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Nine in 10 college presidents blame the Internet for a rise in student plagiarism. Why is stealing the words and ideas of others so popular a practice among students today?

Editor's Note: This article is part of "The Ten Today," a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the eighth commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."

Stealing words is so simple a concept that a 5- or 6-year-old can grasp it, says plagiarism expert Jonathan Bailey. Even children comprehend the idea that presenting someone else’s thoughts or ideas as your own without attribution is wrong, Yale University researchers demonstrated in a study of subjects from ages 5 to 11.

As those children age into adolescence, however, something may be lost along the way. Approximately 40 percent of undergraduates admit to presenting other people's words as their own, according to Rutgers University professor Donald L. McCabe. As The New York Times (paywall) noted, young adults whose experience of media is almost totally digital, with pieces ready for the (unattributed) taking, aren't as attuned to the idea of intellectual "property" as their parents, or even older siblings, might be.

It's not that middle and high schools aren't trying to instill this understanding, however. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that 88 percent of teachers, across all subjects, "spend class time 'discussing with students the concepts of citation and plagiarism,’ ” although the group says a "majority" of those teachers note student failures in properly citing sources.

But in a world where musicians routinely borrow musical phrases from other works, where themes are repeated from magazine to book to movie script, and where copying and pasting is viewed by some as merely "mixing," the idea of plagiarism is more difficult to nail down, said Matthew Bowman, an instructor in history at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He said he now sees four cases of plagiarism in a given semester, where a few years ago he'd only encounter one. Plagiarism, he added, is viewed in some quarters as a "remnant of a more literary and a less fluid age than the one we are in."

Whatever the attitude behind it, the overwhelming majority of college presidents — 95 percent, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet project — have seen plagiarism in their schools either increase during the previous 10 years (55 percent) or at least stay the same (40 percent). "Roughly nine-in-10 college presidents (89 percent) believe that computers and the Internet have played a major role in the increase in plagiarism on papers over the past decade," Pew reported.

The rise in student plagiarism highlights a bedrock social value — that of not stealing, laid in the eighth commandment and reinforced in law ever since — facing new challenges and new applications in the digital age. In this case, the trend is prompting more education and discussion in classrooms about plagiarism and attribution, and it is also shaping the way instructors create assignments, with several insisting they've changed their teaching methods specifically to lessen the chances of students plagiarizing.

Lengthy history

According to Rutgers University English professor Jack Lynch, the first mention of literary plagiarism dates back to Roman times when the poet Martial accused his rival, Fidentinus, of being a "kidnapper" of Martial's verse. The Latin word for kidnapper, plagiarius, survived as a metaphor for word theft, Lynch wrote, and was revived in 1601 when British writer Ben Jonson used "plagiary" to describe unauthorized borrowing.

Today, neither Roman scrolls nor Elizabethan quills are a contemporary plagiarist's tools. With a few clicks of a computer mouse, whole sections of a Paul Krugman economics essay or a Wikipedia article can be transferred into a word processing document. Websites such as StudyMode.com even offer free research papers on 45,000 different topics, ready to download — though the site cautions it also provides those files to the online plagiarism-spotting services schools use to spot purloined work.

And there's the case of Helene Hegemann, age 17 when her novel, Axolotl Roadkill, became a 2010 best-seller in Germany and was short-listed for a $20,000 fiction award. It then emerged that several passages in the book were borrowed without attribution from a variety of sources.

Hegemann was defiant. In a statement issued through her publisher, the young writer declared, "There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity." Nonetheless, when the book appeared in English, there were six pages of footnotes identifying sources added to the text.

The question of what level of "crime" plagiarism is, however, remains nebulous. Those who study the field agree that "stealing words" is wrong. They also contend violations run a gamut from poor (or missing) attribution to overseas-born students trying to bolster their English expression to those who, well, steal someone else’s hard work and present it as their own.

"I think it's a huge issue, mainly because it's so easy to do," said Linda Trevino, an ethics professor at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, who worked with Rutgers' McCabe in researching the subject. She also blamed an age-old college nemesis, procrastination: "The problem is where students wait till last minute to do whatever they're supposed to be doing. (Then the) easiest way is to go to the Internet. … That happens quite a lot."

Bailey, whose PlagiarismToday.com blog follows the issue, said a plagiarist is "not (only) stealing the words, but (also) the work that went into creating. It's not just the words, but the hours and days of my life that went into creating the words" that a plagiarist steals. He said a plagiarist is as much "lying" about their knowledge and credentials as they are appropriating the words of another, a view with which Bowman agrees. Plagiarism, Bowman said, is also "the misrepresentation of yourself, but also presenting a false image of your own ideas and abilities."

Discovering plagiarism can be as involved as using online software applications — including PlagScan, used by the Deseret News to verify all its stories — or as simple, one adjunct professor said, as reading a student submission.

That's what happened to Charlie Bowen, a veteran journalist and Web designer in Huntington, West Virginia, who was teaching a remedial English class at Mountwest Community and Technical College. Bowen said he was instructing students in various essay forms, including a "contrast/compare" essay. To teach by example, he displayed, and read with the class, a short piece on the virtues of fresh food versus canned. He said he then assigned the class to write their own "compare/contrast" essays.

One student, who wasn't present in class but got the assignment, presented that food treatise as the student's own work. Bowen failed the student for the entire course, he said.

"I had a sense of déjà vu" when reading the piece, he recalled in a telephone interview. The student "was stunned" at being caught, but also "a little irritated."

Bowen said the student "didn't verbalize it, but the feeling I got is, 'You wanted an essay and I found one, so what's your problem?’ ”

Shortchanged understanding

Teddi Fishman, a Clemson University rhetoric and professional communications professor, believes the "harm" of plagiarism isn't just that it amounts to stealing, but that the copyist is getting around the assigned task of researching, thinking and writing.

"Whatever understanding I was supposed to get, all that stuff isn't going to happen if I use your essay, and the teacher will certify that I know something I didn't know," said Fishman, who also directs the International Center for Academic Integrity, an organization that publishes manuals for promoting honesty and other virtues on campus and holds workshops on these topics at its annual conventions.

Punishments for plagiarism can vary across campuses. An informal canvass suggests the most common punishment is an automatic failure grade for a given course, often with reporting the incident to school authorities. Texas A&M University's range of punishments for "academic dishonesty" can include expulsion, its website noted. Academic probation plus either a lowering of a grade or no credit are called for at North Carolina State University, while Westmont College, an evangelical Christian school in Santa Barbara, California, holds out expulsion as a last resort.

Both Bailey and Fishman urge education instead of expulsion, particularly for first-time offenders.

"'One and done' isn't to the benefit of society," Fishman said. "It's far better to take an educating approach, not just about where boundaries are, but why it's important."

Bailey said an over-emphasis on enforcement only develops better plagiarists, contending that strict rules end up "teaching people how to cheat a system. That's deeply frustrating because we want students to have good research and attribution skills. Setting these hardline rules is not how you develop that."

Changed teaching methods

Instead, historian Bowman said, he's begun "asking students to do something that's nearly impossible to plagiarize." For example, he assigned students in his American history survey class to look at the trial records of a person accused in the Salem witch trials and prepare an essay "in the form of a legal brief for or against conviction," he said. In another case, he asked students to compare newspaper accounts of a Civil War incident from Northern and Southern newspapers.

The rise in plagiarism, Bowman said, "forces professors to be more creative" than before. "We're all paying a bit more attention than we used to," he said.

And, he asserted, one solution to plagiarism is to get students reading more. He blamed a lack of reading by students as a reason some resort to borrowing.

"The less they read, the less capable they are of writing," he said of students, "but also the less sense they have of what a written product is, and what it means to write, and less of sense of what plagiarism is."

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Twitter: @Mark_Kellner