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'Help me plagiarize'

It was the strangest request I ever have received: "Can you help me plagiarize my thesis?" asked the young Chinese student. I did not think I had heard correctly. When she repeated her request, I figured she merely misunderstood the word, or had poor English and was asking for help avoiding plagiarizing.

I was speaking at five universities last year, and I had a free day between lectures. I am known for helping proofread papers. She had her flash drive in hand. It was the last month of their school year, and she was fretting about finishing her thesis. I asked her to sit down and talk.

"You want me to help you a-v-o-i-d plagiarism, right?" I emphasized.

"No," she repeated to me in slow English so I clearly would understand. "I need help plagiarizing my paper."

(Okay Schrock, maintain composure. Don't roll your eyes. Don't hold your head in your hands and moan.)

"Tell me what plagiarism means to you," I directed.

"I need to change enough words so it won't be detected by the computer."

Now I knew exactly why she was asking.

Five years ago, China's Ministry of Education issued a directive to universities to check every master's thesis and doctoral dissertation for plagiarism. Plagiarism has become a worldwide problem, thanks to online access and the ease of the cut-and-leave function.

Just as American professors use programs such as Turn-It-In to detect students who have bought their term papers from "paper mills," Chinese universities installed plagiarism-check software on well-intentioned "orders from above." And their universities passed the responsibility down to the students. Before they turn in their first draft, they are to go to the library, where a designated computer runs it through the plagiarism-check. They are not to hand it in until it clears the check.

So students learn a functional definition of plagiarism: It is the number of English words (or Chinese characters) in-a-row that are identical to other works on file. To avoid plagiarism, some believe all you have to do is change enough words so there never are seven or more in a row that match other work.

"Why not put quotes around all the sentences that are from other people, and then put their names in parentheses at the end of the sentence?" I asked.

"Oh, I know all about that," she said. "My whole thesis will be in quotes."

"Didn't you add some ideas yourself?" (I really wanted to help.)

"No. We are just students. How can we come up with new ideas? Those people get Nobel Prizes. Everything in here I got from the books and articles I read."

"How about putting some of these ideas in your own words. We still have to credit the authors -- it's called paraphrasing?"

"That's what I want you to help do, so there is enough difference the computer won't detect it. But I can't list all the sources because that would be everything." She was beginning to suspect I would not help her. We talked for a half hour. I never did succeed in getting her to understand why we give credit by citation.

This problem is pervasive throughout Asia and other countries that have a heritage of didactic teaching. Throughout their K-12 education, the teacher is the "master," and the students are apprentices. Whole classes engage in group recitation of identical texts. For 12 years, you are rewarded when you can repeat the teacher's explanation or the textbook answer, word-for-word. And now in college, they change the rules on you, and call this copying "plagiarism."

She was certain this plagiarism rule was just a way to force people to pay money to buy permission to use the words, similar to copyright and trademarks. I never did succeed in teaching her the value of giving credit to sources. I asked her how old her major professor was -- he was "old school." She was not a bad person. She just needed to be taught. The young Chinese professors coming back from study in the West have been doing that teaching, and China is changing fast.

Tomorrow, I fly to Harbin in far northeast China to work with faculty and graduates on research and publication integrity. Their Office of Science Integrity in their Ministry of Science and Technology is hosting these sessions nationwide. I hope I never will be asked by a student to help them plagiarize, ever again.

John Richard Schrock is a professor

in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.