Plagiarism and cheating are running rampant at universities in the U.S. An article in the 8/1/10 issue of the New York Times describes how the digital age has ushered in a tsunami of university students who are cutting and pasting text from the web, and then submitting their papers without referencing the sources that they used. At Rutgers University, “about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments.” Furthermore, the number who believe that “copying from the web constitutes serious cheating is declining—to 29% on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade.”
Anecdotally, my experience jibes with the statistics cited in the article. Since 1991, I have been an adjunct faculty member at several universities. Over the past five years, I have identified many more examples of plagiarism than I had in the prior 14 years.
Unfortunately, Gabriel’s excellent article was marred by one significant omission. Gabriel overlooked the larger, societal context in which plagiarism occurs. It is not solely limited to academia. The elephant in the room is the former New York Times’ reporter Zachery Kouwe. As described in a recent post, he lifted–without appropriate attribution–material from the Wall Street Journal. The Public Editor of the New York Times likened Kouwe’s behavior to shop lifting. Ironically, Kouwe was writing about Bernard Madoff, the convicted embezzler.
If a journalist at the venerable New York Times believes that “cutting and pasting” is acceptable, then why should we expect our students to do anything different? If once-revered business leaders–like Madoff–rip-off their customers, then how can we admonish students for ripping-off text from the Internet? I believe that cheating is a phenomenon that reflects the general lack of respect for authority in society at large. To understand the increase in plagiarism at the university level, we must delve into the root causes of these more general, societal issues.
An implicit idea raised by Gabriel concerns the notion that perhaps we need to consider taking a more nuanced view of the meaning of plagiarism. In trying to describe the reasons underlying the increase in plagiarism, Susan D. Blum, an anthropologist at Notre Dame, suggested that the Digital Age may be affecting young peoples’ conceptions about the importance of originality. After all, the millenials (those born after 1980), have grown up with music file-sharing (sometimes illegal), which has weakened the significance of copyright laws that protect intellectual property. With the advent of wikii software, websites such as Wikipedia challenge the fundamental concept of authorship.
In reflecting upon my personal encounters with students who plagiarized, I believe that there are five factors that need to be considered. First, in our local grammar school, children learn that copying text—without proper attribution—is wrong. I expect that the students who I teach were exposed to the same lesson. Second, students today face many conflicting demands on their time. Many of mine work jobs to defray the cost of their educations. In several instances of plagiarism that I have witnessed, the student saved hours of time by cutting and pasting an entire article from a website. Third, writing is difficult, and many students are coming to college without the ability to write a coherent essay. For example, an article in the April 26, 2010 issue of the Sun Sentinel describes how 55% of incoming college freshmen—at Florida state universities—are enrolled in remedial writing and math classes. The use of cut and paste technology is one way students can avoid having to learn how to write. Fourth, parents often have high expectations for their children to perform and get the best possible grades. Many children have internalized these ideals. As described earlier, if students see leaders in journalism, sports (steroid usage), and business cheat to achieve results, then some model their behavior after these leaders. Finally, the vast majority of the students who I know take the time to reference their sources. They have been taught the difference between what is right and wrong, and they opt to take the higher road.
In conclusion, I believe that the instances of plagiarism that I experienced were mindful acts. As such, they were as wrong as the crimes committed by Madoff and Kouwe. Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, and Kouwe was summarily fired by the New York Times.
What do you think the appropriate consequences should be, if any, for those students who plagiarize? Mandatory enrollment in an ethics class? Do you agree with the idea that we should take a more forgiving view of this practice? What other actions do we need to take to address this current problem?