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).
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.