Saturday, August 25, 2012

Coursera Fantasy & Science Fiction Course and Plagiarism: Part Two

You can find Part One here.

Once again, I wish to direct you to a post by Laura Gibbs in which she addresses plagiarism because her voice, in conjunction with my own, gives a more thorough exploration.

Plagiarism is such a rarity that I doubt most people face in academia; yet, to say it never happens is naïve.  The issue came up early in the coursera forums and, after the course had already begun and people read the first round of essays, Dr. Rabkin issued the statement I shared in a previous post.  I am copying the paragraph towards the end to specifically address the relative uselessness of the statement as a whole. 
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.
Dr. Rabkin’s statement does not clearly define what plagiarism is.  Rather, there are disconnected sentences that say it is fraud and then compares it with other forms of fraud.  However, on the website he offers to his University of Michigan students who are sitting in his classroom, he copies a definition directly from the LSA Bulletin and another from Random House Dictionary

No matter how many ways I look at this, I can find no justification for the disparity.  If anything, there is a stronger argument for his giving coursera students more specific criterion.  After all, he knows that the students in his classroom have taken the core classes along with the prerequisite classes before being allowed to take the upper level undergraduate courses.  If they need a specific and clear statement in his syllabus, why do the coursera students receive none?  Furthermore, these same students are provided a handbook and, beginning on page 35 there is a discussion of Plagiarism that is very thorough.  We have nothing that comes even close to the content that can be found on pages 35-36 which leads to confusion, violations, and accusations.

Let us return to the summary paragraph.
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.
As I mentioned in the previous post, he’s mentioned citing works but he has not established how (MLA, APA, Chicago), let alone offered us examples of how, it should be done.  Yet, once again, he offers his physical students more information than his coursera students.  This is especially problematic because some of the registered students are from other countries where academic writing expectations are different from those of a course taught in an American university.  In Middle Eastern, East Asian, and Asian universities, students are expected to quote liberally from the expertise of others—their teachers, their mentors, published books, articles, etc.  (You can read more about this here.)  Assuming Dr. Rabkin is ignorant of this cultural difference, it would nonetheless have been avoided had he deigned to be as thorough with the coursera students as he is with his physical students.  He has not done this in his official statement and the issue continues even into week 4 of the course. 
Together, with care and mutual respect, we can make our community an ever more nurturing place. 
Such disappointment as I read this final statement because I know that for every example of “care and mutual respect” there is at least one of some anonymous peer-review or forum post that shows that there are too many students who do not care and have no respect, mutual or otherwise.  But this is something I’ll address in another post. 

Belated or not, had this statement been adequate, the issue of plagiarism would not continue to be mentioned in the forums.  Every Tuesday, shortly after we receive the essays we are to review, students begin posting about plagiarism.  Further confirming the inadequacy of the statement is the introduction of an Honor Code checkbox this past week (Unit 4:  Frankenstein).  The statement beside this box 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.
Surely this would end, once and for all, any confusion or issues right?


This week, I had the dubious honor of receiving the following essay which I have slightly edited by replacing ever word of the essay writer’s original work with a string of x’s.  Every word that is not replaced is copied, directly from a single resource, including the final two paragraphs which are copied in toto verbatim.
Xxxxxxxxxxx xx x xxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxxx xx xxxxxx xxx. 
Victor, a scientist, in his quest for knowledge, goes beyond the accepted human limits and seeks access the secret of life. This is how he create a monster, assembled from old body parts and strange chemicals, animated by a mysterious spark. 
The knowledge that Victor used to create the monster (see “Dangerous Knowledge”) xxxxxxxxxx xxx xxx xxxx xxxx xx xxxxx xxxxxxxx, xxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx,  that's the reason why Victor himself is a kind of monster,with his ambition, secrecy, and selfishness. 
The monster is eight feet tall and hideously ugly, the monster is rejected by society. However, his monstrosity results not only from his grotesque appearance but also from the unnatural manner of his creation. He is a product not of collaborative scientific effort but of dark, supernatural workings.   Xxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx…xx xxxxxx xxx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx, xx xxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxx Xxx xxx xx xxxxxx xxxx. Xxxxx xxx Xxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxx xx xxx xxx xxxxxxxxx xx xxxxxxx Xxx. In Frankenstein, light symbolizes knowledge, discovery, and enlightenment. The natural world is a place of dark secrets, hidden passages, and unknown mechanisms; the goal of the scientist is then to reach light. The dangerous and more powerful cousin of light is fire. The monster’s first experience with a still-smoldering flame reveals the dual nature of fire: he discovers excitedly that it creates light in the darkness of the night, but also that it harms him when he touches it. 
The presence of fire in the text also brings to mind the full title of Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. The Greek god Prometheus gave the knowledge of fire to humanity and was then severely punished for it. Victor, attempting to become a modern Prometheus, is certainly punished, but unlike fire, his “gift” to humanity—knowledge of the secret of life—remains a secret.

It would take a fool not to realize that this essay is plagiarized.  Or would it?  The essay writer, in the citation field inserted the following:  sparknotes.   Specifically, this page although they only cite the home page.

Overlook for a moment the fact that this student didn’t even cite properly, regardless if he/she chose to use MLA or any of the other styles the professor couldn’t be bothered to specify, it is apparent that this student is either blatantly plagiarizing or, and I am inclined to give this student the benefit of the doubt, there is no understanding of what it means to plagiarize

If you were to reread the statement the professor did give, you can’t help but recognize that it cannot suffice in the face of ignorance, whether it is cultural or not.  Had it been enough, how would I have received this, essay weeks after the official statement was pinned in the forums?

But why does any of this matter?  There are no college credits offered for this course, after all.  Should it matter at all?   Yes, it matters and here is why:

There are those within academia that do not want to see MOOCs succeed and coursera, among others, is being watched.  Forbes recently had an article specifically focusing on the problem of plagiarism in this course.  There have been other articles about the plagiarism issue in coursera appearing in Huffington Post, Slate, and The Chronicle of Higher Education

But again, these courses are not worth much more than the time a student devotes to the particular readings and the writing requirements—including writing the essay and the peer-reviews.  Sure, the course purports to be just like a college level course.  Where is the proof?

Perhaps it lies in here, in a different statement about the course’s workload, where Dr. Rabkin explains, “if you were a student in my fantasy or my science fiction course at the University of Michigan, you would be asked to read the same quantity of material as you are asked to do here” (link).  And yet, he cannot or will not provide his coursera students the same criteria as he does the others which leaves ample room for students to misunderstand or, worse, outright thwart the system altogether.  Without a clear explanation of how to cite let alone a very clear definition of what plagiarism is (and can it get any clearer than what is in the handbook that each of his upper level undergraduate students receive?), why is anyone surprised that this is happening?

What is the solution?  What can coursera do to ensure that the next iteration of this course, or any other course that will require the submission of essays, does not have the same problems with plagiarism?

First, as I’ve recommended before, a prerequisite course that teaches students how to write an essay about literature should be offered before this class is offered again.   If University of Michigan students work their way through several prerequisite courses, is it unreasonable to at least make one a requirement for what is supposed to be an upper level undergraduate English literature course?  By not offering one, coursera is throwing a lot of the students into deep water without a life preserver.

Second, criteria for both how to cite resources and clearly explaining plagiarism should be provided to all coursera students who register for this course.  Samples of essays, as well as reviews, would further allow for a clearer understanding of the expectations for both.  Without specific criteria and without examples, the coursera students are being tossed around, not knowing what anyone expects and some of the students are more than willing to shove one another down rather than help.

Third, students who receive an essay which is plagiarized should have a means to report the essay and not be required to review the essay.  Rather, the essay should be turned over for assessment.  If the essay is indeed plagiarized, the offending student would contacted and warned that another violation would result in immediate expulsion; included with this would be a copy of the criterion that explains what plagiarism is.  However, should the essay be proved to be free from plagiarism, the student who made the false report would be warned that if they make another false accusation, they will no longer be allowed to submit essays and will be allowed to audit the class and nothing more.

Fourth, in order to report an essay as being plagiarized, the student must provide specific quotes, including links to the resources.  Plagiarism software (i.e. plagtrack and others) is notorious for pulling up erroneous links as evidence and the student reporting the plagiarism would be required to research each link, to verify that it is not merely finding properly cited quotes from the supposedly plagiarized essay.  (FYI, for those who think that a person could simply plagiarize a book, although googlebooks may not offer full texts for every book out there, more often than not, if you have a quote from a text, it will access the one or two sentences while blocking access to more than what immediately precedes and follows your search results.  But I digress.)

The work required to prove plagiarism would limit the number of false accusations and the threat of losing the certification (for whatever that is worth, really) should a second false accusation be made would further reduce the risk of false claims of plagiarism.  

Because Dr. Rabkin and coursera have not seen fit to provide a criteria equal to what is provided to the students at the University of Michigan, they cannot suggest that this course is the same even if they defend the course's workload under that measurement.  Nor can they begrudge those who point to this course in particular as evidence for how MOOCs are failing their students, the academic community, and the entire vision of free educational resources in general. 

I hope that these problems will be resolved before the end of the course.  If they are not, I hope they will not be repeated should this course be offered again.  Should neither of these hopes be fulfilled, then I can only hope that those websites out there trying to build a better humanities course will pay heed and not repeat the mistakes being made in this otherwise enjoyable and informative course.  The future of MOOCs may depend on it.


  1. I have never taught at the undergraduate level nor have I taught online, so I have little understanding of the complexity of the issue as you face it.

    As a published poet and a published scientist, I have no questions about what defines plagiarism and have no difficulty in identifying it when I see it. I would also add that if I had a student that used sparknotes as a reference I would seriously question that students right to sit in my classroom.

    1. I think this is what makes the experience interesting, especially as seen through Laura's eyes. My perspective is solely rooted in my experience as an undergraduate student but my degree in secondary education does give me some insight (I think). Because she teaches an undergraduate course online, it is especially useful to hear her perspective on how things could work.

      The plagiarism issue is bothersome because it is being targeted. There are enough other weaknesses and problems that are more endemic within the course as it is currently set up but plagiarism is, as you say, identifiable and perhaps even quantifiable. When I write about the forums and how anonymity allows certain abuses to occur, that is not as easily defined nor tracked so plagiarism gets attention and hostile or even homophobic language is ignored.