Tuesday, August 3, 2010

NY Times discovers plagiarism

Article in the Sunday Times (August 1) about plagiarism.  Nothing new for those of us teaching in colleges and universities - dealing with plagiarism is a fact of life at my institution.  If I assign a research paper to a class of 30 students, I can almost guarantee that I'll discover at least one blatant example of plagiarism. 

Once a student even copied and pasted his entire paper from an online encyclopedia article.  I'm grading his paper, and it read like it was written by someone with a PhD in the topic (and this was a from student with a D average).  Guess what, it was written by a PhD!  Know what tipped me off (besides the sophistication of the writing)?  The dumbass student left underlined links in his paper complete with their blue color!  Took me all of about 1 minute to find the source via Google.  I was actually insulted that the student thought I would fall for this!

Our college now subscribes to TurnItIn.com so I do attempt to deal proactively with plagiarism issues by making students submit all their papers to this service before handing them in for grading.  There are still ways plagiarize that TurnItIn won't catch, but at least it cuts down on the blatant web page copying.

Predictably, the article blames the digital age we live in for plagiarim:

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Problem is, plagiarism isn't anything new (even if the excuses or methods change).  It was around before the modern digital age of Wikipedia and Google and will continue into the future.  I'd be curious to know if plagiarism has increased in frequency over the years but I haven't seen any data on this (I haven't looked very hard either).  In the 12 years I've been teaching, it hasn't seemed to increase (or decrease) at my institution.

I tend to agree with two people quoted in the article - Sarah Wilensky, a senior at Indiana Univerrsity, who said "students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing" and Donald Dudley, who works in the discipline office of UC Davis, who says that students are "unwilling to engage the writing process" because "writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice."  Many students are attending college to get the piece of paper at the end, they're not especially interested in learning so they see nothing wrong with taking the easy way out if they can get away with it.  Also, especially at a community college, students may be parents and/or working full-time and simply don't have adequate time to devote to their studies (many community college students have very unrealistic expectations about time management and what they can handle - it's exceedingly difficult to work full-time and go to school full-time and few can successfully accomplish it).

Anyway, I'm one of those hard-ass professors who attempts to hold the line and try to catch those engaging in cheating and plagiarism.  Not doing so is a slap in the face to those honest, hard-working students who do it the hard way (and someone has to keep the barbarians outside the gates).

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