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The Plagiarism Plague
In the internet era, cheating has become an epidemic on college campuses

By Don Campbell
Atlanta, Georgia

The problem of cheating in academia hit Tom Lancaster in a very personal way more than a decade ago: The Emory University political science professor found his own research being plagiarized by one of his students.

Lancaster, now senior associate dean for undergraduate studies, had learned while researching elections in Greece that women and men use different polling booths and that their votes are recorded by gender.

He subsequently had his students enter the polling data from each precinct and do papers comparing gender voting patterns in different sections of Greece. Two years later, in a similar class on southern European politics, a student wrote a paper about gender differences in voting in Greece—even though that topic was not assigned—using data that could only have been obtained from students in the previous class.

 
"Internet plagiarism is probably by far the most common form of cheating or academic dishonesty," says Didi Kuo, a 2005 Emory University graduate who chaired the university's honor council.
(Photo by Robin Nelson, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
"The student," said Lancaster, "had clearly in my mind simply plagiarized a previous paper—not necessarily the words—but had simply pulled out the data." Lancaster took the case to the Emory honor council, but the council judged the student not guilty because the data had not been published. The student admitted finding it in a fraternity file.

To add insult to injury, after Lancaster gave the student an F in the course, he found out a year later that the grade was changed without his being notified.

"It really was the shot across the bow for me," said Lancaster, who has been a crusader for a more stringent honor code and judicial process at Emory ever since.

Today, in the era of the internet and other high-tech gadgetry, Lancaster's story seems almost quaint. Fraternity and sorority files are antiques when students can use computers, cellphones, calculators and iPods to cheat and plagiarize their way to better grades.

And the response among college administrators, faculty and students on honor councils has been inadequate, uneven and at times confused. Those who would fight fire with fire, or technology with technology, are squared off against those who want to change a culture that—beginning in high school—spawns the attitude that cheating is no big deal.

What's not debatable, according to ongoing research, is that cheating and plagiarism in the country have reached epidemic proportions on college campuses.

The Center for Academic Integrity, based at Duke University, calls the latest findings from the research by Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University professor, "disturbing, provocative and challenging." McCabe has surveyed some 50,000 students on more than 60 campuses since the fall of 2002.

Among his major findings, released last summer:

  • On most campuses, 70 percent of students admit to some cheating, with half admitting to one or more instances of serious cheating on written assignments.
  • Internet plagiarism is exploding because students are uncertain about how to properly use content from the internet, with 77 percent of those surveyed saying it is not a serious issue.
  • Faculty are reluctant to take action. Some 44 percent of faculty members surveyed over the past three years who were aware of cheating in their classes did not report it.
  • Academic honor codes do reduce cheating: The incidence of serious test cheating is one-third to one-half lower on campuses that have honor codes.

 
A study by Rutgers University Professor Donald McCabe found that on most campuses 70 percent of students admit to some cheating.
(Photo by Lisa Quinones, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
McCabe also found that cheating is a major problem in high school. In surveys of 18,000 high school students over the last four years, more than 70 percent of those in public or parochial schools admitted to having cheated on a test.

McCabe has been churning these figures out for many years, but is anyone taking them seriously? At the high school level, said McCabe, "I'd say they are, but boy that's not based on a lot of data." At the college level, he said, "Some are taking it seriously enough, and some are doing a PR job, talking the right story but not fundamentally changing. Some are staying away from it because of the negative publicity that can be associated with it. Some schools I've surveyed have not had great results and they've gone public with it. I give them a lot of credit for that."

There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest that the problem is getting worse, or that it is more likely to be detected.

The University of Maryland ran a sting operation that netted cheaters in its graduate business school.

Louisiana State University's medical school suspended one student and reprimanded four others after they were accused of cheating on a pharmacology exam.

At Utah Valley State College, David Keller, a philosophy professor and director of the college's Center for the Study of Ethics, had a teaching assistant randomly check student papers and found that one-third of them were taken from the internet. "All he did was type in two or three sentences on Google, and it took us to these really bizarre websites that you and I wouldn't even know about," said Keller. "I wrote to the students and said, 'Your paper is not your paper and you presented it as your paper. You plagiarized this paper and here's the original website it came from and you're caught, and I'm giving you an F.'"

The University of Virginia economics department investigated the possibility that a sizeable number of its graduate students might have cheated on an exam, but declined to disclose the results of the investigation, citing student privacy. UVA, which has one of the toughest honor codes in the country, was embarrassed in 2001 when widespread cheating was found in an introductory physics class, and 48 students subsequently quit or were dismissed from the university.

The big culprit is the internet, according to researchers, higher education officials and students alike. Other kinds of technology-driven cheating occur, of course. Students may use text messaging on their cellphones to exchange test answers, or enter them on graphics calculators, or download answers or lectures on their iPods, but those methods can be dealt with by banning those devices from the classroom during tests.

The internet, however, is ubiquitous. It is a tempting venue for students looking for ideas and essays that closely parallel their assignments. In fact, online services now exist that will sell a student an essay on practically any subject imaginable. And there are also online services for faculty that will run essay excerpts through a search engine to see if they match anything available on the internet.

"Internet plagiarism is probably by far the most common form of cheating, or academic dishonesty," said Didi Kuo, a 2005 Emory graduate who chaired the university's honor council. "The main difference is that, instead of before, when you had bits and pieces of plagiarism from books and articles, when students actually went to the library, now you just get huge chunks of entire papers that come from a web source."

Renee Williams, an Emory student honor council member who previously chaired the honor council at Emory's Oxford College, believes internet plagiarism is on the rise. "It's just so easy and accessible," she said.

 
The intense competition to gain admission to certain colleges, and to do well once there, leads many students to cheat, Timothy Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity, at Duke University, believes.
(Photo by Jim Stratford, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
"A lot of it has to do with the fact that people get desperate," she added. "Whereas before, if you were up at 4:30 in the morning, there really wasn't a lot you could do to finish a paper. But now it's so tempting to go to that one website and get that one idea and not cite it, or just read the website and formulate the ideas as your own. It's more accessible to people because they're more pressed for time. The technology simply facilitates it. But it's also easier to find it (the plagiarism), too."

Patrick Allitt, a philosophy professor who directs the Emory Center for Teaching and Curriculum, said he usually detects internet plagiarism in writing assignments because the writing is too good. "They've copied from someone who's a professional writer," he said.

"It jumps out at you that it's probably not the student's own work, if you've already seen the rotten writing they do most of the time," said Allitt, author of the book, "I'm the Teacher; You're the Student." "Often they are not experienced enough to realize how much worse their writing is than the writing they're copying."

David Keller, at Utah Valley State, has changed the way he teaches because of internet plagiarism. He used to let his philosophy students write about topics of their choice. "Now I think it's better to give them a very narrow subject so they can't just go to the internet and download any paper," he said. "I also tell my students that I have as good an internet access as they do."

The problem in dealing with cheating is that it involves more than technology, it also reflects the attitudes of students and faculty, and the culture in which they coexist.

High schools don't emphasize ethical values nearly enough, some experts argue, and students thus arrive at college with an attitude that it's alright to cut corners, or they simply don't understand what constitutes plagiarism.

"Getting into the best school—and seizing whatever means necessary to make that happen—seems to be valued more than the actual education," said Timothy Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity. "Loading up on courses, majors and extra-curriculars—a quantity of involvement—has produced highly scheduled and busy young people who have to resort to shortcuts, to check everything off on their daily planner, and who have no time for reflection. Combine that with the reigning cynicism that surrounds business, politics, sports and religion, and it is no surprise that in the absence of a comprehensive focus on academic integrity, students will resort to and justify cheating as a way to get ahead in our society."

Emory graduate Kuo echoed that assessment. "At places like Emory and top-tier private universities, there is a high level of competition and a need to succeed, coupled with a privileged background," said Kuo. "So a lot of times, students have this attitude, of, you know, my father is whoever he is, and therefore I can get away with things. I'm not saying cheating is confined to these groups, but by and large, students feel that they can get away with things and that they also deserve good grades, because of the money they're paying to go here or because they worked so hard in high school."

And while faculty are the main sources of cheating complaints, some are reluctant to report cheating because they are concerned about the effect on the students, or feel that the honor code system is not efficient.

Some faculty at Emory "feel the system is broken and it's not worth turning in cases," said Dean Lancaster. "Some are cynical."

Faculty may also be "all mercy and no justice," said Dodd. "They take the long view, which is, 'Will my action in some way preclude a successful future for the student?'" In general, Dodd said, students "come to the table more concerned and more aware of the extent of the problem than faculty."

If there is a broad consensus on the extent and cause of the problem, there is no consensus on how to solve it.

While a growing number of colleges and universities have adopted honor code systems—no one has a precise tally of the total—their operations and range of sanctions vary widely. They routinely devote two or more hours of the orientation program for first-year students to explain the honor code, and most require students to sign a paper saying they will uphold the code.

 
Patrick Allitt, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, sometimes can detect internet plagiarism because the quality of writing is so much better than in the student's other work.
(Photo by Robin Nelson, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
The gold standard for honor codes is at Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia. On those campuses, exams are not proctored, students are required to report cheating they observe, and students run the judicial system. And there is only one sanction if a student is found guilty—expulsion.

Other universities have adopted a "modified" honor system with a range of penalties. At the University of Maryland, for example, most students who are found responsible for academic dishonesty receive an "XF" grade which is recorded as "failure due to academic dishonesty." First-time offenders can usually have the "XF" removed from their record if they attend an academic integrity seminar.

Rutgers University's McCabe favors the "modified" approach because his research has convinced him that students are not going to turn in their classmates.

"Students object to a system that tries to put an obligation on them to report," said McCabe. "There have been a number of schools in the last decade or so that tried to go to the full-fledged honor code and lost the vote at the student level on that issue. They've come back a couple of years later without the reporting requirement, and they've been successful."

More and more schools, with and without honor codes, are opting for the technological approach to policing cheaters. This is not just a matter of students using cut-and-paste to rip off master's theses and research papers found on the web. Schools are up against a wide range of online services with names like "Term Paper Relief" and "The Paper Store" that will, for a cost of $10 to $20 a page, provide "research assistance" for students to "use as a guide" in their "own original work."

To combat this, as well as internet plagiarism generally, an online service called "Turnitin.com" has become the hottest thing on the market. It charges schools thousands of dollars a year to permit their faculty to submit essays and other student papers to be checked for plagiarism.

At the University of Iowa, for example, which spends about $11,000 a year on Turnitin, Associate Provost Lola Lopes says that anecdotal reports from faculty suggest that Turnitin has solved the plagiarism problem in their classes.

But Turnitin is controversial and has been rejected at some campuses after faculty protested that using the service routinely is unfair to students.

Allitt, who wanted to see the service introduced at Emory, says the dean of the college was willing to purchase it, but that some faculty said it would be a violation of the honor code to assume that students might be violating it.

"They (faculty) want to assume that students aren't cheating—until they have overwhelming evidence to the contrary," said Allitt. "And they thought it would be an act of bad faith on our part to do that. But I certainly think it's necessary, because there's no doubt that it's going on all the time around us."

In much the same vein, discussions about using Turnitin at Washington and Lee have foundered. "Having it used on a regular basis makes the assumption that people are assumed guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around," said Dean of Students Dawn Watkins.

Rutgers University's Donald McCabe also opposes the regular use of plagiarism-detection programs. "If you're going to use it on everything that's submitted, you're saying to students, 'I can't trust you; I've got to check everything you do.'" McCabe said he uses Turnitin "only when I have other reasons to believe I might have a problem. In other words, I'm going to give my students the benefit of the doubt unless I see something that concerns me."

Emory honor council member Renee Williams disagrees that there is a presumption of guilt when papers are checked automatically for plagiarism.

 
Tom Lancaster, an Emory University political scientist, once found his own research being plagiarized by a student.
(Photo by Robin Nelson, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
"Anywhere you go in life, you're going to have to be held accountable," she said. "If you're a businessman, you're going to be audited. If you're honest and do your work the way it's supposed to be done, I really don't see a problem with it. You're at a university, you chose to come here, and you should be ready to accept the standards that are put forth by the university. You're not forced to come here."

There is also debate within the academy over whether making the judicial process more open might act as a deterrent. Most honor councils work under strict rules of confidentiality, and their record of convictions and acquittals, and range of penalties levied, may be little known to the student body at large.

One aspect of the Washington and Lee system is a noteworthy exception. Students who are found guilty of honor code violations there may appeal their convictions, but if they do, it is heard in a public trial open to anyone in the university community. Such trials are extremely rare—Dean Watkins can't remember one in more than ten years. "When a decision is handed down by the student executive committee," she said, "it is highly unlikely a student is going to appeal that decision."

Objection to most forms of publicity stems from fears of litigation brought under a federal law which protects student privacy, but some university officials believe that more publicity would act as a deterrent to academic dishonesty.

Allitt praised the efforts of Emory honor council members, but said they are working with a "broken system" that is too slow and cumbersome. "What's worse," he said, "it's so shrouded in secrecy that it's got no deterrent aspect. When a student gets punished, no one else gets to hear about it. So the next generation of cheaters are not deterred because they don't know what's happened to the previous generation. A kid who goes through it is astonished to discover what's happening to him or her—they don't have any point of comparison."

But those with the broadest perspective on academic dishonesty argue that playing "gotcha" with students is not the answer-that fostering the right environment is the only long-term solution. This approach focuses heavily on stressing moral values in orientation sessions and expecting faculty to make clear to students what won't be tolerated.

At Washington and Lee, said Watkins, "We spend so much time at the front end educating our students about the process, that the fear of that single sanction—expulsion—is so great that we tend to have lower levels of self-reported cheating than most places.

"Part of our known culture is that we're a place where the honor system is a key school tradition," she added. "And I think that in itself helps us in stemming the growth of cheating."

"We have to inculcate in students the habits of character," said Duke University's Dodd. "We have research that suggests that students who do not abide by the norms and standards of the academic community are more likely to violate the norms and standards of the workplace. Students need to hear consistently that academic integrity matters, and they need to understand consistently what the guidelines are as they apply in each and every class."


Don Campbell is a freelance writer and a lecturer in journalism at Emory University.

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National CrossTalk Winter 2006

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