The Bedford Workshop on Plagiarism

The Bedford Workshop on Plagiarism by Nick Carbone 

Making the writing process visible makes plagiarism hard to do. And more important, the things an instructor can do to make writing visible and collectable in drafts and increments—including assigning a research portfolio and using online discussion tools—foster crucial and necessary writing skills.

Consider these two quotes on record-keeping and the research process (the boldface and italics have been added for emphasis):


The only protection as a historian is to institute a process of research and writing that minimizes the possibility of error. And that I have tried to do, aided by modern technology, which enables me, having long since moved beyond longhand, to use a computer for both organizing and taking notes. I now rely on a scanner, which reproduces the passages I want to cite, and then I keep my own comments on those books in a separate file so that I will never confuse the two again. But the real miracle occurred when my college-age son taught me how to use the mysterious footnote key on the computer, which makes it possible to insert the citations directly into the text while the sources are still in front of me, instead of shuffling through hundreds of folders four or five years down the line, trying desperately to remember from where I derived a particular statistic or quote. Still, there is no guarantee against error. Should one occur, all I can do, as I did 14 years ago, is to correct it as soon as I possibly can, for my own sake and the sake of history. In the end, I am still the same fallible person I was before I made the transition to the computer, and the process of building a lengthy work of history remains a complicated but honorable task.

——Doris Kearns Goodwin, Time Magazine, January 27, 2002


Finally, offering the students an off-line alternative makes their consent absolutely clear. For instance, as an alternative, the student could be required to turn in a photocopy of the first page of all reference sources used, an annotated bibliography, and a one page paper reflecting on their research methodology. Such an option would be unlikely to be chosen by any students, but if they did choose it, the chances of plagiarism would also be vanishingly thin

—Paul Wedlake, director of sales, iParadigms, LLC, developers of Turnitin.com/Plagiarism.org (last paragraph from Turnitin.com's "standard statement regarding the Copyright Issue")

The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the need to keep careful records, to make copies of sources, to insert footnotes as a source is worked into an essay, and to keep notes separate from sources so that one's own writing isn’t confused with the source. In the second quote we see that even the people at Turnitin.com, a company that sells a pricey plagiarism detection service online, know that if you require students to turn in a research portfolio—photocopies of sources, drafts of all essays, annotated bibliographies, a research log, and reflective essays on their writing and research process—you will make the chances of plagiarism "vanishingly thin." So thin, in fact, that you don't have to spend scarce education dollars on that company’s service. And unlike Wedlake's implication, requiring these procedures of students isn't a punishment that makes running papers through a search service attractive, but rather, these procedures teach the essential skills that writers and researchers need to know—skills that are, I'd argue (and Kearns Goodwin reminds us as much), fundamental to the writing and research process.

Helping students learn to save and store drafts, to handle and integrate sources accurately, to reflect on their research methodology, to budget their time, and to stay on track and meet deadlines teaches them how to be better writers and researchers. This is all good and necessary teaching, but and at the same time, teaching and requiring these skills and steps practically eliminates plagiarism.

What could be better than good pedagogy that teaches useful skills without the need to police students and play "Gotcha!"? Well, what is better is this: If you're using online tools to augment a brick-and-mortar class, you have the resources to make writing visible and to avoid plagiarism altogether. The strategies in this workshop will show you how. If you’d like more advice or have questions, please feel free to contact me at ncarbone@bedfordstmartins.com.