Open up a Powerpoint or Prezi show on the Internet and it is likely packed with text and images copied from others: no quotation marks and no image attributions. Not surprising — kids probably learn this time-saving trick in grade school from their teachers, and then they see it again with their college professors. These kids will plagiarize, too, when they grow up and get jobs that require them to post slide decks on the internet.
But back to those teachers — why don’t they use quotation marks or give credits? They ask their students to cite sources on papers, so teachers clearly know about academic honesty. Here are my guesses:
They think that quotation marks and attribution text ruin the aesthetics of their slides.
They think citing others for copied text and images undermines their authority in class.
They know it’s wrong but are busy and hope nobody will notice/complain.
For many teachers, it’s probably a little of all three. And about #3, I’m left wondering why so many teachers place their plagiarized slide decks on the internet for the whole world to examine, rather than hiding them behind Blackboard and Moodle like everyone else does.
Given the rampant Powerpoint plagiarism among teachers in public schools and at colleges, one might think education/teacher organizations would develop clear policies urging teachers to not plagiarize (and to stop using uncredited images). The only statement on this topic I’ve found is from American History Association (website):
“All who participate in the community of inquiry, as amateurs or as professionals, as students or as established historians, have an obligation to oppose deception. This obligation bears with special weight on teachers…”
This post is for public school principals and superintendents — people who are in a position to set broad educational policies and to rally teachers, staff, and students to achieve those goals.
Here’s my plea: ask your teachers to use quotation marks and citations when they copy/paste text into Prezi shows and syllabi. Without explicit marching orders, some teachers seem to plagiarize, and then their impressionable students may end up believing plagiarism is “mildly bad but acceptable,” just like sharing MP3 files.
How often do public school teachers plagiarize? I don’t have any real data, but I’ve recognized chunks of my text on perhaps several hundred syllabi, slides, and handouts. That might seem like a small number (there are a lot of teachers), but I see the frequency as rather depressing. They are teachers — of all people on the planet, shouldn’t they be on top of attribution? You don’t even need to find a special character code: it’s SHIFT + ‘. Easy peasy.
So some teachers clearly plagiarize (and then post the files on the Internet for the whole world to see). But why? Let me allow a teacher to answer that. The teacher quoted below plagiarized from me several times, excerpting parts of my Designing conference posters page onto her syllabus (no quotation marks or citation). When I mentioned this to her, she replied,
“You’re absolutely right. Sorry again. It is a good resource and it helps kids, which is why I use it. I can see why you take issue that it is part of my syllabus which is tied to me/my class, but the teaching world couldn’t possibly, on every single document/worksheet/test we give our students, quote or cite source for chunks of information we use to help our students learn things. Education (at least where I teach) moves too quickly to do so, and we already have too much asked of us in and outside of the classroom. But yes, it is a large amount of information taken directly from your site/work.”
On her syllabus are chunks taken from other people, too (you can tell partly because the font and writing style are completely different; again, no quotation marks and no citations). If students are able to recognize such patchwriting (likely, given it was an Advance Placement course), the students may assume plagiarism is socially acceptable. If a lot of teachers plagiarize like the above, I think it may explain why so many students in college plagiarize. It can also explain why they seem so shocked when they get penalized.
The teacher above is using what I like to call the Fair Use Excuse. “Fair use” is a quasi-official term that describes a clause in the US Copyright Act, and allows people to legally use copyrighted text or images under some circumstances. But “fair use” does not relate to (or permit) plagiarism, which is when people pass off other people’s text as theirs (no quotation marks, no attribution). I’ve even had university copyright lawyers try the Fair Use Excuse when I mention that a faculty member has plagiarized me (i.e., copy/pasted my text with no quotation marks, no attribution). Would teachers accept a “fair use” explanation from their students? I don’t think so.
The Fair Use Excuse for plagiarism seems especially common among younger teachers, and I suspect they are second-generation plagiarizers who learned how to plagiarize from their teachers, the first generation that started using Powerpoint in class. Powerpoint is the entry drug for chronic plagiarizers. Soon they moved onto Prezi, then started plagiarizing even their plagiarism statements.
By the way, the teacher mentioned above has a strong (one-sentence) warning about plagiarism in her syllabus — she clearly knows what plagiarism is and views it as academic dishonesty. (Also by the way, her school’s academic honesty policy is plagiarized from another school. That’s a different post, which, in fact, I’ve already made.)
So if you are a principal or superintendent, please use your influence to encourage your teachers to model academic honesty. It’s in the same vein as asking them not to smoke in front of the school, behavior you’d think you didn’t need to explicitly prohibit, but do (you do, right?). Of course, if you’re a typical principal or superintendent, you’re thinking right now, “But my teachers are all great — this is simply not an issue at my school/district.” And — forgive my bluntness — you’d be delusional.
If you are not a principal or superintendent, but know one, please consider sending this post to them. If you happen to be an education professor in college, you might want to add this issue to your teacher certification program (but that’s just me).
And if you are student who has just been caught plagiarizing (oopsy!), the above information is your ticket out of the trouble! Just analyze (via Google search) your teacher’s syllabus (or Prezi slides, or whatever) and document his/her plagiarism. Then show the results to the principal and argue that your teacher showed you, by example, that it was totally acceptable to copy/paste without attribution. To further make your case, plug in your school’s academic honesty policy into Google — chances are that your principal plagiarized it from a university web page. If teachers and principals do it (they’re busy!), you can, too (because you’re busy!).
For a great overview of how teachers can better reduce plagiarism in public school, this. Please also see my page on Preventing Plagiarism, wherein I make a special plea to elementary schools teachers.
Anyone have the latest program announcement from The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research? The title is “Bioenergy and Biomass Conversion From Plant-Based Research to Prototype Bio-Materials.” I’m hugely curious to know whether they have deleted the appendix on poster design tips. In case you didn’t know, they are accusing me of stealing their tips … in fact, if I don’t take my page down (Designing conference posters), they plan to bring me to court to sue for damages. If they deleted or completely reworded their appendix, the change would be an admission of copyright infringement guilt.
Hence my curiosity.
So please let me know if you have a copy. Would also love to chat with anyone who submitted a pre-proposal back in December 2013. Especially interesting in chatting with those who might have been selected to present a poster in Washington, D.C. in March 2014. I can give you poster advice if you contact me! Don’t worry, I will not release your name.
If you are curious, below are some pages from their previous Appendix 5, “Symposium Poster Rules and Guidelines.” If you see highlighting, that’s where the text is taken from my site, which I published years before they crafted their Appendix 5. Yes, that’s right: they copy/pasted, then made minor edits. And then just claimed it was theirs.