Your Work, or the Web's? ; Schools Ramp Up Efforts to Prevent Internet-Based Plagiarizing

Article excerpt

When Jeanne Wilson's 10-year-old son gets stuck in his computer game, he doesn't have to spend hours rethinking strategies or plotting a new course. Instead, he turns to the Internet, where he quickly finds tips - otherwise known as "cheats."

Most adults, like Ms. Wilson, don't have a problem with that - it's only a game, after all.

What's more troubling is the number of students who have extended the habit to dealing with everything from nightly homework to term papers. As director of Student Judicial Affairs at the University of California at Davis, Wilson is concerned enough with what she's seeing on campus to have initiated a trial run with a Web-based group that can help professors detect plagiarism.

Lifting others' work has long been a problem in schools. But the ease with which students can pawn borrowed material off as their own has added a new issue for educators: the blurring of lines between what is acceptable and what is not in academic writing.

Students - who typically turn to the Internet as their first source for information and research - frequently perceive the Internet as lawless and anonymous. Many also assume it is infallible.

Add to that the fact that the information is free, and it is tantalizingly inviting to cut and paste paragraphs from different websites into a patchwork quilt of a paper.

Students may be prompted by night-before-deadline hastiness, or simply lose track of sources. But whether poor motives or disorganization are at the root of the behavior, the growing nonchalance about the practice suggests that schools face an uphill battle in encouraging students to take plagiarism seriously.

"Unless somebody starts to teach high school students and even middle school students proper use of the Internet and citing resources, the problems at the college level will increase dramatically," says Don McCabe, a researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey and founder of the Center for Academic Integrity.

Nearly half of all high school students admit to cut-and-paste plagiarism from the Internet, according to Mr. McCabe - much more than the 1 in 10 college students who say they do the same. A similar relationship exists between the numbers of high-schoolers and college students committing full-scale Internet plagiarism (verbatim copying or downloading).

But not all see it as problematic. Just under three-quarters of college students think that obtaining a paper from an online site is a serious offense, and just over two-thirds think cut-and-paste plagiarism is a serious offense, according to a 1999 survey by McCabe of about 2,200 college students from 21 schools.

Most students recognize that putting their name on a paper written entirely by someone else is wrong, but then that clear-cut line of right and wrong gets fuzzy. Students may justify plagiarism in some cases, especially if they think they don't have time or the assignment is, from their point of view, busywork.

"On one level, students know that cutting and pasting something on the Internet into their paper is wrong, but they can come up with a lot of rationalizations," says Barbara Petzen, former professor of Middle Eastern studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. …

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