Is It Ignorance or a Lack of Ethics? … Most Likely Both!

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Last week I shared the results of a study conducted by iParadigms entitled, “Plagiarism and the Web.”  iParadigms is a web-based provider of solutions for plagiarism most known for a program called TurnItIn, used by many colleges and universities to 
check the work of students for plagiarism.  iParadigms reviewed 33.5 million papers (9 million from high school students and 24 million from college students) during a one year period (June, 2010 through June, 2011).  The study provided data on the originality of these papers.  They found 128 million “content matches,” which indicate that the paper might contain some degree of plagiarized material.

Clearly, plagiarism is a significant issue.  Recent polls of both faculty and presidents indicate a clear perception that plagiarism is becoming a more significant problem.  But the question is whether or not this is due to a conscious choice by student to cheat, their lack of knowledge about research and citation, or both?  I say it is both!

The study does not draw any conclusions about the issue of plagiarism other than the fact that it is apparently rampant and that there are multiple web-based resources to support this behavior.  It does try to interpret the reasons why some sources are used more by college students.  For example, the authors conclude that college students use paper mills and cheat sites because of the “pressure students face in college,” and more often use news and portals because of “a better understanding of credible sources among higher education students.”

The study recommends the following steps to improve the quality of student papers and to reduce plagiarism:

1)     “Create Plagiarism-Proof Assignments” — The suggestion here is to assign topics that require a more personal or individualized approach.  Also, require students to submit their work in stages.

2)     “Help Students Understand Proper Citation”— This suggestion is self-evident and includes both instruction on conducting research and setting clear expectations/ramifications for plagiarism.

3)     “Use Originality Checking in a Formative Manner” — This suggestion relates to using an aspect of Turnitin to demonstrate to students how better to cite references.

While I appreciate the pedagogical recommendations to both educate and plagiarize-proof the writing process, I think the more important question is “why?”  There is certainly evidence that some students plagiarize because they are unaware of how to conduct research and, more important, how to cite references.  The unlimited resources on the web, the ease of conducting research electronically, and the current “cut and paste” mentality contribute to this problem.  I have written before about my concerns about the quality of research when students often assume all internet sites are equal in their accuracy and depth.

Plagiarism may result from unintended behavior based on ease, access and ignorance.  This certainly calls us to be more deliberate, clear and consistent in educating students in how to conduct research and write papers.  We also need to be sure that our tolerance for this behavior is very low so that corrective measures change behavior.

However, I think we are also facing a deeper and more troublesome challenge than simply ignorance and/or lack of training.  It seems that the core values of integrity and honesty are being challenged every day in multiple ways.  If not immoral, there is certainly a rise in amorality.  We need to confront this with as much passion and energy as the educational process.  Quite frankly, developing moral character is central to our values and educational philosophy as a Catholic college.  Perhaps this is a good topic to assign to our students for their next research paper!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Friday, 18 April 2014