By October of my first year of teaching, I’d had five plagiarism cases. Three more surfaced by Christmas, and a couple more in the second term. My response was typical, I suppose—shock, surprise, anger, exasperation. Mostly disbelief.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. If recent studies are accurate, half of all undergraduates admit to having engaged in “serious cheating in written work,” which includes copying from a written source or the internet without footnoting1 —the kind of plagiarism I encountered. At five cases in a class of over fifty students, I was at the low end of the scale in terms of cheating—barely 10 %.
Cheating and plagiarism are increasingly becoming ‘hot topics’ both on campus and in the media. Perhaps most notorious, was last year’s Maclean’s article which lambasted universities for their ignorance of, and indifference to, the rampant cheating and plagiarism going on in Canada’s universities. Since Christiansen-Hughes and McCabe’s study of cheating at Canadian universities was published in 2006, University Affairs, The National Post, The Teaching Professor, The Chronicle of Higher Education and others have all published articles on the “scandal” (Maclean’s terminology). Universities across Canada have revamped their academic misconduct prevention strategies and instituted new programs, from Wilfrid Laurier University’s mandatory orientation-week seminars to the University of Manitoba’s ‘honour code’ forms which students sign and hand in with every assignment.
In other words, if the extent of academic misconduct among undergraduates wasn’t obvious in 2005, it should be by now.
Most professors are now aware of the strategies we should be using to prevent cheating. Change assignments and tests from year to year. Develop unusual or particularly specific essay questions and assignments that are unlikely to match essays available for sale on the Internet. Break down the assignment into proposals and drafts, so students are forced to learn time-management skills, since many students cheat when they panic before a due date. Give a lecture on plagiarism in each and every course—and then give it again. Insist that the administration have workable systems of discipline for academic misconduct, and that it track repeat offenders. Use turnitin.com.
Because these studies and articles are readily available, and because most of us have read at least one or two, it is not necessary to go into the details or the common solutions proposed. There are a few dimensions to this phenomenon of cheating and plagiarism, however, that many articles and discussions miss. Many professors are frustrated by the fact that even after implementing most or all of the measures advised by the articles on plagiarism, we still find ourselves dealing with several cases a year.
My students always look shocked when they are told they should never cut and paste into their essays, and that even cutting and pasting from the net into an open ‘research file’ is dangerous.
It seems that there are some broader, underlying factors at work, both within the culture of incoming undergraduates and within the culture of our universities, that have not yet been addressed.
Since my five cases in 2005, I have been involved in plagiarism discussions, education and policy decision-making at both Wilfrid Laurier and Dalhousie. I have also put a great deal of thought and effort into my own teaching strategies, and have involved my students in conversations about their assumptions, beliefs, attitudes and previous education with regards to plagiarism and referencing. From these discussions, three main broader issues have become clear; these have been touched on in some of the debate about academic misconduct, but most studies do not address them fully enough.
The Cut-and-Paste Generation
My roommate this year is twenty-seven. I am thirty-three. Between us, I am discovering, there is a cultural and generational gap far greater than one would expect from five years. I can remember not owning a computer and was in the first year of university students to automatically get an email account.
My roommate barely uses email. If I want to ask him to buy milk on the way home I change my ‘status’ on my Facebook page—he gets instant updates of all his friends’ statuses on his cellphone. To him, a cellphone is an unquestioned necessity—like heat or water for me—and it never occurs to him to cancel his cellphone if he’s short on cash. He works on two computers at once—a downloaded movie plays on his desktop while he does his homework on his laptop. He can no more imagine living without an iPod than I can imagine living without a car radio. He doesn’t own a watch: his alarm clock is his cell-phone.
Generational and technological gaps have always existed, of course, and maybe this one is no different. But there has been a major shift in the attitude towards technology in the past five or so years, and universities—and faculty—are only just starting to catch up. The break comes somewhere among the people in their late twenties: for the most part, those older than twenty-six or twenty-seven have a different attitude to technology than their younger peers.
Teens and twenty-year-olds are surrounded by technology and information nearly every waking moment. We know this; but we don’t always think through the ramifications. One consequence is that information is pervasive, persistent, and—as far as the end-users are concerned—relatively sourceless. Music is made by sampling, news reports are made by cribbing from competitors, scrapbooking is the craft of the day . . . and essays are made by cutting-and-pasting. Most students truly do not see a problem with this approach: information is information, so why does it matter where it comes from?
Cutting and pasting seems to be the standard research modus operandi of most high school and undergraduate students. My students always look shocked when they are told that they should never ever cut and paste into their essays, and that even cutting and pasting from the net into an open ‘research file’ is dangerous. Some have even responded that this is how they were taught to research in high school; and in some schools, this is what they were actually taught. Admittedly, I don’t remember footnoting all that much in my high school years. I didn’t copy large chunks of information out of books when writing high school essays because paraphrasing was easier, not because I thought copying directly was particularly wrong.
We need to go beyond telling students not to plagiarize. We need to be explicit and clear about what plagiarism is, and why it is objectionable. Most students understand when you explain that you don’t want to see someone else’s internet words in their paper, you want to see—and mark—their own words. When you point out that cutting-and-pasting is not that hard, and requires very little thought, they may not only stop plagiarizing, but begin to understand the components of an academic essay. When they begin to re-envision essays not as repositories of data or information, but as contributions to an ongoing conversation and debate, they will also come to understand why it is important that the reader know who said what in the debate—in other words, they will begin to see the importance of referencing.
The second problem that comes with the pervasiveness of information and technology, in addition to the cut-and-paste impulse, is the disassociation of information from its source. Movies are on computers, language lessons come through iPods, email comes via phones. Phones are cameras, cameras are clocks, and clocks are—well, almost obsolete. Every December and again in April I am baffled when students are shocked that they cannot use cell-phones in the examination hall. They do not understand that this means they also cannot use their cell-phones as a clock. They gape at me in astonishment when I confiscate their phone; it simply does not occur to them that someone can tell the time without a phone.
In terms of essays, many students enter university with a complete inability to discriminate among sources. When I read a journal article in JStor or ProQuest, in my mind I am still reading a paper journal from a library shelf; it just happens to be stored in a computer. When my students find a journal article on JStor, however, they are finding it on “the Internet,” and they don’t understand how this source of information is any different from anything else one finds on the internet (read: Wikipedia).
Universities are catching up with this technological/ generational gap; but there is about a five-year time lag. Last year it was my fourth-year students plagiarizing, and not my first-years—largely because the first-years were getting lectures on plagiarism in all their classes. The fourth-years, on the other hand, did not know that it was possible to plagiarize in an oral presentation (cut-and-pasting Wikipedia), or that assembling unattributed quotations to make an essay was not acceptable even if the sources were in the bibliography. (One student said he had received straight As through three years of university using precisely this technique).
It’s easy to blame the students; and people have commented on the technology problem before. However, there is a more pervasive cultural disjunction at work, not in our students, but in our universities. It is part of the way the system works, and change doesn’t seem likely. However, we need to be explicit about it to students, and make it clear where the lines and boundaries are.
University culture is fundamentally schizophrenic on a number of levels—and many of these levels have a subtle impact on the plagiarism debate. We pride ourselves on being institutions where cooperation and collaboration are encouraged. Funding bodies such as SSHRC increasingly look favourably upon collaborations and inter-disciplinary or inter-institutional projects. Few papers in the sciences are published without a list of individuals involved in the project; and while articles in the arts or humanities are less likely to be the product of collaboration, humanities professors still often work together on edited books, large projects, and interdisciplinary research. We review each other’s work, edit each other’s articles, and borrow each other’s syllabi and teaching notes. At conferences, we exchange ideas, critique papers, and form joint sessions with overlapping topics. In our classrooms, we encourage a similar kind of collaboration, through in-class discussion, out-of-class BLS/WebCT discussion boards, and group work. We suggest to our students that they form study groups, go to the Writing Centre, or consult a Teaching Assistant or peer for help.
At the same time, all promotional and tenure decisions in universities are made on a strictly individual basis. Research is rewarded, for the most part, at an individual level. Graduates of interdisciplinary PhDs find it difficult to get jobs within the traditional disciplinary structure of departments. Even team-taught courses cause administrative and financial nightmares. Most importantly, we insist on marking and assessing our students on an individual basis. The individual transcript is the bedrock of our system, and it is starkly at odds with the collaborative values we ostensibly espouse. Because it is so important, we react strongly to issues of plagiarism, cheating, and academic misconduct.
Our university culture has a clear idea of where the lines fall between collaboration and cheating, helping and plagiarizing. From the point of view of a student, however, it can be confusing. How is my asking a colleague to edit an article different from a student asking a parent to re-write a paper? Where is the line between ‘studying together’ and ‘cheating’? If we crib from textbooks, other profs, the internet, and various other sources for our lectures, why can a student not do the same for an essay? Writing Centres especially are hampered by this schizophrenia, since they often have strict policies not to ‘edit’ or ‘proof-read’ students’ papers, but merely to ‘teach’ or ‘suggest’. Too often the student emerges simply confused.
Many programs, as well, emphasize the importance of group work and team projects—and then expect the students to forget everything they have been modelling and practising all term when it comes to the exam or the final paper. It is no coincidence that programs with the highest level of groupwork—business, law, etc.—also report the highest levels of cheating, although most studies attribute it to the ‘mercantile’ attitudes of those students. If we don’t want our students to work together, why do we put so much emphasis on their working together?
University culture is fundamentally schizophrenic on a number of levels— and many of the levels have a subtle impact on the plagiarism debate.
It does bear repeating that most of us do have clear ideas of where the line rests between collaboration and cheating. We must make that line equally apparent to our students. We need to explain explicitly why some projects are group projects, but the end-of-term paper is not. We need to clearly outline the difference between ‘editing’ and ‘re-writing,’ between ‘helping’ and ‘cheating,’ between ‘getting inspiration’ and ‘plagiarizing.
And we need to be explicit and conscious about our own practices too: showing students where academics footnote their colleagues in journal articles, for example, demonstrates how one can collaborate without cheating. We need to start referencing our own lectures, whether through footnotes on slides, references on the chalkboard, or a cumulative bibliography for the course. The collaborative enterprise is one of the greatest strengths of a university; we need to show our students how to do it properly.
Most of these observations have referred to the ‘unintentional’ plagiarizers—the students who don’t quite get that their actions constitute academic misconduct. But no amount of education about plagiarism will stop the students who cheat knowingly. We cannot fully depend on technologies like turnitin either, for these students will always find ways to get around them. A sharp-eyed Teaching Assistant of mine caught one student who had uploaded a different essay to turnitin from the hard copy he handed in—the turnitin version had the plagiarized sections cut out!
There is only one way we will significantly decrease this kind of cheating: change the culture in our schools. We cannot hope to have much effect on the broader culture at large, but we need to develop a culture in our universities where values such as honour and integrity are not only officially upheld but adhered to and talked about.
How do we do this? One way is to use the subjects we teach as vehicles for discussions about these ethical issues. In my Arthurian Literature class, this approach is easy—students who scoff when I start using words such as honour laugh less when I describe cheaters in terms of the most despicable characters in the works we study. Other classes can do the same: a politics class can compare the ethics of politicians to the ethics we espouse in universities; a business class can study the consequences of unethical behaviour in cases such as Enron; an anthropology class can consider the ways in which honourable behaviour is crucial to the functioning of communities and groups.
We can also turn the mercantile, practical, so-called ‘real world’ discourse that is so often used against us, to our favour. Honour is important in institutions beyond universities, and we need to emphasize this to our students. Students going on to medical school, law school, engineering, psychology, or teaching professions can be asked to look at the honour codes upheld by their respective professions, and at the consequences of dishonourable behaviour. Students in university sports can consider their cheating within the context of the athletic code of conduct.
We can even reach those who see their degrees in purely commercial terms, as a piece of paper or a service bought and paid for. (These are the worst offenders in cheating, according to Christiansen-Hughes and McCabe.) We need to make it clear to our students that cheating in university is like buying a gym membership and then paying someone else to sit on the exercise bike for you. The gym membership might let you sign up for the marathon, but it’s not going to help you win the race; a degree might get you a job, but it’s not going to help you do the work.
Even honour can be quantified, in a sense. I tell my students that their honour is worth more than an essay for my course. If they’re going to sell their souls, the starting bids should be set far higher.
Last term, my fifth teaching full-time, was the first time I didn’t have any plagiarism cases. The plagiarism lecture for my first-years is ready; we’ll see how next term goes. AM
Kathy Cawsey is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University