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Something about the student’s exam didn’t look right. The pronouns were off; the writing style varied, at times turning noticeably more professional. The exam, given in one of Yale’s graduate departments last spring semester, had been “open-book”: the students were allowed to answer the questions outside of class and to consult written sources. A closer look revealed some unattributed passages lifted directly from other scholars' published work.
The professor forwarded the exam and the handful of examples of lifted passages to the office of the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where the document underwent more detailed scrutiny. The results stunned Dean Jon Butler: the paper, he says, contained 31 “splotches” of wholly reproduced, and unattributed, passages from other scholars' work. Some of the passages ran only a sentence or two long, others for paragraphs. The “splotches” made up approximately 40 percent of the entire exam. Some came from work published in journals, others from papers in progress and distributed online among academics for review. All the passages were searchable, and obtainable, on the Internet.
It was a classic case of plagiarism in the Age of Google: easier than ever before to carry out, and easier to detect.
Butler recommended that Yale dismiss the student. In such cases, the student, humiliated, usually accepts the punishment and moves on. Not in this case. Instead, the student appealed the penalty to a Graduate School disciplinary committee; no one in Butler’s memory had ever done that before. The committee upheld Butler’s decision. The student is no longer at Yale.
In an interview, Butler didn’t want to say more about the case than the details above, out of respect for the disgraced student’s privacy. But he did want to talk about plagiarism. Butler wants Yale to know that plagiarism does occur, behind even ivy-covered walls, and he wants Yale students and professors alike to take it more seriously. His office has spearheaded a university-wide campaign that got underway this past fall.
The case of the open-book exam plagiarizer was one of six examples of academic dishonesty that led to suspensions or withdrawals of graduate students in the 2005-2006 academic year. One involved altering results in a scientific study; the other five involved lifting other people’s writing without attribution. Four of the six students withdrew. The sixth received a one-year suspension.
The previous academic year saw just two or three cases, according to Butler. He doesn’t know of any other year in which six disciplinary cases arose. Six students are a small fraction of the Graduate School’s 2,200, but Butler says, “I want to have zero cases. I don’t want this to happen.” In the past, the Graduate School “didn’t want to talk about it. I think it is better to be upfront and say, ‘This is happening.’”
It happens in Yale College, too. Out of 5,200 undergraduates, 17 were brought up on charges of academic dishonesty this past school year and 35 the year before, according to Jill Cutler, assistant dean for academic affairs. Cutler is secretary of Yale College's Executive Committee (ExComm), the body that deals with matters of undergraduate discipline. Most of the cases involved plagiarism. “It’s a bigger and bigger problem,” says Cutler, who has served on ExComm for close to a decade. “I have definitely seen a rise over the years.” As a rule, undergraduates are treated more leniently than graduate students, who are practicing scholars. Some of the 17 undergraduates brought up on charges last year were suspended, Cutler says; none was dismissed.
High-profile plagiarism cases have proliferated in the past few years: Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. Is cheating on the rise?
It is apparently widespread, at least in colleges and universities. In a survey of close to 50,000 U.S. college students, the Duke-based Center for Academic Integrity found that “on most campuses, 70 percent of students admit to some cheating. Close to one-quarter of the participating students admitted to serious test cheating in the past year and half admitted to one or more instances of serious cheating on written assignments.” In Canada, more than a third of grad students and more than half of all undergrads reported some form of cheating on their papers, according to a 2006 study by Julia Christensen Hughes of the University of Guelph (Ontario) and Donald L. McCabe of Rutgers Business School.
But even academics who study plagiarism say they’re not sure whether dishonesty is trending upward. Perhaps plagiarism is simply easier to carry out and to spot in the Google era; perhaps it’s simply being discussed more. They do have theories on why students admitted to prestigious schools would jeopardize their careers by lifting other people’s work. “A lot of students talk about personal issues,” says Christensen Hughes, who is president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. “They find the work too hard, or their parents put too much pressure on them. They don’t feel they can maintain the grades they need to maintain a scholarship or get into graduate school.”
“Even if you’re in a school like Yale,” adds McCabe, “you need to finish high in the class to go to Harvard graduate school. The competition for jobs on Wall Street is still pretty selective even if you went to Yale or Harvard or Princeton. Students at all schools will on occasion feel competitive pressures that may lead them to cheat.” He notes that business students seem most prone to cheat, but as to the reasons, “I can only theorize. Based on comments made by students, part of it relates to the way things are done in the business world. Getting the job done is sometimes more important than how you do it.”
But academia is also capable of sending mixed messages, says Jonathan Koppell, an associate professor at the Yale School of Management. Koppell, who sits on SOM’s Honor Committee, points to Harvard’s failure to mete out meaningful discipline to two eminent professors caught plagiarizing, Laurence Tribe and Charles Ogletree.
One former Yale professor believes Yale too can be resistant to dealing with plagiarism. Pauline Jones Luong, who left Yale this year to teach at Brown, blew the whistle on a graduate student a few years ago. “I think it was her use of some very sophisticated vocabulary" that gave the student away, Luong wrote in an e-mail. (She didn’t wish to discuss the matter over the phone.) The student normally “could barely [put] a sentence together in English. I then ran a search on Google.”
Luong wrote that after reporting the problem, she received “a phone call from someone at the graduate school who was VERY skeptical that I had become suspicious for any legitimate reason and berated me. … It was up to me to spend several hours compiling evidence that this was not the case. … (And you wonder why so many professors do not bother to report plagiarism.)” Luong, an assistant professor at Yale for six years, adds that the incident did not contribute to her decision to leave Yale.
Luong’s student was suspended, then allowed to return, says Steve Skowronek, director of graduate studies in her department at the time. He disagrees with Luong’s assessment of the Graduate School’s reaction. “I don’t remember any resistance” to the plagiarism charge, he says. “The Graduate School was very forthcoming to me.” (The student's adviser agrees.) Skowronek does say he thinks it wasn’t a good idea to allow the student back for a second chance. Indeed, she was later caught plagiarizing again. This time, she left Yale for good.
The Graduate School created Yale’s new program on plagiarism after a summer meeting at which the six cases of cheating came up. It’s a program aimed at prevention: raising the issue and discussing scholarly values regularly, before problems arise. In the view of Pamela Schirmeister, the associate dean in charge of the program, Yale had been like a dysfunctional family refusing to talk about a problem in its midst. She wants to make preventing plagiarism a routine part of the conversation. “This is a scholarly community,” says Schirmeister. “One of our values is academic honesty. I do not want to throw students out. I want to help them fulfill their dreams of becoming great scholars.”
In general, Schirmeister encounters three kinds of responses from faculty. One: “This is not a problem at Yale. I’m not going to talk to my students as if they were children.” Two: “Students need to know about this. I’ll talk about it.” Three: “This is perhaps a bigger problem than I realized.” The “overwhelming majority” of directors of graduate studies—the people needed to carry out the campaign—fall into the second camp, Schirmeister says.
Schirmeister has written an online “educational module” with questions and answers about what constitutes plagiarism. Beginning this January, all students are being asked to fill it out. In January 2008, it becomes mandatory: students will not be able to register for courses until they have completed the module. Schirmeister also added a new section on academic integrity to the Graduate School’s website. Meanwhile, Yale joined the Duke-based Center for Academic Integrity. Other Ivy League universities belong to the center, although schools outside the Ivies, such as the University of Massachusetts and Ohio University, tend to be the ones launching organized campaigns. (Unlike on some other campuses, at Yale there appears to be a decided resistance to entertaining “honor codes,” under which students agree to report other students who cheat.)
In October Schirmeister organized the first-ever “Academic Integrity Awareness Week” at Yale. Butler and Yale College dean Peter Salovey keynoted an opening address. The week also included smaller breakout sessions for students and for teaching fellows. Turnout was light.
In a nondescript Hall of Graduate Studies classroom, the day after the formal close of Academic Integrity Awareness Week, Bill Rando held one of the advertised program events: a session for teaching assistants on how to recognize and cope with plagiarism. Fourteen chairs were arrayed around three narrow plastic tables pulled together in Room 119. Rando sat in one of the chairs. Another was occupied by Caitlin Fitz, a third-year graduate student in history. Twelve chairs remained empty.
“It never occurred to me that I would have to check” on whether students plagiarized, Fitz said. But then a friend of hers, another TA, had encountered a plagiarism case. Fitz wanted guidance.
Rando, who runs the McDougal Graduate Teaching Center at Yale, is one of Schirmeister’s most enthusiastic lieutenants in the Plagiarism Salvation Army corps. Waving his arms to emphasize his points, but gentle with his student, Rando stressed that in all cases, the teacher needs to tell students “it matters to me”—needs to tell them up front, at the beginning of a course. He had brought a stack of photocopies of a nine-page “Tools for Teaching” guide from the University of California on “Preventing Academic Dishonesty.” He handed one copy to Fitz, then walked her through a case study with examples of what may or may not constitute plagiarism; the exercise showed how focused the teacher must be to catch it. (See box, Do You Know It When You See It?.)
Rando also gave Fitz some practical suggestions: look for “anomalies” in students' writing, words they don’t normally use. Have students read and critique each other’s work to increase the sense of community and responsibility. Make assignments specific, to limit the universe of papers pluckable from the Web—and to make students think harder and produce more-original work. Assign drafts and outlines, to start students thinking and researching and to help them avoid last-minute crunches, which can increase the temptation to look for help on Google at 3 a.m.
Rando also suggested having the students do some writing in class. An old-fashioned notion, for sure. But it just might make a comeback.
In at least one department, political science, that old-fashioned notion has already returned. Steve Skowronek says that, in the wake of last year’s academic dishonesty cases, the comprehensive exams required of PhD candidates can no longer be take-home tests. For these exams, the department has opened a new computer lab. Students can still write their answers on computers. But nobody can connect to the Internet.
“I have had four cases in the last ten years, all in North American Environmental History. Two the TA discovered because they copied passages from a well-known book. I think one of the copiers got a warning never to do it again, and the other failed the paper. In both cases, parents were contacted and the deans of their colleges played a major role.
“The other two tried to pass off essays they did not write and which stuck out because the subjects made no sense. The assignment was to write an essay on some subject—anything—suggested by the books we had read to the middle of the semester. I got a paper from one guy about oysters and their habitats in Maine! I said this had nothing to do with anything [in the books]. He said he had a long-standing interest in oysters. I failed him on the paper, and he did not object.
“Plagiarizers always think that omitting the [name of the] book they’re copying from will make it impossible for a professor to find the passage. There is an even larger conceit here than the taking of someone else’s ideas. Students think they write like the authors they copy, but the flashing light in every case is that the language never sounds like student writing.”
The University of California’s “Tools for Teaching” guide on academic dishonesty offers the following hypothetical case. Here is the source, from J. M. Roberts’s History of the World:
The joker in the European pack was Italy. For a time hopes were entertained of her as a force against Germany, but these disappeared under Mussolini. In 1935 Italy made a belated attempt to participate in the scramble for Africa by invading Ethiopia. It was clearly a breach of the covenant of the League of Nations. … France and Great Britain … were bound to take the lead against Italy at the league. But they did so feebly and half-heartedly because they did not want to alienate a possible ally against Germany. The result was the worst possible: the league failed to check aggression, Ethiopia lost her independence, and Italy was alienated after all.
The most brazen plagiarizers will lift passages and pass them off as their own, with no mention of the source. But what about the following?
Italy was the joker in the European deck. Under Mussolini in 1935, she made a belated attempt to participate in the scramble for Africa by invading Ethiopia. As J. M. Roberts points out, this violated the covenant of the League of Nations. (J. M. Roberts, History of the World (New York: Knopf, 1976), p. 845.) But France and Britain, not wanting to alienate a possible ally against Germany, put up only feeble and half-hearted opposition to the Ethiopian adventure. The outcome, as Roberts observes, was “the worst possible: the league failed to check aggression, Ethiopia lost her independence, and Italy was alienated after all.” (Roberts, p. 845.)
Says the teaching guide, “The two correct citations of Roberts serve as a kind of alibi for the appropriating of other, unacknowledged phrases. But the alibi has no force: some of Roberts's words are again being presented as the writer's.” Verdict: “Still plagiarism.”
“Near the end of a term, a TA came up to my office to chat. On his way down the stairs, he saw a paper on the shelves from a student who was in his section. That essay was a seminar paper from a course the student had taken with me the semester before and that he had never gotten around to picking up. Lo and behold, it was the same paper that the student had just written for me and the TA [for the current course]! Exactly the same. Very stupid.
“We reported the case and the student was thrown out of Yale for a year. I felt bad about that, but not too bad. Upon returning to Yale the student apologized, not very profusely, for what he'd done and said that being thrown onto the streets had been wonderful for him. Alas, he didn’t mean that he'd learned new ethical lessons for life, but rather that he'd been able to do amazing political networking, networking that ultimately paid off with a high-level position as a political operative.”
“A few years ago in one of my classes I had an egregious case of plagiarism. A student clearly copied and pasted most of her paper. I recognized the language as being inconsistent with the student’s writing. I thought it was a bad translation of a Chinese-language website but when I Googled a few sentences, I actually found that the website was a bad translation, and she had just copied it verbatim into the paper.
“The student was brought before the Honor Committee. She claimed non-credible misunderstanding of the nature of the assignment—that copying and pasting was an appropriate way of fulfilling the assignment. And to boot, she said the behavior was acceptable where she came from. This is a common defense of plagiarism and one which I find has no merit, based on my own teaching in China and discussions with Chinese students and faculty.”
Plagiarism on other campuses
This fall, the Columbia School of Journalism opened an investigation into allegations that students cheated on a final exam—in a class on ethics.
Ohio University is conducting a broad investigation of its engineering graduate students' work. According to Associated Press and Chronicle of Higher Education reports, between three dozen and 44 were “accused of plagiarizing master’s or doctoral papers dating back two decades.”
A Harvard undergraduate discovered that passages in a 1996 book by University of Leeds professor Neil Winn had been lifted directly (minus some Americanizing of British phrases) from another scholar’s article in the International Studies Quarterly, according to the Chronicle. The article reported that Leeds is “disciplining” the professor.
The Chronicle reports that the president of Wesley College, Scott D. Miller, was found to have committed at least four instances of plagiarism in his own work.
Sales of Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison, by University of Tennessee professor Fred Ruhlman, were suspended in November after an accusation that the author had lifted passages from an earlier book.
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