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Freedom From Plagiarism: How Peer Collaboration Helps Students Master & Overcome Plagiarism

Fear and confusion combine in the minds of listeners who know all about plagiarism's negative repercussions, but are only dimly aware of its meaning. Even among scholars the topic is stressful to discuss; some time ago, as I talked with a professor about this topic, I sensed a tone of worry in his voice, as if just raising the idea of plagiarism was enough to summon shame. This fear of committing plagiarism is not a solution because it can either cause or worsen students' struggle with paraphrasing and citation, thus hurting their writing quality and their capacity to participate in our community's exchange of knowledge. Overcoming the fear of committing plagiarism principally requires understanding it through peer collaboration and acceptance—an atmosphere that, at present, are best provided by writing centers.

I mastered how to avoid committing plagiarism through practice and, most importantly, by making mistakes along the way. Despite first learning about plagiarism in school, I only understood it after practicing how to cite sources by writing entries in Wikipedia. This online encyclopedia was a great venue not only because my grade was not at stake, but also because it provided me with an opportunity to work in an open canvass with anonymity—which was important, in retrospect, because it allowed me to sweep away feelings of embarrassment that could have hindered my writing. My understanding of plagiarism was also shaped by peer-to-peer feedback. As a result, I acquired the self-confidence to fix my own errors, and learned how to properly summarize, paraphrase, and integrate different types of quotes into a written work.

Back in school, my peers struggled to find self-confidence, particularly because they had associated their work and the instructor with failure and criticism. Most of these students feared committing plagiarism and, in their frustration, focused their minds on earning a passing grade rather than on learning how to write using sources. Once in college, many of them continued having the same problem; moreover, at that point their fear extended to all forms of writing.

At Texas A&M University's Writing Center, I worked with students seeking to overcome plagiarism, and also learned techniques on how to collaborate with them as a peer tutor. One of my memorable appointments was with a student who had been admonished for plagiarizing. She came to the writing center with a paper marked with comments and point reductions. The student was confused on how to distinguish between common knowledge and information that required citation. Due to the confusion, she was unable to express her thoughts on paper. Thus, the session initially focused on brainstorming and providing her with the confidence that no one would penalize her mistakes. After the writing was finished, the rest of the session focused on us working together to understand areas where plagiarism had been committed. We also practiced the usage of paraphrases and summaries. Thanks to the writing center, the student left with a new-found trust in her writing.

All in all, peer collaboration has proven time and again to be an effective method to end students' fear of committing plagiarism. Students also need an environment where they can take command of their role as learners and write without fearing negative repercussions. Writing centers house all of these elements in addition to consultants who provide patience, confidence, and encouragement. Therefore, one of our roles as consultants is to help students regain their fundamental right, as writers, to be free from fearing plagiarism.

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