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.

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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?

2015 North American School of Information Theory

The 2015 ​North American ​School of Information Theory ​(NASIT) will be held on August 10-13, 2015, at the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla. If you or your colleagues have students who might be interested in this event, we would be grateful if you could forward this email to them and encourage their participation. The application deadline is ​Sunday, June 7. As in the past schools, we again have a great set of lecturers this year​​:

We are pleased to announce that ​Paul Siegel will be the​​ Padovani Lecturer of the IEEE Information Theory Society​​ and will give his lecture at the School. The Padovani Lecture is sponsored by a generous gift of Roberto Padovani.

For more information and application, please visit the School website.​​

Student Promotion: Signal Processing Society Provides Steep Price Slash

Or SPSPSPSPS, for short. I’ve been over-busy and lax on posting, but I’ll provide some recap of ITA soon, as well as some notes from the Bellairs workshop I just came back from. The winter is a bit jarring. To the point of the subject:

In case you hadn’t heard, the IEEE Signal Processing Society is currently running a campaign that allows IEEE Student and Graduate Student members to join the SPS for free for the 2015 membership year. The promotion is running now through 15 August 2015. Only IEEE Student and Graduate Students are eligible, as this offer does not apply to SPS Student or Graduate Student members renewing their membership for 2015.

This link directs to the IEEE website with both IEEE Student membership and the free SPS Student membership in the cart.

If a student is already an IEEE Student of Graduate Student member, he/she can use the code SP15STUAD at checkout to obtain his/her free membership.

If you have any questions regarding the SPS Free Student Membership campaign or other membership items, please don’t hesitate to contact Jessica Perry at jessica.perry@ieee.org.

Please spread the news to others who may be interested in joining the SP Society.