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Cut and Paste 101? 

Professors face new plagiarism challenges from the digital generation

Published September 1, 2010 at 5:10 a.m. | Updated September 16, 2016 at 3:20 p.m.


As thousands of college freshmen arrive on campuses across the state, they bring with them not only the requisite hardware of 21st-century communications — laptops, smartphones, scads of apps — but also unprecedented levels of digital deftness. Never before have college students had so much data literally at their fingertips.

Yet this seemingly limitless universe of information also presents students with tantalizing opportunities to pass off other people’s words and ideas as their own. And for some, the temptation to hand in writing assignments that were lifted from the Internet is too powerful to resist.

Plagiarism is by no means a new phenomenon, and no one has suggested that the current crop of students is more ethically challenged than previous ones. However, a 2008 survey of 484 Middlebury College students revealed troubling figures: Of the seniors who took the survey, 44 percent admitted to some form of academic dishonesty, and one-third of those students engaged in such behavior at least once per semester.

Those numbers are consistent with national averages. Many commentators suggest that, for young people growing up in the age of Wikipedia, digital file swapping, illegal downloads and music sampling, the concepts of copyright, authorship and intellectual property can get fuzzy.

Some academics now say that teaching today’s students what plagiarism is — and why they should avoid it — has never been a bigger challenge. In fact, Oliver Goodenough, a professor at the Vermont Law School who specializes in intellectual property rights and applications of neuroscience in law, suggests that students’ sense of moral ambiguity when it comes to digital “ownership” may have something to do with how their brains work. Simply put, when students cut and paste passages from the Internet, they may be less inclined to think it’s wrong because their brains aren’t hardwired that way.

Let’s be clear: There are no trend lines showing academic dishonesty on the rise in Vermont’s colleges and universities. While some schools reported higher numbers of honor-code violations last year than the year before, officials at others say the numbers vacillate wildly from one year to another.

Moreover, administrators and faculty who track such figures point out that a spike in the number of academic dishonesty cases doesn’t necessarily mean more cheating occurred, only that more students got caught — another task made easier in the digital age.

Joseph Byrne is associate vice president of academic affairs at Norwich University. He also chairs the faculty’s academic integrity committee. Byrne says that in the 2009-10 school year, faculty reported 16 cases of academic dishonesty among Norwich’s undergraduates, most of which were plagiarism. That’s higher than the average of 12 cases annually, he says.

What were the consequences? Byrne doesn’t know how the undergraduate cases were handled because, at Norwich, cadets’ honor-code violations are addressed by a student honor committee. However, in the same period, 10 of Norwich’s graduate students were found guilty of academic dishonesty. Five received no penalty, four were expelled and one got a six-month “separation,” or suspension.

Byrne says he’s observed a rise in plagiarism since he arrived at Norwich 37 years ago, and he thinks that has a lot to do with the Internet. “These days, it’s very easy to plagiarize, and it’s not much work,” he says.

But Dana Kaplan, assistant director of the Center for Student Ethics and Standards at the University of Vermont, doesn’t necessarily agree that the problem is worse today than it was years ago.

“I wouldn’t say it’s becoming a bigger problem,” Kaplan says. “Obviously, students have access to more information than they have in the past. But I also think that students are coming in with a pretty clear sense of what’s OK and what’s really crossing the line.”

According to Kaplan, a wide range of “academic integrity” violations are reported to her office each year, ranging from plagiarism to collusion to outright fabrication and falsification of data.

Like Norwich, UVM takes such cases seriously. Kaplan says that between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010, 84 students were referred to her office. The overwhelming majority were undergrads. Of them, 79 were found “responsible,” or guilty of wrongdoing, and 43 received an “XF,” or “failing grade based on academic dishonesty.” In several instances, usually those of repeat offenders, students were expelled.

The reasons for these sanctions run the gamut from technical violations — a student didn’t understand proper citation techniques — to laziness to deliberate wrongdoing.

“When I meet with students, and we have the conversation about how this happened, often it’s ‘I was overwhelmed,’ ‘I was in over my head,’ or ‘I had stuff going on with my family and I made a poor choice,’” Kaplan explains.

That said, Kaplan suggests that in the digital age, students may have a difficult time recognizing how plagiarism affects their classmates, instructors and society at large.

“It’s a little more abstract,” she says. “It can be difficult to see stealing an idea or words in the same context as stealing files or shoplifting.”

Jeff Trumbower, dean of St. Michael’s College, agrees. He doesn’t believe this generation of students is less honest than earlier ones.

“What is different,” he says, “is the variety of technologies and sources of information that students don’t know they need to properly cite or give credit to other people’s work.”

According to Trumbower, the “old paradigm” of using and citing printed sources has shifted to a point where “even the concept of authorship has gotten murkier,” and students don’t always know to whom they should give credit when credit is due.

Like many Vermont schools, St. Mike’s tries to be proactive in addressing the issue. Trumbower says that all incoming students must take a first-year seminar that includes a unit on plagiarism, fair use and proper citations. The school’s library staff is particularly helpful in this regard, he adds.

“One of the big goals we have is to expand the universe of resources that our students access,” Trumbower says. “There’s so much quick and easy information that’s available, but we don’t want them to be satisfied with just ... Wikipedia and Google.”

Teaching students to dig deeper into scholarly journals and peer-reviewed articles not only expands their research skills, Trumbower adds, but gives them a better appreciation for authorship.

At Champlain College, which has a campuswide policy on academic honesty, each professional division also has its own specific integrity standards. Scott Baker, assistant dean of Champlain’s division of business, says all students in his program must agree to uphold a “commitment to professional excellence.

“As professors, we know that plagiarism is academically and morally inappropriate,” he says. “We also know that, once students leave the walls of Champlain, plagiarism can result in a lot more dire consequences than a failed paper or a failed class.”

Baker says he’s seen some “pretty egregious” examples of plagiarism — one student cut and pasted four paragraphs word for word from Wikipedia — and he believes the problem has gotten worse in the last five years.

But Baker says he also sees a lot of “involuntary plagiarism.” Incoming students have grown up in an “open-source society” where they are used to drawing on information they assume is free, shared and readily available to anyone, he explains. This can be especially true for students in computer programming.

“Is copying code from Linux considered plagiarism if it’s truly open source?” Baker asks. “It’s fascinating. The lines are definitely changing and not just blurring.”

Oliver Goodenough agrees. The Vermont Law School professor’s work has included brain-scan experiments that explore the neurological basis of moral reasoning.

In February 2008, Goodenough and fellow researcher Gregory Decker published a paper for the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University entitled “Why Do Good People Steal Intellectual Property?” It explores the reasons why otherwise honest people, who would find shoplifting or picking someone’s pocket morally repugnant, feel no compunction about stealing a digital file of equal value.

As Goodenough explains, any number of factors can cause certain acts to gain or not gain “behavioral traction”; those that do inspire emotional aversion. For example, were we taught that stealing is wrong? Are we stealing from someone we know, or from “the man”? What’s our expectation of getting caught, and what are the possible consequences?

But Goodenough contends another factor may be at work: The human brain is more likely to experience an emotional inhibition to stealing something tangible, such as a book or CD, than stealing something intangible, such as a digital music file.

“Why do people download music illegally?” he asks. “Part of it is, they don’t feel bad when they do it.”

Just as brain researchers now know that our brains are hardwired to recognize faces, Goodenough postulates that they’re also hardwired to put greater value on physical possessions than virtual or abstract ones. So, the process of stealing a CD from a store — or handcopying a passage from a book — is an “easier trip wire” of moral triggers that tell us we’re doing something wrong.

Goodenough hasn’t yet done experiments to prove his hypothesis. However, if he’s right, his theory could have serious implications for a whole generation of students, many of whose possessions — films, music files, video games — are “intangibles.” And their attitudes and behaviors toward nonmaterial goods will have a direct influence on their underlying beliefs about plagiarism.

Needless to say, Vermont schools, like their students, are also changing with the times. To address this problem, some, including Norwich, Champlain College and St. Michael’s College, now subscribe to Turnitin, an online program that allows professors to check their students’ writing assignments against a vast database of already-written papers. Other professors, like those at UVM, simply use Google when they come across assignments whose content, style or tone don’t seem consistent with the student’s previous work.

While there’s some dispute over the value — and potential privacy violations — of tools such as Turnitin, there’s no denying they’re yet another example of how the Internet is changing the landscape of academic integrity.

“Just as easy as it is for students to plagiarize now, it’s a lot easier for faculty to catch them,” says Champlain’s Baker. “And students know we have these tools.”

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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