Like many instructors, I’ve always included a plagiarism policy on my syllabus. For years, this was my approach to plagiarism prevention. When plagiarism detection software such as SafeAssign came along, I began to incorporate it into my assignments and often shared reports with students as a way to increase their awareness of plagiarism and hopefully further prevent it. However, not long after I began using this tool, an incident occurred that helped me realize this approach was lacking. A student submitted a 15-page final research paper, which SafeAssign identified as over 85% plagiarized. I had never experienced this extreme case of plagiarism. I was livid. After a review of the students’ plagiarism report, it was clear to me that large portions of text were copied from other sources and throughout the paper she had simply gone in and replaced individual words or portions of sentences.
I immediately called the student in for an individual meeting to discuss the paper. Together we looked at the report and I asked, “do you have any explanation for this?” The student did not. I continued to probe her, but it wasn’t until I used the term “plagiarism” that she exclaimed, “I was paraphrasing—that’s okay to do!” After we talked some more, I came to realize that this was her understanding of paraphrasing. She had always been told that paraphrasing was putting someone else’s ideas into her own words and that’s what she thought she had done. At that moment, I realized that I had had been shortsighted. While I had spent almost an entire class session reviewing MLA guidelines for in-text citations, references, and format, I had never explained the differences between paraphrasing, quoting, and plagiarism or provided examples of each. At that point, I helped the student rework a few sentences in her paper. Then, I asked her to rewrite the rest of it on her own and submit it back to me the following week.