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Warding off "virtual papers" & ghostwriters

Lillian Bridwell-Bowles

No system is foolproof if you have determined plagiarists in your classes, but the following are some tips that might thwart the budding thieves whose major crime to date has been procrastination.

  1. A writing assignment should be uniquely tailored to your individual course—its content, primary materials, methods, theoretical orientation, etc.—not just based on general topics that can be easily bought or ghostwritten by someone not enrolled in the class.
  2. Place criteria based on the unique elements above in your syllabus and use them as you provide feedback on proposals, drafts, and final papers.
  3. Set up a sequence of checkpoints that evolves organically as you watch the students’ progress. If you give them specific suggestions based on what you have just evaluated, you make it harder for students to use canned products. Use a simple system of checks and minuses to show students where they stand with the process assignments below (e.g., proposals, revision plans, drafts). Make a passing grade contingent on participation in these steps.

    A typical sequence:
  • Call for a preliminary proposal early in the term. It should contain a topic, a proposed method or analytical approach, a possible thesis, and summaries of sources already consulted.
  • Invest the time to make significant comments and suggestions at this point. You can teach students more about research and writing early in the term than you can at the end when they’re focussed on the grades. Suggest specific sources (books, journal articles) that you can check for in the final proposal.
  • Call for a final proposal that must be approved by you (or your TA). Check to see that students have used your feedback in their revised proposals. Most Web writers don’t provide these kinds of preliminary materials. Those who do won’t be able to anticipate all of your suggestions.
  • Require that students bring to class copies of drafts for peer review and for our comments. The writers should place specific questions they have about the content, organization, or style on a cover sheet so that evaluators will know where they want help.
  • Use the criteria in the syllabus to guide the feedback on the drafts—model this in class with a sample paper. Show peers what to look for when they try to help each other. (Note: If you provide thorough comments, you may short-circuit the peer review; students know whose comments "really" matter. Try commenting on only one or two criteria and assigning the others to the peers for review.)
  • Ask for a 1/2 page "plan for revision."
  • Ask that final drafts use complete forms of documentation. This will thwart wholesale downloading of text from the Internet.
  • Use a "scoring guide" to evaluate the criteria quickly—don’t invest lots of time in proofreading final drafts. Students want general evaluations at the end. Use "improvement in revisions" as a criterion to encourage thoughtfulness and to discourage plagiarism.
  • At the end of the course, ask students to comment about what they learned through the research and writing they did in your course.