Discrediting the fine art of copy-paste
How teachers can help their learners to develop academic skills for their studies rather than adopt “copy-paste” practices
In a digital era when information is abundant, easily accessible, stored, reproduced and retrieved without effort, there is a thin line between breaching copyright rules – plagiarism in academic language- and synthesizing information to produce one’s own intellectual work.
Copying and pasting text indiscriminately is reaching epidemic levels and even respectable members of society are often found guilty of committing it. What exactly do we mean by plagiarism though?
Plagiarism (noun): the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person: the act of plagiarizing something
How is this relevant to English language classes and teaching young learners and teenagers?
I still remember the day when my 4th graders in primary school walked triumphantly into the classroom to share their projects with their classmates. It was the very first year that the school had introduced the 1:1 approach (1 tablet to 1 student) and the learners had just mastered –or so they claimed – the basics of powerpoint in order to present their projects digitally with the aid of a data projector. Classmates and teacher, we all waited impatiently to see the first outcome.
Impressive graphics and slide transitions captured our attention until the slides with text appeared. Long texts infested with scientific terms, completely incomprehensible to the class and even to the presenters who attempted to read them aloud to a bunch of students bored to tears as there was nothing they could relate to. It is easy to predict the chaos that followed with disillusioned presenters and an audience that felt the presenter had wasted their time by just copying and pasting text instead of sharing knowledge with them.
Can I be proactive?
The earlier a teacher starts raising awareness in class, the better it is. There are two directions: Firstly, showing the learners how to do some basic research and paraphrasing and secondly, campaigning against copy-paste practices.
Show them the path
Before assigning a project, spend time in class to show them the steps they should follow to collect information and synthesize what they have found in a coherent and concise presentation that is suitable for their target audience.
Here is what I tried with a CEFR A1 level class who had to create a fact file for their favourite wild animal:
1. We browsed in class Wikipedia (you can try any other reference site you consider safe and reliable) and chose a wild animal, a lion.
2. They skimmed the text and then asked them what they can understand from the text. The answer was “nothing” or “next to nothing”. Then I elicited “If you copy and paste the text like that (show them the text displayed on Wikipedia) , will anybody in class understand you?” The answer was obvious and the learners realized they had to work in a different way.
3. I elicited key words for the data they need such as food, how long they live, length, weight, place they live, and give them the formal equivalents used in the text. For example, habitat, diet, predators etc. For other projects, you can ask them to create a brief outline with key words that will enable them to find relevant information.
4. I asked them to scan the text and find relevant information for each category i.e. habitat, food.
5. I elicited the relevant information from the class and clarified that not all the text should be stored. Only the data necessary for their project. Ask them to save the information they have found in a M.S. Word file or any other similar word processor they use.
6. I also asked them to write down the source.
7. Students worked in pairs to select the information they need for the presentation and created the slides.
8. Then they checked their presentation for any words they classmates may not know. I urged them to use only a few new words and explain them to their audience during their presentation.
9. I encouraged them to use short sentences with key words or figures on their slides.
10. I asked them to present in class and I invited the audience to give the presenters feedback and in particular how original they thought the presentation is.
11. Finally, I praised the presenters if they mentioned the source and used language suitable for the level of the audience.
Tips and hints
ü Don’t preach against plagiarism. They will only be tempted to try it.
ü Focus on the main weakness of copy-paste is that it is often irrelevant or too wordy. Students fear their peers’ rejection so they will be open to suggestions on how to improve their presentations.
ü “Sign” a contract with students, set clear guidelines on how to use technology and elicit copy-paste is simply unacceptable.
ü Encourage students to mention sources and praise them in class when they do so.
ü Give bonus points to work that mentions sources and penalty points to material which is clearly copied and pasted.
For a generation brought up with social media and computer games, the visual element tends to be the priority when it comes to presentation. To them it is only natural to focus on eye-catching images, animation or videos and in most cases, it is only the teacher who can guide them on how to find data, select material and synthesize it to address a specific audience. You need to help them shift from the “surface” to the content of the project or presentation. If the project is marked give two marks: one for the presentation and a separate one for content.
For older students who hand in projects there is a large number of free software tools that can help you detect plagiarism and raise awareness. The following article can give you a pretty good idea of some free tools that can detect plagiarism:
Why deal with it?
“Plagiarism annuls any benefits reaped from webquests and the wealth of resources available on the internet since students are highly unlikely to learn anything from the work they have copied. It also breaches the ethics of the academic community that gives credit to the work of colleagues. Therefore, the damage caused by this practice is multiple. It comes as no surprise that when students have to use sources and provide references at a university course are often at a loss. “ (ELT News, 2015)
Some closing thoughts
Some of you may be wondering why you should allocate some precious class time into it. By devoting part of a lesson or a whole lesson to prevent plagiarism and encourage analysis and synthesis, you are not wasting precious time – as some teachers may claim – but you are laying the foundation stone for autonomous learners who use their critical and creative thinking skills.
Primalis, D. Discrediting the fine art of c(l)opy-paste, ELT News, August 2015