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What the… Plagiarism?

Is there an epidemic of cheating on college campuses?

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As another academic semester comes to a close, I was both struck and disappointed to see how many students ended up failing their final paper assignments due to plagiarism. In commiserating with colleagues, it is abundantly clear to me that our students have a problem properly documenting and citing sources for the facts or opinions they use in their written assignments.

To be clear, for plagiarism to be flagged, it is not necessary for a student to have intended to cheat. This is what is so disheartening in many cases of plagiarism—students do not realize that even if they accessed information from a website that the site and the information need to be properly documented.

Instances of plagiarism do not technically need to discern between the student who deliberately and intentionally copied information from either another student in the class or a source knowing they are passing another source’s information as their own and the student who copies and pastes an excerpt from a website without realizing that, even though that information is free and available to them, they still need to properly document and cite it so that the source is properly credited. In my experience, many students who plagiarize are doing just this—pasting information from a website without knowing that the source has to be appropriately quoted and documented both in-text and as a full reference.

The reason I believe why most students who plagiarize do so without the intention to cheat is because oftentimes in papers that meet the standard for plagiarism, there are other source citations in the paper. In fact, more often than not, the pasted information not properly documented is coming from a non-academic go-to online source for students, such as a definition in Google or facts from Wikipedia. Cases of plagiarism in my experience also span the range of students, so it isn't just the low performing ones who are trying to "pass-off" other material as their own.

Even high-performing students can be caught doing this, which suggests to me that most cases reflect students not realizing that regardless of the source, they have to properly document and source where the information they use is coming from. Or perhaps even the pressure to perform at a high level compels some students to seek shortcuts.

Interestingly, an article published recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that not only is cheating rampant on college campuses, but the disturbing claim that faculty are regularly detecting cheating but not holding students accountable is also made. For instance, McGlynn (2019) notes that in a recent survey, only a quarter of college alumni reported that they had never cheated in college. Moreover, this writer—and apparent educator—suggests that faculty is not regularly reporting issues of cheating that they have detected, because it requires them to do too much work. To be fair, this assessment is not based exclusively on written assignments but also on cheating that can occur when students are taking exams as well.

Nonetheless, as it applies to plagiarism, this assertion is in direct contradiction to both my experiences as faculty at a community college and the experiences of my colleagues. Not only do I fail every instance of plagiarism that is detected for any written assignments, but the syllabus clearly outlines that students who are caught plagiarizing are subject to failure of the entire course depending on the severity of the case.

Unfortunately, in the case of written assignments, many students are lacking in basic media literacy. In addition to not being able to identify credible from non-credible sources, let alone academic or empirical work from just any article one can find online, digital natives who have grown up with free access to information on the internet do not automatically document in their papers information that comes from websites—even if they do a word for word paste of passages from the internet in their papers. As such, part of what I have to do as an instructor is to help students cultivate their citation skills and demonstrate that any fact, opinion, idea, or statistic that comes from anywhere other than our class discussions or their own heads needs to be properly documented and afforded credit in their papers.

Despite such a focus—oftentimes pervasively and repeatedly over the course of a semester—students will submit assignments that have quoted material from other sources without actual quotations or sourcing of any kind. Such is perhaps a sign of the culture we live in today. Perhaps it should not be a surprise given that even the First Lady has engaged in flagrant plagiarizing of Michelle Obama’s words in her public speeches, to very little backlash or accountability. And yet, I still find myself disheartened when I detect so many cases of plagiarism among my students.

In fact, I regularly get negative feedback on evaluations from students regarding my plagiarism policy. Apparently, “even failing just one sentence that is copied” is seen as a militant stance regarding integrity in the classroom. So perhaps there is some truth to the claims McGlynn (2019) makes. Nonetheless, my rejoinder to such backlash would be, if we can’t hold our students accountable in an academic environment, where (and who) will they learn accountability from?

Copyright 2019 Azadeh Aalai


McGlynn, T. (2019, December 10). Why we don’t report all of the cheating we detect. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Advice.