Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Coursera Fantasy & Science Fiction Course and Plagiarism: Part One

This week I received an essay for the peer-review which was plagiarized.  This week coursera also introduced a small check box at the top of the page where we submit our essay.

Before submitting the essay you check the box which basically says:  In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.

I honestly wanted to write a post praising the course and had begun one.  Then this plagiarism issue came up and up, and up, like bile.  In order to approach this properly, I need to establish a foundation for a few things.  Therefore, this post is long because it will be referred to in the next post I write which will address things more subjectively and closely.  I ask that, if you are curious to read more about the issue with plagiarism in coursera, you begin here so that, when I post more of my own thoughts, you will better understand some of the things I say and why I say them.  You do not have to memorize every jot and tittle but should have a context for the argument(s) to come because there is one (or more) coming and it may take me as many words as I share in here to say all I feel needs to be said then and there.

Thank you.  Now read on, Macduff.

Here is what Dr. Rabkin's website for the University of Michigan has regarding plagiarism (and I have used a strike through to indicate what coursera cannot do because you obviously can't be expelled from a free online course):
PLAGIARISM: I endorse the standard definitions of plagiarism: "submitting a piece of work (for example an essay, research paper, assignment, laboratory report) which in part or in whole is not entirely the student's own work without attributing those same portions to their correct source" (LSA Bulletin, 1993-1994, p. 44); "the appropriation or imitation of the language, ideas, and thoughts of another author, and representation of them as one's original work" (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged edition, 1966). With the exception of knowledge which is demonstrably common (for example, 2 + 2 = 4) or whose source is demonstrably well known (for example, "To be or not to be"), material submitted without citation is normally presumed to have originated with the submitter. Therefore, work or parts of a work submitted without citation will be construed as having been submitted as originating with the submitter. If it appears that uncited work did not originate with the submitter, the work will be turned over to the appropriate College authorities for their determination as to whether or not plagiarism has occurred. LSA exacts diverse penalties for plagiarism, up to and including permanent expulsion from the University. Plagiarism, then, is a deeply serious matter. It strikes at the core values of an institution designed to promote individual achievement in large part through the free and honest exchange of ideas among us all. I welcome all efforts you may make to learn. It is quite normal, for example, to talk with colleagues about one's ideas and to consult such secondary sources as language dictionaries, symbol dictionaries, bibliographies, biographies, concordances, and so on. It is less usual among undergraduates to consult secondary sources such as critical articles, but such consultation is certainly legitimate. However, remember that the aims of the writing assignments are (a) to prepare you for class; (b) to make you a better reader; (c) to make you a better writer; and (d) to make your own contribution to the education of the intelligent senior in the class. In order to achieve those aims, you must do original work.  (link)
This was copied from his syllabus which, at the bottom, links to websites that explain MLA formatting.  In the same syllabus, there is a link for "Essay Formats and Notes" which goes into some detail about the course expectations.  Here is just a small paragraph from the entire text:
In all cases of citation, if it can be done elegantly, it is best to make your citations interlinear and, ideally, make the source of the citation known in your text (e.g., "As Rubble says, 'feh feh' (x)."). If you cannot make the source known in your text itself, add it to the parenthetical reference (e.g., "blah blah blah (Rubble x) blah"). If you have two works by the same author, whether footnoted or not, and you cannot elegantly distinguish them in your own text, do so by a short form of the title in your parentheses (e.g., "Hawthorne blah blah flower imagery blah 'feh' ("Rappaccini" x) and also 'feh feh' ("Heidegger" x)" referring to two stories by Hawthorne, "Rappaccin's Daughter" and "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment"). If you need to provide the author and the title parenthetically, do so (e.g., "blah blah the passion for science 'feh feh' (Hawthorne, "Artist" x) and blah blah (Poe, "Valdemar" x)."). Words used in your main text (e.g., "As Rubble says") are to be counted as words in the word count you put in your header; words used in parenthetical citations, including the name of an author and the short form of a title, are not to be counted as words in the word count you put in your header.  (link)
Later, in this same page, he states that he is using MLA and, as I've mentioned before, he does provide his students with links to resources to help with MLA formatting.

And now, here is what the coursera syllabus says about how to cite works:

Nothing--Not Even a Link

In fact, this is the entire content of what we, the students, are told about writing an essay.  Notice, not one word about citations:
The Essays Your essays should aim to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course. Each essay should be between 270 and 320 words. Attentive readers notice more than casual readers do, although casual readers may be responding unconsciously to many of the matters that attentive readers notice consciously. This difference in reading awareness arises in part from the fact that attention is limited. If I am attentive to the use of triples in fairy tales (three brothers on a quest, three questions testing the hero, and so on), then I might find that I’m not consciously attentive to other aspects of the narrative (the comparative intrinsic worth or worthlessness of the object of the quest, the rhetorical construction of a testing question, and so on). Because attention is limited, to understand works more deeply we need to slow down and take note of aspects of the reading that we find significant. Then, using those notes and reviewing the work, we can come to a hypothesis about what that significance might be. For example, if one notices that fairy godmothers occur only for child protagonists whose biological mother is dead, one might hypothesize that, at least psychologically, the fairy godmother takes the role of a mother and the fairy godmother’s entrance in a story is a promise of the love and protection that the protagonist has had taken away. The fairy godmother, then, is not so much a figure of magic as her magic is a metaphor for the continuing power of motherhood. Writing these essays and reading and commenting on the essays of your fellow students should make you much better prepared to learn from, and even question, the unit clips. Therefore, these essays should be submitted before viewing any of the unit clips other than the introduction.  (link)
There is also a video "How to Write an Essay for This Course" which pretty much reiterates the above paragraph and, needless to say, does not address how to quote or cite work at all.  (I also have a feeling that, in order to access this content, you have to be registered for the course so I apologize if these coursera links do not work.  You'll just have to take my word for it, I guess.  Oh, wait. I cited my copying by linking to the original.  Never mind.)

Here is a statement that was released on 14 August from the professor.  Compare what follows with the above and remember that this course began 23 July:
Dear Folks, 
There has been some discussion about plagiarism on our forums. I would like to offer a few comments on that subject. 
First, plagiarism, both legally and morally, is a variety of fraud. Claiming falsely to be the long-lost child of a recently deceased person in order to claim some of the estate is fraud; claiming falsely to be the originator of an idea in order to claim some credit for successful creation is fraud. In a course--or any intellectual community--misrepresentation of originality is unacceptable. It strikes at the heart of mutual trust, a condition one must have in order to support the deepest, freest discourse. For this reason Coursera has an honor code and I endorse it: 
Coursera Honor Code
In order to ensure fairness, all students participating in any of our online classes must agree to abide by the following code of conduct:
  • I will register for only one account.
  • My answers to homework, quizzes and exams will be my own work (except for assignments that explicitly permit collaboration).
  • I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes or exams available to anyone else. This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any official solutions provided by the course staff.
  • I will not engage in any other activities that will dishonestly improve my results or dishonestly improve/hurt the results of others. 
Second, precisely because plagiarism is so fundamental an attack on an intellectual community, an accusation of plagiarism is a deeply serious act and should be made only with concrete evidence behind it. An unjustified attack can be as damaging to the context of our conversation as can be the act of plagiarism itself. Both plagiarism and a careless accusation of plagiarism suggest a disrespect that we should all consider beneath us. 
Third, plagiarism is hard to demonstrate for two reasons. (A) Most people don't cite sources for common knowledge. No one will think a writer is taking credit for coining the phrase, "Honesty is the best policy" or the observation that Lewis Carroll enjoys creating linguistic paradoxes. The first is known to all educated native speakers of English (and we are reading and writing in English, so no one should expect a citation for that proverb) and the second should be obvious to the intelligent and attentive fellow participant in this course (and that person is our theoretical audience so, again, no citation is necessary). However, precisely because common knowledge is common and expectable in our readers, merely reporting common knowledge doesn't enrich our reading. Therefore, an essay full only of common knowledge doesn't fulfill our task. At least in Content, it would earn a 1. An enriching essay needs to offer us more. 
(B) Good ideas often occur to more than one person at a time. Wallace and Darwin independently and nearly simultaneously articulated and promulgated the theory of evolution now known as Darwinism. Leibniz and Newton independently and nearly simultaneously articulated and promulgated what is now known as differential calculus. In reading Dracula, many people will notice that class structure or competitive sexuality are important. Merely noticing that does not constitute enrichment of others; however, noticing that, exploring that, and reaching conclusions about that does not inherently constitute plagiarism. 
On the other hand, if you search the web for ideas about Dracula and find, say, a discussion of class in that novel and then present that as if it were your own, that is fraud; that is plagiarism; that is a violation of the Honor Code and, to my mind, more importantly, that is a violation of our mutual trust. 
Why do it? Why lift someone else's idea and claim it as your own? 
If you have no idea of your own and feel you need one, you might be tempted into this fraud. Don't do it. We all need to improve our ability to develop ideas; appropriating other people's ideas kills that opportunity for practice, growth, and pointed response. Ah, one might say, but I haven't time and I need the grade. Well, if you haven't time, just skip the essay. There's no requirement that each be submitted and in fact the course is structured so that you can miss one or two and still get an outstanding grade. But, one might say, I need even this essay to get that good grade. Do you really? This isn't a credit-bearing course. What will you do with a good grade other than know you've received it? Would anyone want to believe that they had received a grade by fraud rather than by accomplishment? Aren't we all here to enjoy the literature and grow together? 
If you search the web and read an article that sticks with you and you inadvertently appropriate a brief phrase in your own essay, that is plagiarism. I know that one might feel wrongly accused in this case. After all, the error was accidental, not intentional. Well, folks, unfortunately, from the viewpoint of the community, that distinction is irrelevant. We have no way of knowing the motivations behind using a phrase encountered elsewhere. What we do know is that every disciplined scholar keeps track of their sources. If you are accused, with evidence, of plagiarism and feel your error was inadvertent, you should accept the unsatisfactory grade and apologize (at least in your own mind) not for plagiarism (there is no fraud by accident) but for intellectual carelessness. Learn to be more careful, maybe even in one's mind thank your accuser for catching your inadvertent mistake, and then go on in the course, looking forward to the next assignment, which you will address as a more careful scholar. 
And if the plagiarism is demonstrable? If someone obviously lifts a whole paragraph, say, from another source and gives no credit, what then? Then that person should be confronted with the evidence and that person ought to consider publicly apologizing and even withdrawing from the course. If one is unwilling to support an intellectual community of mutual respect, one ought not to participate in it. If such a person cares to read the books and listen to the tapes, fine; but a plagiarist is not truly a part of our community and should not masquerade as such, asking us to read an essay as if it were truly original and asking us to respond to an essay as if the writer truly sought genuine dialog and coaching. We all deserve better than to be subjected to fraud. We owe each other honesty and, I am happy to say, that seems to be, in the enormous majority of our interactions, just what we give. 
Anyway, why would one lift whole phrases, sentences, paragraphs without citation? Citation adds to your scholarly authority; it does not diminish it. True, if you say nothing more than what you have found in the work of others, you have not enriched our understanding. However, if you use the work of others to build an argument of your own, you have not only offered us the products of your thinking but of your scholarship. No one ever disparages a well wrought argument that employs among its resources ideas and facts gathered from others. 
Let me summarize. In our community, one should never commit the intellectual fraud of plagiarism, nor should one accuse someone of plagiarism simply on the basis of what might be accidental parallel efforts. However, when one does use sources other than one's own critical reading, one should cite anything that isn't common knowledge and build beyond what one has merely found. Together, with care and mutual respect, we can make our community an ever more nurturing place. 
I look forward to all of us continuing to grow together. 
Yours truly,
Eric Rabkin (link)

I really am looking forward to sharing some of the positives but I think that, because we are four weeks into the course and people are still getting poorly written essays and even receiving plagiarized work, impatience has hit and anger is causing some backlash, as evidenced by what's happening in the forum.  But all of that will wait for the next part of this look at how plagiarism is causing problems in this particular course.

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