Effective early anti-plagiarism interventions for (mostly international) Masters students

My department at Rutgers, like many engineering departments across the country, has a somewhat sizable Master’s program, mostly because it “makes money” for the department [1]. The vast majority of the students in the program are international students, many of whom have English as a second or third language, and whose undergraduate instruction was not necessarily in English. As a consequence, they face considerable challenges in writing in general, and academic writing in particular. Faced with the prospect of writing an introduction to a project report and wanting to sound impressive or sophisticated, many seem tempted into copying sentences or even paragraphs from references without citation. This is, of course, plagiarism, and what distresses me and many colleagues is that the students often don’t understand what they did wrong or how to write appropriately in an academic setting. Is this because most non-American universities don’t teach about referencing, citation, and plagiarism? I hesitate to lay the blame elsewhere — it’s hard (initially) to write formally in a foreign language. However, the students I have met say things like “oh, I thought you didn’t need to reference tutorials,” so there is definitely an element of ill-preparedness. Adding to this of course is that students are stressed, find it expedient, and hope that nobody will notice.

Most undergrad programs in the US have some sort of composition requirement, and at least at my high school, we learned basic MLA citation rules as part of English senior year. However, without assuming this background/pre-req, what can we do? My colleague Waheed Bajwa was asking if there are additional resources out there to help students learn about plagiarism before they turn in their assignments. Of course we put links to resources in syllabi, but as we all know, students tend to not read the syllabus, especially what seem like administrative and legalistic things. Academic misconduct is serious and can result in expulsion, but unless you’re a vindictive type, the goal shouldn’t be to have a “one strike and you’re out” policy. I’ve heard someone else suggest that students sign a contract at the beginning of the semester so they are forced to read it. Then, if they are given an automatic F for the class you can point to the policy. That also seems like dodging the underlying issue, pedagogically speaking.

Another strategy I have tried is to have students turn in a draft of a final project, which I then run through TurnItIn [2] or I manually search for copied sentences. I then issue a stern/threatening warning with links to information about plagiarism. Waheed does the same thing, but this is pretty time-intensive and also means that some students get the attention and some don’t. Students who are here for a Masters lack some incentives to do the right thing the first time — if this is the last semester of their program and suddenly this whole plagiarism thing rears its head in their last class, they may be tempted to just fix the issues raised in the draft and move on without really internalizing the ethics. I’m not saying students are unethical. However, part of engineering/academics, especially at the graduate level, is teaching the ethics around citation and attribution. I pointed out to one student that copying from sources without attribution is stealing and that kind of behavior could get them fired at a company, especially if they violate a law. They seemed surprised by this metaphor. That’s just an anecdote, but I find it telling.

The major issues I see are that:

  • Undergrad-focused models for plagiarism education do not seem to address the issue of ESL-writers or the particulars of scientific/engineering writing.
  • Educating short-term graduate students (M.S.) about plagiarism in classes alone results in uneven learning and outcomes.

What we (and I think most programs) really need is an earlier and better educational intervention that helps address the particulars of these programs. I was Googling around for possible solutions and came across a paper by Gunnarsson, Kulesza, and Pettersson on “Teaching International Students How to Avoid Plagiarism: Librarians and Faculty in Collaboration”:

This paper presents how a plagiarism component has been integrated in a Research Methodology course for Engineering Master students at Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden. The plagiarism issue was approached from an educational perspective, rather than a punitive. The course director and librarians developed this part of the course in close collaboration. One part of the course is dedicated to how to cite, paraphrase and reference, while another part stresses the legal and ethical aspects of research. Currently, the majority of the students are international, which means there are intercultural and language aspects to consider. In order to evaluate our approach to teaching about plagiarism, we conducted a survey. The results of the survey indicate a need for education on how to cite and reference properly in order to avoid plagiarism, a result which is also supported by students’ assignment results. Some suggestions are given for future development of the course.

This seems to be exactly the kind of thing we need. The premises of the paper are exactly as we experience in the US: reasons for plagiarism are complex, and most students plagiarize “unintentionally” in the sense that the balance between ethics and expediency is fraught. One issue the authors raise is that “views of the concept of plagiarism… may vary greatly among students from one country” so we must be “cautious about making assumptions based on students’ cultural background.” When I’ve talked to professional colleagues (in my field and in other technical fields) I often hear statements like “students from country X don’t understand plagiarism” — we have to be careful about generalizations!

The key aspect of the above intervention is partnering with librarians, who are the experts in teaching these concepts, as part of a research methods course. Many humanities programs offer field-specific research methods courses. These provide important training for academic work. We can do the same in engineering, but it would require more effort and resources. For those readers interested in the ESL issues, there are a lot of studies in the references that describe the multifaceted aspects of plagiarism, especially among international students. A major component of the authors’ proposed intervention is the Refero tutorial, which is a web course for students to take as part of the course. We can’t delegating plagiarism education to a web tutorial, but we have to start somewhere. Another resource I found was this large collection of tutorials collected by Macie Hall from Johns Hopkins, but these are focused more at US undergraduates.

Does your institution have a good anti-plagiarism orientation unit? Does it work? When and how do you provide this orientation?

[1] There is much ink to be spilled debating this claim.
[2] I have many mixed feeling about the ethics of TurnItIn, especially after discussions with others.

Family leave for graduate students: how does it work at your school?

I am trying to understand how family leave works for graduate students at different schools. More specifically, I am interested in how the finances for family leave work. Graduate students at Rutgers (as at many schools) are covered by a union contract. The contract specifies that in case of a pregnancy, the mother can take 6 weeks of paid leave recovery time plus an additional 8 weeks of paid leave family time. Non-carrying parents can take 8 weeks of paid leave for family time. While not generous by European standards, it’s better than what I would expect (ah, low expectations) here in the US.

This raises the question of how the university pays for the leave time. Students are either teaching or research assistants. 14 weeks off from teaching might include most of a semester, so the department needs a substitute. Trying to give the student an “easy TA” and still expecting them to come and teach when they are entitled to the leave is shady (although I have heard this idea floated). If they are paid through a grant, how should the leave time be charged?

I recently contacted authorities at Rutgers about this, and their response was not encouraging. Rutgers foists all charges off onto the department or grant/PI. If you are a TA and have a baby, the department is on the hook, financially, for finding a replacement. If you are a research assistant, they just charge the paid leave to the grant, as per the fringe rules in OMB Circular A-21.

I wrote a letter back about how disappointing this all is. The current system creates strong incentives for departments and PIs to deny appointments to students who have or may develop family obligations. This lack of support from the University could result in systematic discrimination against student parents. Whether examples of such discrimination exist is not clear, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Allocating the financial burden of leave to departments creates great inequities based on department size and budget, and not all departments can “close ranks” so easily.

For PIs covering students on grants with “deliverables,” the system encourages not supporting students on such grants. The rules in OMB Circular A-21 say that costs should be “distributed to all institutional activities in proportion to the relative amount of time or effort actually devoted by the employees.” It also implies that leave time should be charged via fringe benefits and not salary. It’s not entirely clear to be how a particular grant should be charged if a student participant goes on family leave, but the Rutgers policy seems to be to stick it to the PI.

The current situation leaves students in a predicament: when should they tell their advisor or department that they are pregnant? Many students are afraid of retribution or discrimination: I have heard from students that their friends say advisors “don’t like it when their students have kids.” The university’s policy on this issues only serves to legitimize these fears by creating uncertainty for them about whether they will be reappointed.

My question to the readers of this blog is this: how does your university manage paying for family leave for grad students?

Survey on Ac and post-Ac STEM PhD careers

One of the things about teaching in a more industry-adjacent field like electrical engineering is that the vast majority of PhDs do not go on to academic careers. The way in which we have traditionally structured our programs is somehow predicated on the idea that students will go on to be academic researchers themselves, and there’s a long argument about the degree to which graduate school should involve vocational training that can fill many a post-colloquium dinner discussion.

Since I know there are non-academic PhDs who read this, there’s a survey out from Harvard researcher Melanie Sinche that is trying to gather data on the career trajectories of PhDs. The title of the article linked above, “Help solve the mystery of the disappearing Ph.D.s,” sounds really off to me — I know where the people I know from grad school ended up, and a quick glance through LinkedIn show that the “where” is not so much the issue as “how many.” For example, we talk a lot about how so many people from various flavors of theory end up in finance, but is it 50%? I suspect the number is much lower. Here’s a direct link to the survey. Fill it out and spread widely!

Annals of bad academic software: letters of recommendation

‘Tis the season for recommendation letters, and I again find myself thwarted by terrible UX and decisions made by people who manage application systems.

  • Why do I need to rank the candidate in 8 (or more!) different categories vs. people at my institution? Top 5% in terms of “self-motivation” or top 10%? What if they were an REU student not from my school? What if I have no point of comparison? What makes you think that people are either (a) going to make numbers up or (b) put top scores on everything because that is easier? Moreover why make it mandatory to answer these stupid questions to submit my letter?
  • One system made me cut and paste my letter as text into a text box, then proceeded to strip out all the line/paragraph breaks. ‘Tis a web-app designed by an idiot, full of incompetent input-handling, and hopefully at least signifying to the committee that they should admit the student.
  • Presumably the applicant filled out my contact information already, so why am I being asked to fill it out again?

It’s enough to make me send all letters by post — it would save time, I think.

Quals! What are they good for? Absolutely…

… nothing? So sayeth some in the business. Bill Gasarch wrote a post up last week about the “point” of the qualifying exam in which he says the two points of the process are to get students out of the program who may not be able to finish, and to make sure students are “well rounded.” While this is nice from an administrative/pedagogical point of view, I think they first question to ask is “what can you measure with a qualifying process?”

At Berkeley we had an exam after your first year — the “prelim” in your subject area. In CS (theory, at least, not sure about other areas) this was a presentation of a paper (or so I recall). You had to know it cold and be able to provide context, answer questions etc. In EE it was a 1 hour oral exam on 3 topics — two undergrad and one grad-ish related to your general sub-area. I took mine in DSP so I had to know basic DSP, more advanced DSP (filter banks etc), and stochastic processes. We spent a good part of the summer studying and in the end a little more than half of us passed, and the others had to retake the exam or got a conditional pass (meaning they had to take or TA some course). In EE, the prelim process is designed to make you learn the basics at certain level — if you can answer these questions correctly under some performance pressure and seem comfortable/fluent, then you pass. It measures how “comfortable” you are with basic (undergraduate) material.

In the Rutgers ECE department we have a 4-part exam — three oral 1-hour exams on different subjects (I got to do one exam in Communications with my colleague David Daut) and a written math exam. Students have to meet an average score threshold to pass, otherwise they have to retake some (or all) of the exams. Many take the exam in their third year, and the result of this intensive assay is that many students basically don’t do much research for the semester before their exams. In general, the material is a little more advanced, I think, than the Berkeley prelim, and focuses a but more on concepts encountered in graduate school. The exam also measure how “comfortable” you are with basic graduate material, but in a much more drawn-out manner, and later in graduate school.

Neither exam particularly measures your ability to do research, and instead focuses on core competence. The first criterion of Gasarch’s is really about whether someone will be able to complete a PhD in a reasonable amount of time; this is, in fact, a very difficult thing to measure. One approach is to say that it’s all up to the advisor, but some oversight is necessary, and having the other faculty in the department also evaluate students outside the classroom is desirable from an academic community standpoint. The CS theory exam of presenting a paper actually seems better in this regard, but then its entirely about research. Furthermore, I think that for many students, reading and understanding a paper (not of their choosing) might be a tall order very early in their career. How can we really assess whether someone would be best served getting an MS vs. a PhD?

I do think core competence is important. Getting a PhD in Electrical Engineering should mean that you have basic knowledge about some topic within EE. The alternative is that you can do research on anything, as long as the committee signs off on it, and it counts as EE. I’m not a fan of boundary drawing, but there is a value to getting students to integrate some of their undergraduate knowledge across classes (as opposed to taking the final and forgetting it), because this process of integration is also an important research skill. But the shifting nature of research areas means the cluster of topics most relevant for a solid foundation may not slot neatly into DSP/Comm/Solid State, etc. Is the problem only our disciplinary boundaries?

How does the qualifying process work in your department? Is it good, bad, or ugly?

Mental health in graduate school

I recently posted a link to an article on mental health in graduate school on Facebook (via a grad school friend of mine), and it sparked a fair bit of discussion there. The article is worth reading, and I am sure will echo with many of the readers. The discussion veered towards particularities of graduate school pressures in STEM, and the contributing factors to mental stress that are driven by funding structures and the advisor/student relationship. The starting point comes from this part of the article:

In this advisor-advisee arrangement, the student trades her labor as a researcher for the advisor’s mentorship and, ultimately, the advisor’s approval of her degree before she can graduate. For students seeking an academic position after graduate school, an advisor’s letter of recommendation can be the difference between landing a job and being left out in the cold, a harsh reality given today’s sparse academic job market. All of these factors mean that the faculty advisors hold tremendous power in the advisor-advisee relationships. They are the gatekeepers of success in the graduate endeavor.

This notion of “trading labor for mentorship” is most directly monetized in grant-funded fields like engineering, where graduate students are “working in the lab” on a project that is (hopefully) related to their thesis topic. In some cases, this works out fine, but in others, the research for the grant-relevant project does not contribute directly to their thesis. For funding agencies which want “deliverables,” this pressure to produce results on schedule creates a tension. The advisor becomes a boss.

Some of the points raised in the discussion on Facebook seemed important to bring out to a wider audience. One suggestion is to disentangle NSF support for projects and research from grad student salaries. So students could apply for NSF support and then they take their funding with them to find an advisor. In STEM this would be difficult, given the large number of international students who would not be qualified for such support, but it does give some power to students to walk away from a bad situation and more incentives for PIs to be more mentors than bosses. I am not entirely convinced it would help in terms of mental health though — students need more and better mentoring, not just the means to walk away. Also, Roy pointed out, having the student and advisor both convinced that a problem is important and solvable creates a shared commitment that helps students feel less isolated. For postdocs, though, this model would be a significant improvement over the status quo. Right now, there is almost no consensus on what a postdoc should be, and I’ve seen postdoc jobs that range from factotum to co-PI.

When one is on the other side (post-PhD), it’s tempting to say that grad school would have been easier if I had been a bit more organized or had better time-management skills. Perhaps the difficulties one has can be solved with “one weird trick.” I think that’s terribly naïve. As advisors, we definitely can do things to help students learn to work better — that’s the transition from being a student to being a researcher. But the notion that depression comes about as a result of simply not being productive enough, or feeling behind, or any other “outcomes”-based reason, misses the environmental and social factors that are equally important.

Graduate research is often very isolating. Perhaps some STEM students actually enjoy this kind of solitary work, but generalizing is dangerous. Having a grad student social organization, weekly happy hour, softball league, or other “outlet” isn’t enough. I used my startup funds to help buy a table-tennis table for my department at Rutgers, and while the students seem pretty happy about it, it’s not actually creating a community. One important question to ask is how the faculty and the department can help create and support that kind of community so that it can go on its own, organically.

In a department like mine, the majority of graduate students are international, and have a host of other stressors about being in a new (and often much more expensive) country. Using mental health resources may not be normalized in their home country or culture. Regardless of where they are from however, the big challenge is this:

…awareness of the existing resources among the graduate student population remains frustratingly low, due in part to the insular nature of traditional academic departments. A broader culture of wellness may prove even more elusive in the face of a rigidly hierarchical academic culture that often rewards drive and sacrifice without encouraging balance. In this climate, graduate student mental health advocates—students, staff, and administrators—face an uphill struggle in the years to come. The consequences of this struggle tear at the very fabric of the academic experience and suggest fundamental misalignment of priorities.

It’s only a misalignment of priorities if we don’t interrogate our priorities. This isn’t two trains crashing into each other, but it does require a “structural” recognition that graduate students are a part of the family, as it were, and treating them as such.

technical writing and the “language barrier”

One thing that strikes me about US graduate programs in electrical engineering is that the student population is overwhelmingly international. For most of these students, English is a second or third language, and so we need to adopt more “ESL”-friendly pedagogical approaches to teaching writing. I came across a blog post from ATTW by Meg Morgan from UNC Charlotte that raises a number of interesting issues. For one, the term “ESL” is perhaps problematic. The linguistic and social differences in pedagogy between other countries and the US mean that we need to use different methods for engaging the students.

In terms of teaching technical writing at the graduate level, the issues may be similar but the students are generally older — they may have even had some writing experience from undergraduate or masters-level research. How should the “ESL” issue affect how we teach technical writing?