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Plagiarism souvenirs

Patchwriting rearranges words and phrases, substitutes synonyms, or deletes a word from the sentence.

Most teachers will tell you that when assigned a research paper, students enter a few keywords into a Google search, download some relevant webpages, cut and paste passages into a new document, add a few transitions, and turn it in.  Starting at an early age, they master information retrieval, not knowledge formation, because the material passes from the website to the plagiarized paper without it finding residence in the student’s mind.

With increasing use of online resources for research, students will continue to find it easy to answer to a question, but not to understand, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information for the depth of learning needed to write a research paper.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project’s recent report, “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World” reveals that students use the following sources to research a topic in order of frequency:

1.    Google or other online search engines (94 percent)
2.    Wikipedia or other online encyclopedia (75 percent)
3.    YouTube or other social media sites (52 percent)
4.    Their peers (42 percent)
5.    SparkNotes, CliffNotes, or other study guides (41 percent)
6.    New sites or major news organizations (25 percent)
7.    Print or electronic textbooks (18 percent)
8.    Online databases such as EBSCO, JSTOR, or Grolier (17 percent)
9.    A research librarian at their school or public library (16 percent)
10.    Printed books other than textbooks (12 percent)
11.    Student-oriented search engines such as Sweet Search (10 percent)

While the first five sources may offer a broad overview of a topic, they are not conducive to academic research because they lack the rigor and depth of information to challenge students intellectually, as the last six sources could.  While Google offers Google Scholar search engine for scholarly sources, it is buried on Google’s home page.  Alongside Maps, YouTube, and Gmail at the bottom of <More’s> pull-down menu, <Even More> links to a page where Google Scholar appears toward the bottom below Google Shopping.  The Scholar and associated scholarly searches are interred six feet under, so to speak, in Google.

With a superficial understanding of the material researched from superficial sources, students don’t invest time and effort into searching for an in-depth understanding of their topic.  Instead they are satisfied copying unprocessed information into their paper from sites like Wikipedia or Cliff Notes.  Using those first five sources is like wearing a souvenir t-shirt rather than experiencing the real event.  Unfortunately, too many student papers provide plagiarized souvenirs from the first five sources and not enough learned material they understand.

A recent policy statement, “Using Evidence in Writing,” by the National Council of Teachers of English, stated that students often plagiarize for reasons other than dishonesty.  They lack a background in the topic they are researching, the reading comprehension skills for complex texts, the confidence to communicate in their own voice, and the ability to integrate researched information into their papers.

Plagiarism has received its share of attention, but another indication that information is retrieved without knowledge formation is patchwriting, the attempt at paraphrasing that rearranges words and phrases, substitutes synonyms for original words, or deletes a word from the sentence.  A paraphrase that is patchwriting is not the student’s own words, syntax, and voice, nor does it give evidence of the student’s understanding the text well enough to explain it.

These issues beg an educational, and not merely a technology, solution.  Teachers and librarians need to model researching by directing students to scholarly sources written by noted specialists in their field.  Often these are found in books vetted by responsible, academic publishers who print significant and credible works by recognized experts, and in vetted journal articles accessed from subscription databases like EBSCO or JSTOR.

A Google search for <narrator of Great Gatsby> will yield a list of online articles—the first links to SparkNotes, most are unsigned and lack depth, and some are websites that sell research papers on that topic.  Not available from a simple Google search, Wikipedia article, YouTube, Facebook, or Cliff Notes are critical essays such as those found in Prentice Hall’s 1968 Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Great Gatsby: A Collection of Critical Essays, which includes analytical essays like “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America,” “The Theme and Narrator of The Great Gatsby,” and others by recognized critics like Ernest Lockridge, Maxwell Perkins, Edith Wharton, Lionel Trilling, and Fitzgerald’s daughter.

The research paper is not just an assignment, but a commitment to continual dialog between teachers and students about their research, with teachers exploring their students’ understanding, interpretation, and synthesis of their reading, discussing their choice of sources and note taking strategies, and evaluating their work throughout the process.  This dialog must include frequent modeling of paraphrasing and summary skills in contrast to patchwriting. Students perform best when learning is valued, not just grades.

Digital technologies and electronic sources have provided another learning medium, not a substitute for the print world where material from generations of scholars resides.  Students need to be multi-textual—able to find and read critical and credible information from all media and be able to explain what they have learned in documented research papers.

This is the Digital Age of information retrieval; it needs to become knowledge formation.  This can only happen when education becomes an invitation to the 5,000-year conversation between the learned and those who want to learn—a collaborative endeavor between experts, teachers, and students.  We want students to be engaged, deep learners, not just to wear the t-shirt.

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