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Notes on plagiarism

To the editors of The University News, I have four words: Welcome to my world. As chair of a major academic department I am forced to deal with plagiarism, falsification and other forms of academic dishonesty on an almost daily basis. (To note: When a professor discovers that a student has cheated, he or she is supposed to report it to the department chair who then fills out the paperwork and manages the subsequent process.)

The unreported story here is not that a few editorial features were plagiarized, but that every semester an appalling amount of papers, reports and other work turned in by Saint Louis University students are plagiarized.

It was not always so. I can remember a time when academic dishonesty cases were relatively rare, popping up only once or twice a year, at most. Now that tiny trickle has become a roaring torrent. It starts up like clockwork every semester a little before midterms, then picks up as midterm exams, projects and reports come due. By the end of the semester, it becomes a Niagara Falls of plagiarism. Frustrated professors come to my office with case after case. I have a special spot on my desk that is reserved just for all of the plagiarism evidence and reports that must be submitted to the College of Arts and Sciences. In talking with other department chairs, I know that I am not alone in my dismay at this growing problem.

The thing that bothers me most is that the cases of academic dishonesty that make it to my desk are only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Center for Academic Integrity, almost 80 percent of American students admit to one or more instances of cheating during their college career. Twenty-five percent of students are "chronic cheaters," who engage in acts of dishonesty a self-reported three or more times.

Why, then, are all of these instances of plagiarism, unpermitted collaboration and deception not caught? First, because professors are not police detectives. They are here to teach students, not chase down crime leads. They generally assume that their students are honest and honorable and are surprised when proved wrong.

Second, professors are sometimes reluctant to report incidents of academic dishonesty unless they have crystal-clear physical evidence to support an accusation. We live in a litigious society, after all. Third, the number of online paper mills and other resources for academic dishonesty is so great than no one can possibly be familiar with them all. Faculty, who are specialists in their fields rather than the Internet underworld, are simply outgunned. As a result, we tend to catch only the most blatant acts of plagiarism. The sad fact is that anyone who puts a little thought into their cheating will likely get away with it.

Cheating, of course, is not new to college campuses. What is new, though, is the extraordinary rise in plagiarism. In the old days-by that I mean 10 years ago-plagiarism was hard work. A student would have to go to the library, find a book on the subject, and then copy out the text. It was almost easier to simply learn the information and write the paper. Today, though, that has all changed. The Internet makes those dreary trips to the library a thing of the past. Simply fire up the computer, type a few terms into Google, and grab whatever pops up. If it's too much, just click on the handy autosummarize feature. One need not even read what one plagiarizes anymore! What could be easier?

Just as plagiarism tarnishes the reputation of a newspaper it also erodes the integrity of an academic institution. Cheaters unfairly get grades for which their fellow students work hard. They also fail to acquire the skills and knowledge that they (or their parents) paid for and their future employers expect. How can this rise in plagiarism at SLU be stemmed? Here are a few random ideas and thoughts.

Remember: Web Browser + Cut-and-Paste Word Processor  Your Work.

Do not let a friend/roommate/stranger/ troll/whatever have access to your original work. They may say that they "just want to get some ideas" but I cannot tell you how often I see cases in which those "ideas" really translate into the verbatim theft of your work. When that is caught both of you are in trouble.

Well, trouble may be too strong a word. SLU needs to have a clearer policy on the kinds of penalties associated with academic dishonesty. Is it possible to be expelled for cheating? Maybe, but I have not yet heard of it happening.

Would a strict honor code work? Perhaps, but I have my doubts. My fear is that honor codes simply reduce the amount of self-reported cheating, yet not the actual cheating itself.

In the face of this epidemic, the University and the College of Arts and Sciences have occasionally considered subscribing to turnitin.com, an anti-plagiarism service. It's time to stop considering and start subscribing. At universities like Georgetown, where this service is used, it has dramatically reduced the incidents of plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a weed that has already spread across the classroom and now infiltrates even the pages of The University News. For all of our sake it's time to stamp it out.

Thomas F. Madden, Ph.D. is Chair of the Department of History.

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