February 18, 2003

Study shows 25 percent of students plagiarize

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In a 2002 study conducted by Rochester Institute of Technology professors Patrick M. Scanlon and David R. Neumann, communications, results from surveys of approximately 800 college students from various universities indicated that about 25 percent of the sample sometimes or very frequently copied online text without citation.

More than 50 percent of the students suspected that their peers cut and pasted text from the Internet.

Because plagiarism is a pressing issue throughout the nation and in the University, administrators and faculty alike have developed ways to stop these growing trends.

According to student opinion, however, teens seem to be confident in getting away scot-free. A U.S. News and World Report poll found that 90 percent of students believe that cheaters are either never caught or have not been appropriately disciplined.

According to Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate affairs, the University has taken substantial steps to encourage faculty to clearly outline the temptation and dangers of plagiarism and promote proper citation.

Last year, the University subscribed to turnitin.com, an online commercial enterprise used to detect plagiarism. Professors could send in students’ work and the website helped to detect copied papers.

“Students were notified that their paper might be handed in,” Kramnick said.

However, this initiative did not last. The University later abandoned its subscription, citing legal problems caused by the website’s policy of keeping papers.

Even after the cancellation, Kramnick encouraged faculty to continue using the Internet to verify students’ work. Administration promoted faculty use of search engines such as Google, which mostly have strong anti-plagiarism features.

Information taught to freshmen in writing seminars also helps anti-plagiarism efforts, said Patricia Wasyliw, assistant dean of admissions and advising. During freshman orientation, administrators also introduce the Code of Academic Integrity, and peer advisors help reinforce expectations.

Professors have also taken their own measures to prevent plagiarism.

In Anthropology 102, unique topics are usually assigned for essays, said Prof. Kathryn S. March ’79, anthropology. March and her TAs also compare students’ work against that of their peers, former students and the Internet. Different exam versions are also distributed during test periods.

Prof. Stuart Davis, English, lets students know at the beginning of the semester that he deeply cares about academic integrity. Davis and Prof. Paul Sawyer, English, also sent out a memo to their department earlier this year, outlining issues such as plagiarism prevention. Davis claims that much of the plagiarism he sees is due to desperation.

According to Davis, out of the approximately 100 students he teaches each year, he suspects only three to five papers of containing copied material. Out of these, “one or two cases deserve prosecution.”

Davis claims that although the low amount of plagiarism in his experience has not changed, other factors have.

“What has changed is the World Wide Web. I don’t think we are in a blizzard of academic dishonesty, but the web is a powerful temptation.”

For March, catching plagiarizers is easy most of the time, but she cautiously notes that “it does require knowing your material and your students.”

Davis in this respect agrees with March, pointing out that the assumption of cheating is often not reliable, as students’ work depends on a variety of issues such as their social lives and other homework.

Even though most professors claim that students are generally honest, there has been “a slight increase” in plagiarism cases, according to Wasyliw.

“While the Internet has made the downloading of papers easier, it also makes detecting plagiarism easier through the use of search engines,” she stated.

According to the Code of Academic Integrity, if a student is suspected of plagiarism, the professor will present the student with a charge, which is followed by a primary hearing. The hearing board, a unique committee within each college, will hear evidence from the faculty member and the accused student.

After the hearing, the faculty member can either dismiss the charge, or if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the student is guilty, he or she can hand out punishment no greater than the failing of a class. Further offenses, however, might result in harsher penalties.

Although the University has taken many measures to prevent this type of behavior from occurring, Wasyliw stated that awareness needs to be raised. Davis agreed that the faculty needs to have open discussions about these topics.

“We all hate this issue. We want to trust our students and ourselves,” Davis said.

Wasyliw acknowledges that some violations are the result of ignorance. Students typically agree with this.

“Sometimes [students cheat], but not on purpose,” said Erin Connolly ’05. “I don’t think a lot of people would [plagiarize], although I’m sure it happens.”

Most students are not aware of cases of plagiarism, but they acknowledge that it is a major issue.

“I don’t think professors and administrators would make a big deal if it wasn’t a problem,” said Matt Lowenstein ’06.

Eric Powell ’05 acknowledged that while plagiarism makes research a lot easier because web searching reduces the amount of time spent on it, there are some drawbacks.

“I think it’s easier to plagiarize [on the web], but it’s also easier to get caught,” Powell said.

March emphasized that the mission of faculty members is educational, and that students “need to understand that they cannot just make off with ideas any old way they want to.”

“The student who enters into a course with the intention of cheating in order to get through or to get a better grade and who contracts to have someone else do their work from the beginning is harder to identify; such a student would have to have the morals of a true criminal,” March said.

She added, however, that “most students are not true criminals.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao