The Plagiarism Question

Ah, yes, time to touch on another painful topic: plagiarism. Just as mentioning tenure produces a stream of bile and frustration over one end of a broken system, so does mentioning plagiarism.

Plagiarism is rampant, not just in higher education. In “Justice or Just Us? What to Do About Cheating” (collected in Guiding Students from Cheating and Plagiarism to Honesty and Integrity , which will be reviewed here), Jason M. Stephens indicates that roughly “two thirds of students cheat on tests and 90 percent cheat on homework” (2005, p. 33). If this many high school students cheat on their work in high school, how could anyone expect them to suddenly not cheat in college?

While swapping test answers and snapping cell phone photos of exams to share with friends are threats possible for all subjects and modes of assignments, plagiarizing papers offers particular threats, and particular threats to adjuncts. Plagiarism is also harder for adjuncts to prevent and deal with.

The threat of plagiarism is, I trust, fairly obvious. Many students don’t understand plagiarism well. They’re not particularly clear on why /how outside sources need to be cited, and how citing sources makes research legitimate when not citing it doesn’t. However, those challenges have skyrocketed since the advent of the Internet and the ease of copy and paste. In ye olden days, at least students might accidentally paraphrase an assignment when they retyped the encyclopedia entry. Now a control-A/ control-C/ control-V sequence means they’ve copied the whole document and pasted it into their papers.

If that weren’t enough, bloggers snip from or link to one another’s blogs all the time, building habits that could lead to plagiarism. Then there are sites like Best Essays, who help students convince themselves that buying “custom written” and submitting them as your own isn’t plagiarism. Hey, it can’t be: it’s right there at the top of the website. (And if you want to know who writes these papers, and how term papers play into a flawed system, I recommend Nick Mamatas’s “The Term Paper Artist.” )

But if plagiarism is so prevalent, it might not be as evident why or how it is more challenging for adjuncts. Start with prevention. One of the best ways to prevent plagiarism is to produce an academic culture which shares an ethos of honesty, and which applies consistent standards throughout the program. Let me state the obvious: this is much harder to do with adjuncts. Some of this comes from the essential nature of the employment. It is harder to integrate short term workers into institutional culture. Some of comes from current nature of adjunct employment. It is harder to take the time to even learn your institution’s culture if you’re racing from school to school. Let me try that again, more bluntly: you can’t be an integrated part of a culture if you’re a disposable part of four cultures.

Another best practice for preventing plagiarism is building an emotional connection with students. If they can see you care about them, and they care about you, they will want to disappoint you less. (For a time I attended a school where an older Catholic monk taught. He radiated love—and no one wanted to disappoint him.) Is this possible for adjuncts? Yes, but less so. Racing off to the next school, etc., means less time for students as people.

Other best practices for preventing plagiarism are changing assignments frequently, making them highly specific, and assigning papers to be graded in stages, so you can confirm that students are doing their own work. However, the more often you change assignments, and the more stages you assign, the less automated the grading process, and the more time and energy grading takes.

Turning to catching plagiarists, I’ve been doing an informal survey for years among adjunct faculty. Many do punish students for plagiarism, but a substantial number don’t. When I ask them why, the answers always come down to time and money. As one adjunct put it, “They don’t pay me enough to fill out all those forms.”

I’ve taught for schools where the institutional paperwork required to file a plagiarism charge took half an hour to complete per student. The week I had six plagiarists from that school my heart sank. That’s three hours of unpaid labor to uphold ethical standards…and risk low student evaluations for doing so. I’ve had other adjuncts tell me that if their teaching evaluations were too low, they wouldn’t be rehired…and that students who were caught plagiarizing always gave low teaching evaluations.

Adjuncts who are willing to spend the time to catch plagiarists might want to use one of the various paid anti-plagiarism services, like However, as Kenneth H. Ryesky argued in “Part Time Soldiers,” “The working conditions of adjunct faculty members impact their ability and inclination to join the battle against student plagiarism” because some schools will not fund adjunct use of such software. If you want to use it at those schools, you pay for your own access. Ryesky also notes that because the institutional processes dealing with plagiarism may take a long time, students may escape punishment because adjuncts are no longer at the school the following session to pursue the matter.

I could go on, but the conclusions are clear. If colleges want to prevent plagiarized papers and promote ethical behavior among student writers, they’d use fewer adjuncts and/or pay and treat them better.

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