The National Catholic Review
Raymond A. Schroth
Declining standards make getting caught the primary offense
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My heart sank. Joe Hotz (not his real name) had struck me as one of the better students. The assignment had been to read James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” watch John Huston’s film adaptation of it and then write a one-page essay analyzing one scene. But something did not smell right. I had already graded a half-dozen short essays by Hotz, so I knew his style. This was not it. I searched for one suspicious sentence using Google, and voila! He had cribbed his report from someone else.

That was an English class. Worse, in a way, was the case of two students in a journalism ethics class who knew well the current scandals of a humiliated young trio of reporters: Janet Cooke of The Washington Post, Stephen Glass of The New Republic and Jayson Blair of The New York Times. Their careers had shattered like a dropped glass after they had faked stories. How could these students commit the very offense their course aimed to prevent?

To some, academic dishonesty, including plagiarism, is neither a crime nor a sin; it is a mistake. To me, because I see a university education as not just intellectual, but moral, it is all three. The 19- to 25-year-old conscience is still being formed. But the student who finds someone else to write his research paper today is more likely to become the driver fleeing the scene of an auto accident tomorrow than is the student who presents his true self in the classroom.

Evidence shows that academic dishonesty in its various forms is spreading like the flu. A recent New Yorker article profiled a young man who compulsively “writes”—that is, pastes together—crime novels using passages pilfered from piles of other books. To some this is merely a copyright violation that “hurts” no one—no one except the deceiver, who degrades himself and the culture he typifies, where in business and politics the contradiction between the face and the public mask do not matter as long as the charade makes money for some and amuses others.

The China Syndrome

An explosive investigation by The Chronicle of Higher Education, co-researched with The New York Times, assesses the increasing recruitment by U.S. universities, anxious to boost both diversity and income, of students from China’s expanding middle class. As a result of China’s one-child policy, nouveaux riche families are free to invest heavily in their one offspring’s future. This can include sending him or her overseas for an American education and paying (hurrah for the university!) full tuition, whether or not the young person speaks any English or has been intellectually prepared by China’s rote-memory learning system to meet American standards. Many of these students stumble through their early college years and drag down the standards in classes, as teachers limit discussion and cut down oral presentations to give the foreign students a break.

Wanting Tang, for example, described on her Facebook page as “really fun” and “really serious,” was guided by an agency in Shanghai to the University of Delaware. Her family paid the agency $3,300 to prep her for the university’s entrance exam and another $4,000 to write her admissions essay and put together her application. Some other agencies falsify school letterheads and create doctored transcripts and counterfeit letters of recommendation. After interviewing 250 students headed for the United States, a consulting company in Beijing concluded that 90 percent provided false recommendations and 70 percent had other people write their personal essays.

Delaware’s president admits that many of the applications are false but notes that it is a problem many universities are grappling with. Interviewing applicants in China would assess their real aptitude, but that would be costly. The Chinese plagiarism phenomenon has been explained on a Georgetown University blog as the result of cultural differences, like the Chinese pressure to conform, the tendency to consider the professor a “sage on the stage” and an understanding of term papers as a copy-and-paste collection of information. American individualists, by contrast, consider academic papers to be creative research projects where “one missing reference could get someone expelled.”

How Widespread?

But recent headlines demonstrate that plagiarism and its near relatives are not foreign imports. Plagiarists present themselves as people they are not: the Yale University head football coach described himself on a résumé as a candidate for a Rhodes scholarship, which he was not; the vice president of Claremont McKenna College submitted false statistics for the U.S. News and World Report rankings; a 19-year-old Long Island college student was charged with scheming to defraud, criminal impersonation and falsifying business records after he took the SAT and ACT tests for at least 15 students, charging each $3,600.

More troublesome are the academic black—or gray—sheep who by theory or practice facilitate plagiarism. In his article “Uncreative Writing,” Kenneth Goldsmith of the University of Pennsylvania extols “patchwriting,” a way of “weaving together various shards of other people’s words into a tonally cohesive whole. It’s a trick students use all the time, rephrasing, say, a Wikipedia entry into their own words.” He describes a published essay strung together in this manner as “a self-reflective, demonstrative work of original genius.” This is a trend among young writers, says Goldsmith; “For them the act of writing is literally moving language from one place to another.”

A commentator counters that this practice is “perfectly compatible with the larger culture’s recent depredations: the corporate cooking of the books at Enron, the bundling and sales of toxic mortgages by America’s leading bankers, the daily misrepresentations of advertising, the stonewalling by church officials in the pedophilia scandals, the mendacity of campaign ads, etc.... reframing issues with no regards for facts or consequences.”

In “The Shadow Scholar,” in the Chronicle, Ed Dante (a pseudonym) confessed that he has written 5,000 pages a year of term papers that students handed to professors as their own, including 12 graduate theses of 50 pages each. His staff of 50 is overwhelmed dealing with English-as-a-second-language students who probably should not be in college and lazy rich kids who would rather buy a paper than write one.

Faculty member readers of the Chronicle blamed admissions offices for letting in weak students, grade grubbers who threaten to sue professors who mark them too low, parents who pressure faculty, students who cheat rather than work—as if faculty members had nothing to do with the students’ decision to fake it. Some faculty members “solve” the plagiarism problem by not assigning papers. Dante answered: None of his clients reported that the originality of his or her work had been questioned. Not one had been caught.

George Mason University’s Web site History News Network, in an article posted in 2010, summed up academic plagiarism charges against the popular American historian Stephen Ambrose. In January 2002 Fred Barnes had reported in The Weekly Standard that Ambrose’s history of the Air Force, The Wild Blue, included phrases and sentences from another book without attribution. This opened a floodgate. For five months other writers scoured Ambrose’s work and came up with phrases in seven of his books that had been borrowed from 12 writers. Ambrose defended his methods: He writes at his computer, surrounded by interview transcripts, documents and books, which he mixes together to describe an incident. He uses quotes to set off material from interviews, footnotes to source material in other books.

In the end, the Network judged Ambrose’s offenses as misdemeanors—just sloppy accrediting, although still ethical lapses. Ambrose survived, but two problems remain. One reporter found the same manner of “mistakes” in Ambrose’s 1963 University of Wisconsin doctoral thesis. A more thorough faculty mentor at the beginning of his career might have helped spare him his later embarrassment.

Plagiarism’s End

Why cheat? Cultural forces promote it. A university must ask itself to what degree it is willing to distinguish its code of behavior from that of the larger society. Is education moral or merely money-centered? The underlying reason students like Hotz cheat is that they have not committed themselves to the level of work they are obliged to do in college. They do not see study as a priority. When study interferes with their real priorities—football practice, frat or sorority life, an off-campus job, romantic interest or just hanging out—they calculate that they can con their professors and get away with it.

They may be right until they run up against a professor who cares about the quality of their work. Modern professors can be firewalls against plagiarism if they assign readings by the best stylists—Thoreau, Orwell, E. B. White, Joan Didion, Rebecca West, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf—so students get a feeling for great writing as something to be imitated, not abused; assign a short written reflection (or more) each week to get a sense of each student’s style; assign major paper topics inspired by the course, so the student is familiar with some sources; require that half the sources be from printed sources, not material snipped from the Web or Wikipedia; meet personally with the student a week before the paper is due for a progress report, including three pages of a rough draft and discussion of two of the library books; and explain the purpose of documentation, that the reader must be given access to the writer’s sources.

Uncovering plagiarism demands effort. Google any suspicious phrases or use the Internet-based service called Turnitin, which will reprint papers with every purloined passage in a separate color. Return papers in class and read aloud, without naming the author, an offending passage, followed by the same passage from its original source. It is another way of saying, You will be caught.

The sanction for plagiarism must be at least an F on the paper, accompanied by a letter in the student’s file to be consulted if it happens again, with the understanding that a second offense would mean expulsion. This policy will be effective only with leadership from the president and full cooperation from the faculty. If, however, some faculty respond to the plagiarism plague by not assigning papers or by misguided mercy, the problem will continue. As one of my students said recently, “You plagiarize because you don’t value what you are doing. And if the teacher doesn’t expect much of you, you’ll cheat.”

About 40 years ago, I published an article on Norman Mailer in Commonweal. A few years later I saw an ad in a journal for a collection of essays on Mailer and ordered the book. It turned out to be a self-published collection of student seminar papers. The professor had made publication part of the syllabus. And there was my article with a student’s name on it.

I was not angry, but sad. Why had this professor allowed this young man to hurt himself in this way? Did the student do it again? Where is he today?

 

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., literary editor of America, has taught at five Jesuit and three secular universities.

Comments

Shimon Haber | 5/19/2014 - 7:32am

Hi, Shimon Haber here. A quick way to understand plagiarism is to think of thoughts as you think of property: you should get the same feeling about stealing words and ideas as you do about stealing cars—they both belong to someone else and can't be taken without serious repercussions. In the academic world, we're not talking about jail-time, but the most frequent penalty for proven plagiarism is suspension or expulsion. Many students slack off in their senior year of high-school or college, plagiarize a paper, and end up not graduating or being rejected by college admissions departments or potential employers.
Greetings, Shimon Haber

Michael Casey | 1/25/2013 - 9:24am

"The Chinese plagiarism phenomenon has been explained on a Georgetown University blog as the result of cultural differences, like the Chinese pressure to conform, the tendency to consider the professor a “sage on the stage” and an understanding of term papers as a copy-and-paste collection of information. "
That's hard to believe...sounds like an excuse. Chinese have been doing real scholarship and genuine original writing as long as the west. Have they suddenly forgotten how scholarship works? In the internet age, one can check the plagiarism rules quite quickly on any computer as well, whether in Hong Kong, Kabul or Kansas. Perhaps these American college condone such cheating and fake credentials because the Chinese money smells so good?

steve mark | 1/25/2013 - 4:49am

For duplicate content detection there are various tools available. Using plagiarism checker is very beneficial to detect duplicate content as it is easy to use. Plagiarism checker consumes very little time; with one click of mouse you can detect plagiarism in your document without any difficulty.

Mark Rush | 6/30/2012 - 2:06am

I do wonder whether plagiarism and cheating are any more prevalent now-or whether it is simply the case that it is easier to discover.

I've worked in a single-sanction, honor system and in what might be regarded as its antithesis.  Since my arrival in the Middle East, I have constantly been told about the cultural basis for "helping one's friends" and how we (not sure who this refers to-westerners?  non-Arabs, non-Middle Easterners...) must find a way to embrace the local norms while still adhering to our own standards of integrity.  We hear similar apologies in “the West” which somehow dilute the evils inherent in plagiarism and cheating by blaming a society that seems to promote toxic mortgages and infidelity more than it does virtue.

Baloney.

There is no ethical system that justifies theft.  Plagiarism is theft.  The question is what are we going to do about it?  We in the academy, tend to engage more in  handwringing when it comes to academic misdoings.  We save our real anger for Athletic Department corruption.  Yet, in the end, our tolerance for any crime in our midst undermines the integrity of the degrees we grant to our students and the value of the education itself.  If we write off plagiarism and cheating as simply the cost of doing business, then we undermine the importance of learning and, indeed, education.

So long as we cast plagiarism and cheating in relative terms (almost as victimless crimes that merit a free pass now and then) and simply in terms of a failure to instill proper values into 18-21 year olds, I think we ensure that the battle is lost.  18-21 year olds have a moral sense,. They are aware of the risks and damages (everything from fraud to malignant photo shopping and viral videos) that can be perpetrated on the internet.  They know about identity theft.

These acts—and so many more—entail and embody real damage and harm.  They embody a cost.  Yet we down play this.  We should not. 

I ask my students whether they would want to cross a bridge or fly in a jet designed by an engineering student who was a known cheater.  Would they trust their savings to a financial adviser who cut corners or cheated on that investments exam?  Would they trust their surgery (or that of their spouse, child, parent—anyone they loved)  to a doctor who may have cheated on his or her exams?  The list goes on.  

Questions such as this should give anyone a reason to pause.  Whether someone gets caught cheating (and subsequently punished) is an isolated matter.  Not everyone who cheats on taxes or drives too fast gets caught.  But, we respect the laws and fines associated with various crimes and acknowledge that those who do get caught should bear the consequences.

The scope and cost of plagiarism extend far beyond that of crimes such as speeding or tax evasion.  If we work from the assumption that students are cheating, then the atmosphere of the classroom is poisoned.  How can we teach and learn in an environment of mistrust?  Tolerance of cheating and plagiarism—or minimizing their importance—diminishes the quality of one’s work, the degree she or he attains and the reputation of the institution from which one graduates.  The only defense of an institution’s reputation is the maintenance of unquestioned standards of academic integrity and a willingness to punish violations severely.

A society is not unjust because there are criminals in its midst.  It is unjust if it fails to take steps necessary to prosecute crimes.  Similarly, since cheating is widespread, no university can be condemned if it discovers that students have cheated or plagiarized.  But, it can be condemned if it fails to acknowledge the damage done by cheaters and fails to publicize and administer penalties.

As the cost of education continues to soar around the globe, the importance of maintaining a university’s reputation for integrity becomes even more compelling.  This is no longer simply a question of promoting virtue.  It is, as well, a question of controlling and seeking to prevent the clear, expensive, damaging consequences that arise from individual acts of cheating.  Managing matters of academic integrity is a simple exercise of managing (and avoiding the tragedy of) the commons. The common good is in this case, the value of the reputation of a university and the degree it grants.  No one individual cheater or plagiarist will do any great deal of harm .  But, collectively, many unpunished cheaters will destroy the university’s reputation and damage its alumni.

Craig McKee | 5/5/2012 - 7:57pm
"...whether or not the young person speaks any English or has been intellectually prepared by CHINA’S ROTE-MEMORY LEARNING SYSTEM to meet American standards."
Having taught primary, secondary and tertiary levels in China for the past seven years now, I can only predict that the situation is gonna get worse in America because education "reformers" have bought into the ASIAN EXAM-CRAM model of K-16 education cuz they've discovered it's a great way to siphon public school money into private pockets. Politicians are especially enamored of this "teach to the test" dumbing down of curriculum for the same reasons it's been glorified in China for centuries: KEEP 'EM DUMB, KEEP 'EM DOWN! Nowhere has this been better exemplified than an exhibit I brought my students to last semester:
"KNOWLEDGE - POWER: The Imperial Examination System in the Qing Dynasty"
which included a special section on CHEATING VESTS that students wore with exam answers transcribed all over them:
http://hk.history.museum/en/ex_special_exam_sep19.php

One final multiple choice question:

University students on the whole tend to cheat mainly...
a. in core curriculum classes
b. in elective classes
c. in their major classes
d. all of the above

And with so many schools putting money into distance learning/online coursework, how is the concept of CHEATING itself being digitally re-defined?
Chris Chatteris | 5/5/2012 - 7:44am

There was something to be said for the ‘sudden death’ exam system that I went through back in the seventies. We had no continuous assessment at all. We wrote essays and were awarded marks but these were just feedback from the teacher. For the degree everything, but everything, depended on the final exams at the end of the three years!

If you didn’t actually learn something and engage thoughtfully with it, and if you didn’t develop the ability to organize it rapidly and write it down coherently, you failed. You'd have to be a complete fool to imagine that you could get a degree in such a system by  plagiarism. In fact plagiarizing assignments is a complete waste of time in such a system.

Could it make a comeback?

ROBERT KILLOREN | 5/5/2012 - 6:58am
To what extent do we take the concept of academic integrity? What about self plagiarism? Isn't that a problem too if it helps fatten ones portfolio? Take someone for instance who writes a blog on plagiarism, then uses portions of that blog to write and article. Should the author cite himself? One professor made an entire career saying the same thing over and over, quite literally, from book to book - until he was discovered and his dirty laundry aired out in public virtually ruining his career.

Just how far are we to take this high ideal of academic integrity? Is it fair to apply today's ultrascrupulous approach (made possible by a tool that never existed in the past - Internet search) to people of another era? If you want to "get" a colleague who is a rival, one very effective tactic is to take everything he or she has written and grind it through the Truth Machine. If one did this one might find phrases like this:

"Faculty member readers of the Chronicle blamed admissions offices for letting in weak students, grade grubbers who threaten to sue professors who mark them too low, parents who pressure faculty, students who cheat rather than work—as if faculty members had nothing to do with the students’ decision to fake it."

A random reader might think, "Gee, I've heard that before," and do a search and discover something published a year before. 

"In the January 14 issue of the Chronicle, the faculty weighed in in self defense, blaming: the admissions office for letting in their low-motivated students, grade grubbing students who threaten to sue profs who mark them low, parents who pressure faculty, students who choose to cheat rather than work — as if the faculty had nothing to do with their decision to fake it,   and the criminal author of the Chronicle article."

Should a reader bring this to light and cite it as a violation of academic integrity, or let it pass as something that people do as they develop an idea and share it with others? Does it cast a shadow of doubt over the writer? If the writer did it here what about other works by this writer? Over a career how much has he recycled? 

I personally don't think that this is any big deal. After all it just appeared in a blog before, and are they real publications anyway? But I am sure there are plenty of people who would think it scandalous. But where does one draw the line in the sand and say, "To here but no further"? Writing about the sins of others is a dangerous thing, for as my old mentor used to say, "When you point at somebody there's always three fingers pointing back at you." Maybe we would be better off following the safer path - Judge not, lest ye by judged. Now where did I hear that before? 

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned as well...


Darrin Snyder Belousek | 5/4/2012 - 5:07pm
Thanks, Raymond, for this timely article on an important matter.  As a college teacher, I've encountered a fair bit of plagiarism and have always sought to expose it and address it with students to get them to take it seriously.  Thankfully, I've always been backed up by department chairs and administration officials.

Why is this such a problem?  The old saying is, "the fish rots from the head down."  Socially speaking, I think that is true.  Another way to put it: social institutions, like living organisms, rot from the inside out.  When the head/core goes bad, the corruption spreads to the rest of the social body.  Hence why the sins of the priests and elders required a greater sacrifice for atonement than the sins of the ordinary people (Leviticus): official sin corrupts the faith community.  Thus, the corrupted behavior of religious, political, educational, business, and professional leaders is followed by increasing corrupted behavior of those participating in the institutions they head.

I was especially struck by your last comment about your personal experience with plagiarism. I've had a similar experience, involving this very publication.  In March 2009 an article of mine on the financial crisis ("Greenspan's Folly: the demise of the cult of self-interest") appeared in America.  It was promptly, and publicly, plagiarized in a newspaper column by...a popular Catholic priest in Trinidad & Tobago who was heading up...a government appointed council on...public corruption!  Too ironic for comment, but (sadly) illustrates the point.
Kang Dole | 5/4/2012 - 1:27pm
I've taught in China and in North America. In China, it soon became clear to me that students did not think it was wrong to  plagiarize, and so they were not worried about being caught. I would have a class where four or five students would copy the exact same material. I had explained rules regarding plagiarism beforehand, but when I tried to deal with the cheating with the school administration, it soon became apparent to me why the students disregarded my warnings: it was made clear to me that I was in the wrong.

In N.A., I've seen two basic patterns. The most common phenomenon is that students clearly know that they shouldn't plagiarize and try to hide their tracks. They will include the copied work in their biblios, but they do not actually indicate that, instead of an idea here and a quote there, they copy huge swaths of the referenced texts and treat them as their own work (they hope, I assume, that I won't check up on them). They can't do this anymore, but some students use to copy Wikipedia articles, and then edit those same articles in order to prevent me from finding teh source of their material.  The other phenomenon is more like what I saw in China: the students are clueless. I have had students who bought their essays from websites that cater to lazy/desperate students, but who then listed the URLs of those websites in their bibliographies.

North American institutions tend to have specific rules regarding plagiarism, but they also tend to be weak in fully enforcing them. I do not know if this happens across the board, but my experience has always been that once a student is reported for plagiarism, he falls under the jurisdiction of the disciplinary office, and the reporting instructor loses all say over what happens.