MLA Forum
Vol. V, Issue 2, December 15, 2006

College Students, Plagiarism, and the Internet:The Role of Academic Librarians in Delivering Education and Awareness

Todd J. Wiebe, Visiting Instruction and Reference Librarian (2006-08), Assistant Professor, Hope College / Van Wylen Library

Abstract

This article discusses the ever-important issue of plagiarism among college students and how academic librarians are facing this challenge head-on. The emphasis is placed on how the Internet has changed the ways students perceive plagiarism and also how they go about committing the act. The role of academic librarians in both the detection and prevention of plagiarism is discussed. In the end, the education of students regarding the severity of this issue and teaching them how to avoid it is ultimately praised as being the victor in the fight for academic integrity on college campuses.

Introduction

Over the past decade, advances in information technology have had a significant impact on college students and how they access and retrieve data. While these advances have been extremely successful at revolutionizing the way students go about performing research and other academic tasks, they have not emerged free from drawbacks and new concerns. The World Wide Web has given students “an electronic shovel which makes it possible to find and save huge chunks of information with little reading, effort or originality” (Logue, 2004, p. 40). This has brought about a ‘new face’ to an old problem – plagiarism.

The terms cyber-plagiarism, and cyber-cheating have become commonplace in recent years when recounting the phenomenon of students misusing resources that they find via “the Net.” This can range from simply copying concepts found on the web without giving credit to the purchasing of entire essays from online paper mills (Smith, 2003, p. 22). At its various levels of severity, this new form of plagiarism is running rampant on college and university campuses to such an extent that it has warranted much attention from professors, administrators, and librarians alike.

The Situation: Some Facts and Figures

Many studies have been set forth in attempt to determine current levels of academic dishonesty among college students. These studies consistently find that plagiarism in some form is very common and continues to be “one of those ever-present and yet inconvenient ‘facts’ of university life” (Lampert, 2004, p. 347). It almost seems as if plagiarism “has become a way of life for some students” (Foust & McLafferty, 2004, p. 186). The 2003 National Survey of Student Engagement revealed some alarming numbers that support this notion. It found that “87 percent of the students who took the survey online said their peers copied data from the Internet without citing sources at least some of the time (Cruikshank, 2004, p. 132). A survey by the Psychological Record found that 36 percent of college students were willing to admit that they had plagiarized on written assignments (132). The results of other analogous studies generally concur with these figures.A significant number of college students admit to plagiarism and in many cases are not overly concerned about it. College and university officials also report that “in recent years they have seen a sharp increase in students cutting and pasting material into papers from Web sites without attribution, or purchasing term papers online…” (Scanlon, 2003, p. 161). In one instance, a researcher studying this trend “actually overheard two students in the library bragging about how much they had paid for their ethics papers” (Eberhart, 2003, p. 44). Both the findings of the studies and the testimonies of college officials “indicate the presence of a new student ethos in which plagiarism and other forms of cheating are common and even acceptable” (Foust, K. & McLafferty, C., 2004, p. 186).

Some Reasons Why Students Plagiarize

With the Internet offering students such a wealth of information at their fingertips, it is no surprise that one of the main reasons that they commit acts of plagiarism is simply due to how easy and convenient it has become. Ease and convenience then turns into ‘tempting’ and in many instances this is how the plagiarizing begins. Renard (1999/2000) explains a concept that has seriously evolved over the years and has now become a dangerously tempting means of committing plagiarism.

Cut and paste has come a long way. Now we simply point a computer mouse to highlight a text, click a ‘cut’ icon, and position the curser to ‘paste’ the section into our new version. Marvelous. Frightening. As marvelous as such efficiency is, the words cut and paste now also represent a frighteningly easy method to plagiarize work. (38)

While there is no excuse for plagiarism, it is practically no wonder how such ease of information transfer can be so appealing to students with stressful workloads and high expectations during their college years.

Looking beyond the allure of the Internet and its relatively simple means of accessing information, other reasons for why plagiarism has become so common among college students can be found. Whether claiming ignorance or indifference, many students simply do not fully understand the behaviors that constitute plagiarism (Stebelman, 1998, p. 48). Again, there is no excuse for engaging in this unethical activity however, students who do not have a clear understanding of copyright and fair use issues will be more apt to engage in it. Many students simply lack the knowledge and skills required to avoid plagiarism and thus commit the crime unknowingly. It is these students that Renard (1999/2000) refers to as the unintentional cheater (38). There are many students who have had their discernment of fair use blurred by technology and are not always, if ever, aware that what they are doing is considered plagiarism. Many students have come to embrace the ease of acquisition that the Internet provides as common ownership (Scanlan, 2003, p. 163).This helps to explain how the “Internet has changed the rules and the perception of what is acceptable and what is not” (Fisher, J. & Hill, A., 2004, p. 18). Although not addressing college students specifically, Bruwelheide (1995) was already expressing concern for this problem over a decade ago when she wrote about “users who believe that anything available over the Internet is fair game and public domain. They think that because the information is there and easy to manipulate, it has no copyright protection” (p. 85).

This raises the concern that there is more to consider when addressing these unintentional cheaters than simply their lack of knowledge and skills to avoid plagiarizing. They have also been somehow indoctrinated with false definitions of what plagiarism actually is and thus commit the crime while in a state of desensitization to its unethical nature. Therefore, these students also fit into the category of unintentional cheaters because to them, and according to what they have come to accept as fair use, what they are doing is perfectly legitimate.

Their views about plagiarism come from a generation raised on information from the media or from the Internet that is often not attributed accordingly to scholarly standards. So rather than deploring their lack of moral rectitude, we need to understand the media-infused world in which they live, work, and play. (Wood, 2004, p. 238)

With these things considered, unintentional plagiarism of material found on the Internet among college students exists for numerous reasons. These range from not knowing how to use information sources ethically, to students being misled into thinking that certain information sources are ‘free for the taking.’

Although distressing, the aforementioned perpetrators of unintentional plagiarism are perhaps less inherently sinister than the group of students who Renard (1999/2000) calls the sneaky cheaters (38). It is these students who intentionally steal from sources on the Web and call it their own. Unlike the unintentional cheater, these students blatantly and knowingly go forth and misappropriate the intellectual property of others. What makes them ‘sneaky’ is that because they know they are doing it, they attempt to cover it up. “These students put a lot of effort into cheating – probably as much effort as they would have expended to write the piece in the first place (38). This suggests that it is not the amount of work that these students fear, but rather they lack confidence in their own abilities to construct a well-written, scholarly paper. If not caught committing the act, students realize that they will most likely receive a better grade with stolen words and ideas than their own. Therefore, the “temptation is so great, because the rewards are so great” (Logue, 2004, p. 41).

As mentioned above, some of these students actually spend much time and effort into putting together a plagiarized work. Others, however, simply go “all-or-nothing” and utilize one of the many paper mills on the Internet, download a suitable paper, put their name at the top, and submit it for grading (Renard, 1999/2000, p. 38). This is another way in which the Internet has significantly influenced students’ thinking and practices in terms of academic honesty. It has provided a temptation so great that students who simply cannot muster-up the vigor to do their own work (or lack faith in their work) have begun to see this as a viable option. “In the not so distant past, plagiarism at least required some time-consuming physical work: going to the library, searching, reading, and copying. Now a student can cobble together a paper from an online source in minutes” (Scanlan, 1998, p. 164).

Online paper mills have become increasingly more popular among students as they have opened up an entirely new avenue for students seeking to plagiarize assignments. One ‘mill’ in particular that has received much attention from both students and education professionals is www.schoolsucks.com. The slogan emblazoned across the top of the first page of this site reads: “Download Your Workload.” The creator of schoolsucks.com, Kenneth Sahr, “insists that his aim is not to foster plagiarism, and he warns students who visit his site that ‘your teachers, professors, and the media are always visiting School Sucks’” (Stebelman, 1998, p. 48). Such statements, however, are little more than “window dressing” that “go largely unnoticed” when placed on such sites (Renard, 1999/2000, p. 39). Sahr’s claims of not promoting plagiarism are hard to swallow by the simple fact of what his site offers students and how the content is presented in such an alluring manner. Upon entering the site, one of the banners reads: Term Paper Deadline? CLICK HERE! (flashing). Sahr addresses questions surrounding his concern for academic honesty by saying:

Unlike the rest of the real world, the education system has no checks and balances. By forcing mediocre professors, who have been giving the same assignments since the Truman administration, to rethink their assignment – and maybe even add a bit of creativity to them, School Sucks IS education’s check and balance. (Stebelman, 1998, p. 48)

Although such claims may come off as rather insincere and philosophically warped, Kahn and others supporting the online paper mill industry may have some legitimate arguments regarding the ways some educators hold their students accountable for their work. Fortunately, there are actions that can be taken by both librarians and professors in attempt to respond to these claims.

Detection

It has been discussed how the Internet has brought forth a variety of new plagiarizing techniques and with them, a heightened level of temptation to plagiarize. However, there are two sides to this use of technology and the Internet, one of which can be used to counter cyberplagiarism with greater ease. “Ironically, with the proliferation of Web documents have come several tools to help librarians, researchers, and teachers detect cybercheating” (Stebelman, 1998, p. 48). Over the past several years, plagiarism-detecting software has been developed to help fight this practice of academic dishonesty. However, even without the use additional software, an inquisitive librarian or professor can check for plagiarized materials using what their campus library may already have access to. “Plagiarized assignments are often retrieved with a simple phrase search through either a free search engine or propriety databases such as EBSCO or ProQuest” (Smith, 2003, p. 22). Paper mills, however, fly under the radar of search engines as they “are part of the invisible web and not accessible through general, all-purpose search tools” (22).

In such instances, there are other ways that plagiarism can be detected without the use of specialized computer software and Internet search engines. “The first rule of thumb is that a plagiarized paper is likely to be incongruent” (Foust, K. & McLafferty, C., 2004, p. 187). Professors who know their students well may be able to have some sense of their abilities and therefore be able to pick-out assignments that seem questionable for plagiarism. They could then work in collaboration with a librarian to find out for sure, that is, if the source of the plagiarized material can be identified. These ‘detection’ strategies, however, can at times appear as though the faculty are ‘out to get the students,’ causing an uneasy rift in their relationship. A problem that arises when librarians and professors make known that they are ‘onto’ students and have the means of ‘busting’ them is that they “will have not taught them anything except that they have acquired betters means to catch them” (Scanlan, 1998, p. 164). This may, to some extent, be an effective method of discouraging students from committing acts of plagiarism, however, it can also be seen as an intimidation tactic. “Nothing destroys trust between students and teachers as fast as the constant harassment of suspicion…” (164). Ultimately, the goal is not simply to put fear into the minds of students and have them thinking that their professors and librarians want to catch them. Professors and especially academic librarians can play a more important role in the academic lives of their students and that is to educate and inform.

Education: The Preventative Approach

Although students need to be aware that plagiarism is a serious academic crime and if caught committing it, they will face dire consequences, catching it after the fact does not turn back time and erase the deed.

Catching Internet cheaters is not the best answer. It’s a lot like doing an autopsy. No matter how terrific the coroner is at determining how or why a person died, the damage has been done. Bringing the culprit to light won’t change that. Preventing the problem is a much better approach …Like doctors who prefer preventative medicine to a postmortem, we should look for ways to prevent students from wanting to plagiarize. (Renard, 1999/2000, p. 41)

Educating students about fair use, plagiarism, and that sources on the Internet are no different than any other format is key in order to make clear to today’s students that they need to be cautious and aware when drawing from this information mother lode. Stebelman (1998) states that although “students may not understand their culpability in appropriating research from the Internet, they must be taught that no difference exists between plagiarizing a printed essay and one that appears on the Web” (48). Otherwise we are doing an injustice to this “generation of students who think that anything that’s on the Internet is free” (Renard, 1999/2000, p. 38). Librarians often play a major role in colleges and universities in the education of students on such matters.

As members of an academic community, librarians want to foster respect for the work of scholars from whose work we draw wisdom. Moreover, we want to create our own ideas and contribute to our professional canon or body of knowledge. We want our students to have this same kind of respect for what has gone before and to have the same opportunity to become scholars and thinkers as well. (Wood, 2004, p. 238)

This philosophy further exemplifies the position that academic librarians find themselves in and how, through education and fostering awareness, they can make a significant difference in the academic journeys of the students they serve.

Library instruction sessions have become valuable outlets for academic librarians to use in educating students about plagiarism. Auer and Krupar (2001) make clear the importance of librarians assuming the role of ‘educator’ and how it has become especially crucial with the wide array of new electronic sources that are now available to students.

Instructional sessions would seem the perfect method for providing students with information about how to appropriately use Web pages and full-text articles in their research. Librarians have an ethical obligation to teach bibliographic citation methods and strategies for how to best avoid plagiarism, especially of Internet sources. (pp. 427-428)

This statement encompasses the fundamentals of the academic librarian’s duty to play an active role in the education of students. Lampert (2004) adds to this philosophy when she writes that although librarians are not responsible for assigning the essays or research projects, we are supporting the research process involved in their creation and therefore we should either provide this information to students and faculty through lecture, lecture materials or supplemental web-based handouts” (354). At Hope College’s Van Wylen Library, the Reference and Instruction Team at has come up with an innovative way to educate students about plagiarism by incorporating it into the First Year Seminar (FYS) library session. In previous years these library sessions varied in content and format. This has recently been changed to a more standardized lesson in which the FYS students are all given an introduction to electronic databases, how to search for articles, and how to distinguish between scholarly and popular journals. Special emphasis is placed on the difference between searching the Internet and library subscription databases. The added twist to this new standardized session is that the students will be given a specific topic to find articles on: ‘plagiarism and how college students can avoid it.’ In doing this, students are not only getting practice searching for articles, they are also being exposed to some of the literature pertaining to this very important issue. This topic was deliberately chosen because it allows for a convenient and seamless transition to a dialogue about plagiarism and how it directly concerns them. At the end of the session, students are directed to the official Hope College plagiarism site where they can read about many of the plagiarism related issues aforementioned in this article. This new format of the FYS library session has thus far worked out very well at getting two important lessons taught in a single period.

Conclusion

Plagiarism is a problem that has existed within academic institutions for as long as we can remember. There has been much written about this topic over the years due to the fact that academic dishonesty in its many forms truly needs to be revisited on a regular basis. It is probably safe to say that plagiarism is a problem that will never completely disappear from college campuses. However, it is equally important to emphasize how academic librarians can play an active role in discouraging its continuance. Although detection initiatives can be very effective at curbing students’ attempts to plagiarize, it is key to understand that if strategies designed to ‘catch students’ such as the implementation of plagiarism-detection software are in place, “they should be only one part of an institution-wide initiative” aimed at confronting the problem (Scanlan, 2003 p. 164). It is more in-tune with the overall vocation of librarianship to educate students and advocate awareness of why plagiarism is wrong and how they can avoid it. In addition, it must be reinforced that new technological developments such as the Internet are not to blame for the persistence of this problem. Ignorance and lack of education are enemies of academic integrity – both of which can be greatly diminished with the help of proactive librarians and other faculty working together towards a common goal.

References

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