The problem of plagiarism in university
Imagine you’re sitting in your basement after a long week at school, playing video games. This is your first chance to relax all week. Then your phone rings — it’s a call from a former co-worker who you haven’t spoken to in a while.
“Hey, I have a friend in a political science class who needs a paper,” she asks. “Everyone at work knows you’re really informed… I was wondering if you have a paper he could submit?”
The question comes as a surprise to you, and you tell her no, knowing that what she’s asking is unethical.
“I know, but he doesn’t have any other options. He’s desperate,” she responds, not letting up. Then, like music to the university student’s ears, you heard the magic words: “We’ll pay you.”
Sam Camara* was a third year university student when he got this phone call and his coworker was offering him $100.
“At that time, I wasn’t working. I was in between jobs and I had bills to pay,” Camara recalled. “I said, ‘Okay, fine. I’ll sell the paper for $100.”
It’s been a year since the exchange, and Camara hasn’t talked with the buyer since.
“I didn’t do any following up simply because I didn’t want this weighing on my conscience. I’ve kind of forgotten about it. I don’t really feel too bad about it either,” Camara admitted.
Camara’s situation is in no way unique. A survey dating back to 1963 found that around 75 per cent of students admitted to cheating at least once throughout their post secondary education career, according to the Boston Globe. Similarly, 68 per cent of students who took part in a Rutgers University questionnaire also confessed to academic dishonesty. It’s clear this is nothing new in academia, but the Internet has made it exponentially easier for students to access.
For students sitting at the other side of the table who need an essay written or an assignment completed, websites like UnemployedProfessors.com are something of a godsend. The website allows students to post assignments and accept bids from “Unemployed Professors” who are willing to complete them for you. Whether it’s a research paper on Marshall McLuhan, post-Confederation history of Canada or Abstract Expressionism, you can rest assured that your assignment will be in good hands — for whatever price you choose. Students even get to ask for revisions if they aren’t happy with the initial final product.
CapU communications instructor Bill Van Luven has been teaching at the university for more than a decade, and he knows that plagiarism and cheating are some of the oldest tricks in the book. In his current position as the professional and applied learning (PAL) convenor, he oversees a number of courses that are taken by students across many different programs — a situation that always has faculty concerned about plagiarism and cheating.
“It is a stressful situation… You want to save time, you want to get a high mark. So, you know, you cut corners,” Van Luven said. “Often, these habits are usually not started in university. People have profited from this strategy in the past so they bring it with them.”
Most school administrations are aware that students may not always be intentionally trying to game the system. International students, for instance, may find it challenging to avoid plagiarism if they have gone to school in countries where the academic conventions call for different standards and expectations. Many domestic students may also struggle with the concept of plagiarism if they haven’t been held accountable for properly citing research sources in the past. To mitigate this, CapU offers numerous chances for students to learn how to avoid plagiarism upon entering the university.
“…the average GPA among cheating students was higher that that of noncheating students.”
However, students who intentionally cheat without being caught know they can benefit from their actions. In New York City, Fordham University even found that on average, the average GPA among cheating students was higher that that of non-cheating students.
To address this concern, the school offers professional development workshops in May, with plagiarism being one of the topics. Faculty are given strategies to dissuade students from cheating, identify when documentation of sources is authentic and shape assignments in such a way that it wouldn’t be worth it for students to cheat — a strategy that Van Luven refers to as making assignments “bomb proof.” Instead of assigning standard essays on generic topics, instructors can embellish assignments or introduce procedures that encourage students to complete assignments honestly.
For instance, students may be asked to stand before the class and give a presentation on their research topic well in advance of an assignment’s due date. This helps students crystallize their topic and think through any problems they may encounter before they get stuck on the assignment, while bringing down the chance of the final product being plagiarized.
It’s not about “wagging fingers” and telling students not to cheat, according to Van Luven, but rather trying to prevent students from falling into what he calls a “silly trap” — making a simple mistake and finding out that it has enormous ramifications later in their lives.
Van Luven remembers going to university in an era when academic freedom and expression were “sacred”; however, it was also an era in which the Internet was in its infancy. Traditionally, for many instructors, the “first line of defence” was asking students to cite their sources, but in this day and age, citations no longer do the trick.
“Now, of course, it’s so easy to cite anything. You may or may not have read anything and yet we have an expansive list of impressive looking citations. Unless you carefully follow the thread, it could be some of those citations are phoney,” Van Luven explained.
With assignments being submitted electronically and the ability to store documents in data banks, Van Luven knows how easy it is for sophisticated plagiarism-detection software to catch somebody, even years down the line after they have graduated and progressed in their careers.
“I would tell students to really think about it, because even long after, you want to get a good night’s sleep, with your credentials in tact… It’s probably not worth it, because it all comes down like a house of cards. How do you go back and recover?”
The future of teaching will likely see a shift towards reflective learning, according to Van Luven. This style of assessment will ask students to reflect on their experience in the course and talk about what they found most valuable in the course or how they think the material can be applied to their own future. This way, the focus shifts away from how students can cut corners to get a good mark, and towards how they can derive value from the assignments. Suddenly, it becomes all about their own personal growth and they are reminded of how the work will benefit them.
“Van Luven knows how easy it is for sophisticated plagiarism detection software to catch somebody, even years down the line after they have graduated and progressed in their careers.”
In the meantime, Van Luven hopes students will do some soul searching and ask themselves what they really want out of their education experience.
“If you’re stuck with an assignment and you’re tempted [to cheat], do something that almost nobody does… go talk to the instructor. If an assignment makes no sense to you or you don’t see the value in it, speak up.”
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