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Plagiarism


The NY Times has an interesting article on plagiarism yesterday.

At Rhode Island College, a freshman copied and pasted from a Web site’s frequently asked questions page about homelessness — and did not think he needed to credit a source in his assignment because the page did not include author information.

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.

The article goes on to wonder if it has something to do with the digital age. I say nay. I say it has less to do with copy/paste making it easier to plagiarise than before and it has everything to do with kids not getting the proper education up to and through college.

I agree with Jonathan Adler at Volokh (the comment section is gold, read them all);

Another possible explanation for the apparent rise in plagiarism is that many college students are simply unprepared for the type of academic work that is expected of them and engage in plagiarism even though they know it’s wrong.

At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others.

Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied — knowing it was wrong — who were “unwilling to engage the writing process.”

“Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice,” he said.

I find this explanation more persuasive.  I also think the apparent rise in plagiarism is of a piece with the apparent rise in cheating by students generally.  The problem is not that academic standards are too strict for the Internet Age.  Rather, it’s that students are not taught that such standards really matter.

I see it getting played out like this. Student A has written papers in high school, where the teacher maybe didn’t catch plagiarism or didn’t care to do anything about it. The teacher doesn’t want to hurt the students self-esteem so give the kid an A for a mediocre paper with sub par citing. (A product of grade inflation in high schools trying to keep kids going through the system.) The student thinks that doing mediocre work is not only acceptable but the way it should be done. After all the kid did get an A right?

So now the kid goes to college and has to write a research paper. They think, “Well it was good enough for an A last time.” Couple that with the fact that this paper is probably for a class that the student doesn’t want to take anyway, say psychology, sociology or freshman english. Not only are they going to wait until the last-minute to do the paper, but in their race to finish it, they are going to lift a few lines, paragraphs or the whole damn paper. After all it’s just a fuck off class anyway, why should they have to do any actual work.

They submit the paper and the teacher sees obvious plagiarism, most likely because half the class somehow used the exact same wording for one or more sentences for the class wide paper. What does the teacher do? Reporting the problem to the dean is a hassle. Maybe if one or two kids were caught, but when half the class does it…that’s a lot of paper work. Too much hassle, so it goes unreported. (I linked to a few of the comments at  Volokh.)

Since a lot of the comment from the Volokh post are from actual college teachers and professors, I think that their input is very relevant. The common theme is lack of accountability , lack of academic integrity and lack of ethics. To me it all points to my favorite subject in Academia, grade inflation.

If you think about it, all plagiarism is, is a mode of how grade inflation works. A kids plagiarizes, if the teacher doesn’t do anything about it or if the administration doesn’t do anything about it (lack of ethics and accountability) then the kids gets off free with a passing grad (lack of academic integrity). Now they think that is acceptable behavior.

So what happens when that student goes into the real world? If they go into private business, and they get caught plagiarizing, they get fired and the company gets sued. If they go into public sector, they become Senators or Vice Presidents. Ha ha just kidding…or am I?

Teachers can easily stop plagiarism.

Ronald C. Den Otter: A few more thoughts. (1) When I assign papers, I try to make sure that the question(s) to be addressed are narrow enough that it would difficult to lift something from the Internet. As far as I know, this minimizes academic dishonesty.

Yet most teachers don’t do that. I see that as merely another form of grade inflation. They make the assignments easy. So easy that the kids don’t think they need to actually think about it, just copy down what someone else did.

Another reason that kids just don’t care about plagiarism is summed up nicely in this comment.

Angus says:

They are at school to learn…

That, I think, is one of the fundamental disconnects with students. Many of them are not there to learn, but because college is a hurdle they must overcome in order to get a job/career. They don’t see college classes in a broad sense (how will this teach me to think for myself in the future), but in a narrow sense (how will this help me to get a job?). Worse, administrators are now pursuing the same “standardized test” mentality so prevalent among K-12 grades, where student achievement has to be boiled down into numbers for pre-set “assessment outcomes.” You can’t really put a number on, for example, whether a student has become a good writer or thinker. So instead, assessment-minded administrators are pushing us to test for predetermined factoids, names, and dates that can be learned by pure memorization and easily counted on multiple choice exams. And scores showing “successful teaching” will increasingly involve teaching to the assessment test.

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Categories: Academia, Inflation
  1. yttik
    August 4, 2010 at 18:52

    What is happening is that kids are not putting forth any effort anymore. They’re lazy, for lack of a better word. I don’t know exactly what caused it, but I’ve been watching it go down hill for a while now.

    During the school year I help with some highly capable kids and even these kids are barely bothering to show their potential. Hand writing is deliberately sloppy, they skim thru reading, they really have an attitude like they don’t care. They do their entire week’s home work on the bus on the way to school at the last minute and they still get an “A,” because compared to other kids, at least they’re actually turning something in. I see what these kid’s problem is, things come easy to them, so they’ve quit putting in any effort. The problem of course, is that life in the real world doesn’t work that way.

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