Preventing Plagiarism on the Internet

By Carolyn Jabs

When kids go back to school, parents must think about desk supplies, new shoes, bus schedules … and plagiarism. Plagiarism? Yes. The Internet has made it so easy for students to “borrow” the work of others that this particular form of cheating is showing up as early as elementary school.

Ironically, teachers often introduce children to this bad habit. Eager to get them off to a good start on the computer, teachers encourage children to do Internet research before they can actually read and digest the materials they find. Learning to “cut and paste” on the computer is a valuable skill, but many kids quickly jump to the conclusion that the best way to complete a report is to assemble a collection of quotes from other sources.

Even college teachers now complain that students aren’t prepared to do the hard work of thinking and writing that has always been central to education. Many professors are forced to use sophisticated software to identify papers that have been lifted from online sources. When they’re caught, students often claim to be surprised that they’ve done something wrong.

Many school districts are initiating programs to help students understand plagiarism and policies to punish those who cheat. Parents also have an important role to play. First, take plagiarism seriously. You knew it was wrong to copy word for word from the encyclopedia when you were in school; lifting words from an Internet site is just as lazy and just as wrong. You’d be appalled if your child hired another kid to write his papers. Buying a paper from a website like researchpaper.com is every bit as reprehensible. Keep in mind that kids who plagiarize put honest students at a disadvantage. More important, stealing the words of others makes it less likely kids will learn to think and write for themselves.

The best way to steer your child away from plagiarism is to talk early and often about why education is valuable. Help your child understand that the goal of going to school isn’t simply to finish assignments as fast and as easily as possible, but to understand the ideas and master the skills behind them. If kids learn early to take pride in doing their own best work, they’re less likely to succumb to the temptation of plagiarism. Here are other steps parents can take:

  • Check for a plagiarism policy when you look at the school’s handbook at the beginning of the year. If there isn’t one, talk to school administrators. Students who struggle honestly to do their own work should be protected from students who cheat.
  • Talk to your child about stealing. Even little children understand they can’t simply take what they want from a store. As your kids get older, explain that taking words someone else has written is just as wrong.
  • When your child is assigned a report, ask how she’s expected to handle source materials. Even young children should create a short bibliography showing what books and Internet sites they consulted. Older children should have detailed information about using quotes and creating footnotes for Internet sites as well as books. If your child isn’t clear about what she’s supposed to do, ask the teacher for clarification.
  • Help your child manage time, especially when there’s a big writing project. Often kids copy other people’s work because they get behind and can’t see any other way to get the assignment finished in time.
  • After your child has done his research, encourage him to close all the books and websites and tell you, in his own words, what he has learned. Summarizing the important points from memory makes it more likely that he will use his own words when he starts writing.
  • Read what your child writes. If you’re used to reading her work, you’ll recognize her natural style and be able to identify vocabulary that sounds too advanced and passages that just don’t sound like her. Ask your child to share her research materials with you and encourage her to show you early drafts. 
  • -Acknowledge that writing is hard. When you go over your child’s homework, be gentle about pointing out errors in logic or grammar. Praise your child for doing his or her own work. Many kids cheat because they feel that they can’t possibly live up to the standards of the adults around them. Make it clear that you value the effort as well as the results.

In the Age of the Internet, kids still need to be able to do careful research and reflect on what they’ve learned. They must be able to generate new ideas and express them effectively. Plagiarism undermines all these skills. Parents who expect their kids to know the difference between right and wrong have to start early so their kids will value the Internet as a resource — instead of using it as the latest way to cheat themselves out of a genuine education.

Carolyn Jabs writes about issues that help parents raise children who are as responsible online as they are in the real world. Visit her website at www.growing-up-online.com.
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