Plagiarism vs. Originality: Why I [heart] Melania Trump

When I first I started teaching, I knew what plagiarism meant and how it related to schoolwork. But student “cheaters” challenged my beliefs. I also assumed graduate students would submit original work. So it took me by surprise when I noticed a mysterious improvement in one student’s writing capacity, well beyond the skill level he’d demonstrated earlier. When a Google search proved more than 20 percent of his paper was copied, he explained it as a computer error—he’d accidentally dropped the footnote when cutting and pasting. I lowered his course grade, but assumed it really was a snafu—not subterfuge. The (now) obvious question went unasked: Why was so much of his assignment based on other people’s insights?
To avoid similar calamities, students now submit homework via Turnitin, a product that cheerily refers to its service as an “originality check.” The software instantly generates a “match score” meaning the percentage of text that’s been copied. It allows those with a high score to try again. But few seem to review the data.
When I asked a student why he turned in a paper with a 50 percent match score, he responded with a surprised, “I thought I changed it enough.” I knew him and was certain he was truly confused. In fact, rather than seeing his action as deception, I experienced it as a revelation. I dropped his final mark, but …