Could it be that seventy percent of undergraduate college students admit to cheating and 50 percent have cheated on a written assignment, as reported by a 2005 study by Rutgers University Prof. Don McCabe and the Center For Academic Integrity?

Could it be that at the University of Michigan, with its storied history of progressivism, endless accolades and claim to admit only the leaders and best, that out of an undergraduate population of 25,555, 12,778 students have committed an act of serious plagiarism?

According to a number of administrators, professors, lecturers and students, 50 percent is probably not representative of the number of students who commit serious acts of plagiarism. At the University, they say, the number is much lower.

“Most students act honorably and I think it’s a small number that want to do things that are not appropriate,” said Esrold Nurse, LSA’s assistant dean for student academic affairs.

History Prof. Victor Lieberman had similar sentiments.

“It’s not an issue that really has a lot of currency, it’s not a very common problem and it has not taken a great deal of my attention,” he said.

They may be wrong.

It’s impossible to know the actual number of students who have plagiarized, but it’s likely more than University professors would like to believe.

Left Behind At The Fishbowl

In an attempt to determine the extent to which University students are plagiarizing in their written assignments, we consulted the creator of the blog called www.ahfb.blogspot.com. The blog’s founder, takes papers left behind on the printers in the Angell Hall Computing Site, also known as the Fishbowl, comments on them and posts them to his site.

When a regular reader of the Fishbowl blog found that some information in a paper posted on the site was taken from wikipedia.org, it sparked our curiosity. We contacted the blog’s founder and asked him to look for more examples of plagiarism in the piles of papers he collects.

Of the first five papers he examined, two contained sections taken from websites that were not cited.

In one case, the student’s paper reads, “Missouri is a state with a rich history, strong traditions and a bright future. From small communities to large metropolitan areas, Missouri offers a breadth of opportunities for new emerging companies.” The state of Missouri’s tourism website reads, “Missouri is a state with a rich history, strong traditions and a bright future. From small communities to large metropolitan areas, Missouri welcomes millions of visitors each year to discover all of the features that make our state extraordinary.”

The second example he found was less overt. For an English 225 class, a student took information from a Wikipedia article on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, rearranged and reworded it, but failed to cite the source.

Two out of five is far from proof, so we submitted 14 papers from the Fishbowl to the website TurnItIn.com, which scanned them for plagiarism. At least two contained some elements of plagiarism. Students took information from a document, either by copying it directly or paraphrasing it, and failed to properly cite the material.

This sampling isn’t a representative or scientific survey, but it could be indicative of a more significant problem professors aren’t noticing.

Documenting the problem

Part of the problem in determining how often plagiarism occurs is that the University has no uniform policy on how suspected incidents are handled. Such matters are left to each school or college to decide. Some schools and colleges also do not require faculty members to report cases of plagiarism.

Nurse explained that in LSA, faculty members who suspect students of plagiarism have two options: Choose to deal with the situations on their own or bring the incidents to the attention of the dean, who then meets with the student and may conduct an investigation.

Nurse said faculty members are encouraged to report all incidents of plagiarism so a record can be kept, even if the dean’s office is not directly involved. But he suggested many cases are probably not brought to the attention of his office.

In terms of reported cases of cheating in LSA, the majority of which Nurse said are probably cases of plagiarism, the numbers are increasing. In academic year 2005-2006, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 148 reported cases, the year before there were 131, the year before that 122 and the year before that 107. 18,482 students were enrolled in LSA for the Fall 2005 semester, consisting of about 72 percent of the University’s undergraduate population.

Nurse, and several faculty members pointed out that cases reported to the dean’s office are usually the most egregious, consisting of acts of plagiarism that are so pervasive they are easy to spot – usually more obvious than the ones we discovered.

A problem of recognition and middle ground

Given that we easily found some significant examples of plagiarism, how is it that only 148 students out of the more than 18,000 in LSA were referred for having committed an act of academic dishonesty?

Asked how they check for plagiarism, many faculty members answered by explaining that the most severe forms are easily recognized.

Professors, lecturers and graduate student instructors alike pointed out that to spend time looking for examples of plagiarism in every student’s paper would be impossible, and plagiarism-checking sites like TurnItIn.com haven’t quite caught on.

“You just can’t sit down with every set of papers you have and Google lines from them,” GSI Heidi Suzdorf said. “I think that the sort of inadvertent, borderline cases are not even recognized by graders. They’re just kind of swept under the rug.”

In addition, different types of plagiarism are thought about differently.

Anne Curzan, director of undergraduate and first and second year studies in the English Department, said there are basically three levels of plagiarism that a faculty member encounters.

“In my experience it usually becomes clear in a conversation with a student whether they are confused about how to use sources or whether they took a shortcut and took material that they knew wasn’t theirs,” Curzan said. “Then there’s kind of this middle ground – if I’ve read something in five different places, do I get to count it as a fact or do I still need to cite it? I think those kinds of issues we tend not to see as academic misconduct.”

Curzan said that for the cases that fall into the middle category, most professors, at least in the English department, will simply try to clear up any confusion the student has about citation.

So would the paper we found that borrowed liberally in the first two sentences from the Missouri tourism website be an example of punishable academic dishonesty, or just confusion about citation?

Curzan said that although the opening sentence is clearly copied word-for-word from the website, she identified the example as falling into this category of “middle ground.” Only a sentence and a half was plagiarized, she said, and the information came from an accessible tourism website, almost common knowledge.

Curzan’s analysis of the paper is in line with how the case was actually handled. After being posted to the Fishbowl website, the paper, written for a class in the Business School, was brought to the attention of Business School Professors Thomas Schreiber, chairman of the school’s Community Values Committee, and James Reece, a member of the committee, which deals with issues of academic misconduct at the Business School.

“It was our judgment that the information on the Missouri tourism website constituted common knowledge,” Reece said.

However, Reece said he did give the student a very stern warning about the nature and consequences of academic misconduct.

This incident suggests that plagiarism is not a black-and-white issue. One reason why the number of documented examples at the University remains low is that many cases are probably not determined to be plagiarism.

Or are never found.

Does a solution exist? An educational approach

With no time or resources to look for plagiarism, no concrete definition and no uniform guidelines for reporting and recording confirmed cases, finding a way to combat plagiarism at the University is a daunting task.

Many faculty members have started printing a plagiarism policy on their syllabi, but when asked about the causes of plagiarism, they said it results largely because students don’t understand the nuances – and sometimes the fundamentals – of proper citation.

“The very first class we talk quite a bit about the need to cite sources and MLA format,” said Suzanne Hancock, a lecturer who teaches English 125. “I think all students understand the idea of intellectual integrity, but the problem is more the nitty-gritty aspects, the mechanics of using quotation marks and parentheticals.”

Elizabeth Mann, the president of the LSA Student Government Honor Council which works to promote academic integrity on campus, said the council is spearheading a variety of efforts to teach students about citation.

Recently, the council put up posters in various study rooms on campus with information about citing sources. Additionally, Mann said the council has thought about adding a presentation on citation and academic integrity to freshman orientation, but said it would be logistically difficult to start.

Sulzdorf also advocates for a more preventative approach to teaching academic integrity.

“Despite the existence of English 125, there are real gaps in students’ knowledge,” Sulzdorf said. “If the University is actually serious about stopping plagiarism, they need to get on board a lot earlier than when their GSI is sitting there with a red pen.”

Preventative efforts like posters and presentations might not be enough.

Looking for answers outside of LSA

Some schools at the University have taken a different approach to dealing with plagiarism.

Anthony England, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Engineering, explained that when students enter the engineering program they must sign a copy of the school’s honor code that states that they will not participate in any act of academic misconduct. They also write a statement on all exams saying they have not cheated in any way. Because students sign this honor code, faculty members are not required to be present during exams.

“I’ll set a chair in the hallway,” England said. “If a student has a question they’ll come out and ask me. No one sits in the room and watches for cheating.”

That system, which may seem like an unorthodox approach to some, makes perfect sense to England.

“Being a successful engineer really depends on people respecting what you say, when you sign off on something, your professional integrity says, ‘to the best of my ability, I’m telling the truth,’ ” England said. “Getting a reputation that your word can’t be trusted is professional death.”

England said this method of promoting academic integrity is both efficient and effective, and some statistics on honor codes support his claim.

Don McCabe and the Center for Academic Integrity’s study also concluded that cheating on campuses with honor codes is typically a third to a half lower than on campuses that don’t have honor codes.

The Business School also takes a different approach to dealing with cases of academic dishonesty.

In April 2006, the Community Values Committee voted to adopt a new academic honor code. Under the new policies, professors who suspect students of plagiarism must immediately report incidents to the committee, and may not confront students on their own. The committee then conducts an investigation of the incident and determines whether a student is guilty, and if so, how the student should be punished.

This is a somewhat unusual approach, Reece explained, in the world of academia, a professor’s right to determine a grade or fail a student typically goes unquestioned.

But Reece said it was important to design the code in this manner.

First, he said there were some professors who failed to report incidents of plagiarism to the committee, which made it difficult to gauge how big the problem of academic dishonesty really was.

Second, he explained that the code creates a more uniform way of dealing with problems.

“One professor might lower a grade, another might verbally slap (the offending students) on the wrist, another might fail them – all for the same violation,” Reece said.

The new code has been in effect for less than a year, but both Reece and Schreiber believe it is a major step in an effort to curb academic dishonesty.

“It’s our objective to establish as a culture in this school that (cheating) is going to be minimized,” Schreiber said. “We want students to be brought to the point that they realize the honorable way to go is to be straight in these affairs.”

No easy answers

A solution to the problem of plagiarism at the University is not easily determined, especially when there is no consensus that a real problem even exists. But if the 2005 statistic stating that 50 percent of students have committed one or more serious acts of cheating on a written assignment is even remotely accurate, then far more students are plagiarizing than are being held accountable.

Perhaps the real problem is not one of prevention or recognition but of a different nature altogether. As the opinionated Sulzdorf said in a long interview, the problem with plagiarism at the undergraduate level is that few can define why the act itself is a problem.

In answer to the question “Why does plagiarism matter?” the University Libraries handout on plagiarism reads, “Careers and reputations have been damaged by findings of plagiarism. Journalists have been fired from the Sun-Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Nashville Tennessean. A Harvard psychiatrist resigned after a finding of plagiarism against him.”

This type of argument may not be particularly resonant with students who don’t yet have a career or meaningful reputation to damage, and it doesn’t address the fundamental philosophical question.

There’s the common argument that plagiarism is wrong because it is dishonorable to steal another person’s words or ideas and pass them off as your own. But stealing implies a victim, and as Sulzdorf pointed out, the unnamed government employee who wrote the article on Missouri’s website will never know her work was plagiarized, so in some ways, the morality argument eludes both students and faculty members.

“Students aren’t publishing these papers. Most of them aren’t going to go on with their education, so it doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. There are no reverberations,” Sulzdorf said. “What we’re teaching students when we teach them not to plagiarize is not how to be academics, but about how to be responsible human beings, and if you don’t care that much about the student becoming a responsible human being, then it’s not that big of a deal.”

If Sulzdorf is right, plagiarism at the University will remain accurately un-cited, and a problem many are content to ignore.

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