strong movement in the discussion boards against anyone who thinks plagiarism is a problem. Their motivation is the related problem of unfair accusations of plagiarism (a very serious problem which I have also written about in previous posts), but instead of saying we need to put a stop to plagiarism AND to wrongful accusations of plagiarism, here is the public vow they are asking people to take: My Promise as a reviewer: I will NEVER accuse an essay author of plagiarism. It's a popular post, people are chiming in about how great this is, and the one dissenter has been put in his place (I'm guessing that most people, like me, have learned that these discussion boards are a very dangerous place for dissent; it's better just not to participate).

The post contains a list of reasons provided for why plagiarism should simply be taken off the table (my responses, if I dared post at the discussion board, are in parentheses):
  • plagiarists cheat only themselves (I would agree with that, except for the "only" part; they also steal my time as a reviewer, cheating me of time and cheating other students of my feedback)
  • plagiarism is extremely difficult to detect (well, some plagiarism is difficult to detect, but some is laughably easy)
  • a false accusation is more damaging than cheating (I'm not sure you can make such a comparison; the point should be instead that they are both bad and nothing but bad)
  • the anonymous submissions makes it completely impossible to prevent plagiarism (the author of the post contends in all seriousness that it is possible for students in course to be the people who wrote the essay for the paper mill, etc., to begin with - on the same logic that would have me invest my life savings in lottery tickets).
Interestingly, the one reason I would propose is not included on that list: if Coursera does not care that there is plagiarism, why should we?

It's quite clear that Coursera does not care about plagiarism in any meaningful way. They added an "honor code" checkbox which you are required to check in order to submit your essay, but plagiarism clearly is going on despite the checkbox (see Satia's post for her Week 6 plagiarized essays, and I had one also, one of those laughably easy to detect ones, documented here). So, did they add a checkbox in the grading form so that we could indicate that a possible violation of the honor code? No. Did they make it possible for us to give a zero to an essay, rather than the minimum score of 1-1? No. Are there any procedures in place for someone who violates the honor code? Presumably not; if so, we have not been told about them - and what kind of honor and justice is there in a system where we don't even know what will happen to us if we violate the honor code we have agreed to? In fact, it's a bit frightening to agree to an honor code (as we have been forced to do) when you do not know what the consequences will be if you violate the code. But that's what Coursera did - they added a box, and made us check it. That's all.

Did they do anything about really educating the students as to what plagiarism is? No. They apparently left it up to each professor to do that in his own way and the rambling, vague statement provided by our professor was clearly not effective, as the plagiarism still continues. I was tolerant of the plagiarism at first, because I figure everybody can make a mistake. There's a lot of mis-information about plagiarism, especially patchwork plagiarism, even among college students. So, when someone plagiarizes, they need specific, targeted instruction in plagiarism and how to avoid it. Yet in our class, there is no such intervention - because there is no process in place to identify the people who need this intervention. If someone plagiarized in Week 6, as I saw for myself, it seems to me entirely likely that they also plagiarized in some prior week(s). Does Coursera have anyone on staff who is prepared to take on the task of investigating this important matter? Apparently not.

Which leads me to conclude that, for Coursera, this is not important.

Now, I think there are far far far more serious problems with the course than plagiarism, simply because plagiarism is not as abusive as other kinds of behavior. Remember the peer reviewer whose feedback was "One. Two. Three. Four." etc. on up to "Thirty." to meet the 30-word requirement? Well, that person (or persons, who knows?) was still offering that same kind of feedback in Week 6 as in previous weeks (a distressed person reported this at the discussion boards). Because Coursera gives us no way to indicate abusive feedback (and I would call that a particularly cruel, and needlessly cruel, form of feedback), this sort of thing can go on week after week.

As on every Thursday, in fact, last week people were posting at the discussion forums about the mean-spirited things people had said in their feedback, a problem that can and should be fixed - along with the more intractable problem of vague and useless feedback, inaccurate feedback, totally contradictory feedback. Last week, I had the pleasure of writing an essay (here's the essay) that received a score of 2 from one reviewer (who frankly admitted that they had not understood anything I said) and a score of 6 from another (who found my writing "deep and insightful"). Result: I got an average score. I guess Coursera is satisfied that it does all average out.

My take on this is simple: get rid of all grading in the course and make the peer feedback optional. If people want to submit essays for review, great. If not, then don't. If people want to read other people's essays, great. If not, that's fine, too. Get rid of the attempt to grade and also get rid of the certificate of completion. If credit is going to be awarded for this class by any institution of higher learning, they are surely going to require people to present a portfolio of written work for evaluation, right? They are surely not going to take the so-called "grade" seriously. So I would suggest that the focus be ON THE PORTFOLIO, helping everyone create a portfolio (most people don't know how to use free web tools to do that), encouraging them to revise their best writing (we have no revision at all in this class! crazy!) and put their best writing in the portfolio - the portfolio itself constitutes a certificate of completion. That would be my modest proposal.

But then, I am a fan of portfolios.

Of plagiarism, I am not a fan.


  1. Laura, Believe it or not, I am building up to saying that portfolios are a better way to go. I am simply not progressing through my thoughts as quickly as I had hoped. (I can hear Rob teasing me in a loving tone, "Maybe if you didn't think so much. . . .")

    In a discussion I had on g+ with another student, I realized that the argument "plagiarists are only cheating themselves" is nonsense. Part of the course description includes the writing *and the reading* of essays that will enhance the student's experience in reading the text.

    So when someone submits a plagiarized essay, did they enhance my experience of the text? Not when it's a book review pulled from amazon or, in my recent experience, copied from an essay I had already read because it's freely available online.

    And yes, waste of my time except not so much now that I've just created a statement I can copy and paste that quotes Dr. Rabkin and the student handbook his students at U of Mich receive. You know, that one I'm still finding a source of frustration because I don't see why he couldn't be bothered being as specific for our course.

    Grrrrrr . . . .

  2. Laura, I agree with every word you say (I wish I could participate in your classes :) ). The "Courseralords" seem particularly lazy in this course. I believe it’s just a trial run (I hope so) – next classes should take everything said into consideration. E.g. in Introduction to Finance there is also not much of participation from the Coursera side but at least they are answering to the most pressing questions such as weather the quiz problems will be explained later or not.
    As for plagiarism – the system is wrong; it’s been set up in a wrong way. I’ve been writing essays myself for 5 weeks straight and got only lousy and offensive comments with no particular worth in it. As an ESL speaker (my phrases not always as polished as they can be) and having absolutely no background how to write a decent essay (we just didn’t have them in our curriculum) I consider it’s fair. But who is grading my work on the other side?? The same ESL speakers? Do they have any idea how to grade proper? I don’t… Which creates next challenge – how to provide useful feedback. I can spot some mistakes, I can see where the text is incoherent, but that’s all. I can’t judge for the grammar intricacies, style, sentence structures etc, I’m not an expert.
    Since it’s for free and we are here at a free will I believe that they have to change the rules. To enhance our understanding with some optional quizzes, not to destroy our self esteems :))

    1. Liubov, believe me: it's not something students learn in our schools either, which is why so many people are struggling. They are trying to take the formulaic "five-paragraph essay," which is the main formula people are taught, cramming that into the 320-word limit... without having been given a single example to look at in order to understand just what you can (and can't) expect to be able to do in so few words. So, even if for different reasons, I think pretty much everybody is struggling with the 320-word format.
      Anyway, I agree with you absolutely about self-esteem - a lot of people seem to assume (wrongly) that the main job of a reviewer is to find mistakes, to criticize, explaining the ways in which something failed to be excellent. Of course that leads to a lot of frustration for the writer when they read those comments. I think it would be so much better if we REVISED our essay every week, so that in their comments the reviewers could focus on ADVISE FOR REVISING - that would be more constructive and useful I think; instead, the focus is on the grading. I don't think it works well for anybody that way - people with 1s are frustrated, people with 2s are frustrated, and for the people who get 3s, it's an empty kind of feeling, since there is no effort to collect and share the best writing so that everybody can benefit from that. Very crazy-making!

  3. Laura, I have been enjoying your posts re the Coursera course and loved many of your ideas, especially the widget idea with the Alice illustrations. I have not been following the forums since the first few weeks because it didn't seem to be too useful to my appreciation of the great literature we were reading. Just to put the plagiarism backlash into perspective I want to tell you about what has happened to me. For over 30 years I have been documenting and writing books, articles, blogs, etc. about a particular niche in the art world -- corporate art collections. Not to be too egocentric, I probably know more about corporate art collections around the world, best practices, trends, developments, etc. than the majority of the people "out there" that write as authorities for magazines and newspapers. A few months ago, I thought I would submit a few articles to Ezine so that more people would know about my directory and to try to put some misinformation about the field to rest. Much to my horror -- my articles were rejected because, according to Ezine staff, they appeared to be information from other sources and they said they looked like they had been plagiarized. Aargh! I was the original source for all of the information and my own articles had been plagiarized and posted on people's web sites (generally corporate art consultants trying to give their sites authenticity) as if they were their own. Now that is really irritating when your own original writing is considered to be plagiarism simply because it has been paraphrased and appropriated extensively by others over the years! Shows what a weird world it has become!
    SR Howarth

    1. Oh, shame on Ezine for not have been more careful! My stuff online gets scraped all the time, and I'll come across it when I am searching for something - but those scraped sites are just so mindless and uninformative; you'd think the people at Ezine could tell the difference! I'm always urging my students that "the best defense is a strong offense" when it comes to online - by building up a strong online presence, making yourself identifiable, searchable, etc., you are more likely to be able to outrun the evil scrapers and such, automated though they may be! Yet by and large instead of encouraging students to develop a really strong online presence, universities do just the opposite, scaring them into trying to erase their tracks from the Internet - something that is hard to do, certainly not fun (while building up an online presence is a great, fun challenge), and in the long-run not the best strategy anyway, at least not in what I've experienced by conducting as much of my professional life online as possible!

  4. There is far more wrong in the course than the plagiarism that has garnered the bounty of attention. It is no wonder that some students plagiarize and others lob false accusations when it appears the majority of students are entirely unprepared to write the small requirement each week. I just read my share of the weeks offerings, and they ranged from teetering on inadequate to plainly awful. I care little if a student sites Wikipedia or uses a contraction or horrors of horrors is five words over the paltry limit. All those hot items on the discussion board are trivia. My kingdom for an essay where the writer realizes five paragraphs are probably at least two too many for 320 words.

    I've been fortunate enough not to have a plagiarized essay, but I have also seen less than a handful of decent to good essays. As with the plagiarism, there has been no attempt to guide the class. We have strident students on all sides of the issue of plagiarism as well as on all sides of the issue of writing a passable essay. The ease with which some declare arbitrary rules absolutes is a frightening exercise in group psychology and useless for a student struggling with the basic concept. Recently there was a strident debate that this minuscule essay was a literary review with all sorts of misinformation about primary and secondary sources. Those of us who understood the complexity knew that it was far more than banning Wikipedia stayed out of the fray; it wasn't worth the assault from the ever knowing.

    The struggle with plagiarism has fallen prey to the same cult of absolutists. Plagiarism is fraud as as is a false accusation, but pretending only one or the other occurs is no solution. Revising the course to make sense, and teaching people how to both write and evaluate an essay might be a start of a solution.

    1. Agreed! Given that "participation" in the course is measured by the writing of essays and providing feedback on those essays, I think it would be a GREAT idea to provide formal instruction for both of those activities... but I doubt it will happen in future iterations of the course (but if it did: great!) - mostly, though, I've learned better than to dare mention such a thing at the discussion boards, that's for sure! :-)

    2. I agree also! Feedback/expectations/communication (as you mention above) are making coursera class that have high level instructional content unnecessarily frustrating. I had 2 posts deleted, without any explanation, after thinking for a day and a half I figured that I'd violated copyright by printing too long a quotation. Grading: in my first course a fiasco that went on and on and on in the discussion board. Up and Down marking--I can't find which of my posts were down marked, and since they are allowed to do so without making a comment, I have no idea what the problem was. Downmark should be abolished--it's punitive, not instructional. Now I've had my name removed from the "reputations" list. I have no idea why. Where do I go to find out? I've tried "Technical Issues" but no response so far. And absolutely nowhere to go to express issues to the celestial beings who administer the program.

    3. Ohhhh, I am so sad to hear that the same dreadful stuff is going on two years later. But then, despite being a learning company, Coursera does not seem very good at learning how to do a better job! In large part because they don't really ever listen - not in a meaningful way - to what the course participants could tell them. You have my sympathies!



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