College kids and their plagiarism (or college professors and their quaint insistence on proper citation of sources).

Today, The New York Times has an article about students and plagiarism that I could have sworn I've read at least a dozen times before, at least in its general gist.

As an exercise, before you click through to read the article, grab some paper and a pencil and jot down two or three reasons you think will be offered that the current generation of college students does not grasp the wrongness of using the words and ideas of others without attribution.

Is your list ready?

Well, as you might expect, much of this behavior is being laid at the feet of the new digital age.

What with all sorts of information resources available through the internets, and with copy-and-paste technology, assembling a paper that meets the minimum page length for your assignment has never been easier. Back in the olden times, our forefathers had to actually haul the sources from which they were stealing off the shelves, maybe carry them back to the dorms through the snow, find their DOS disk to boot up the dorm PC, and then laboriously transcribe those stolen passages!

And it's not just that the copy-and-paste option exists, we are told. College students have grown up stealing music and movies online. They've come of age along with Wikipedia, where information is offered free for their use and without authorship credits. If "information wants to be free" (a slogan attributed to Stewart Brand in 1984), how can these young people make sense of intellectual property, and especially of the need to cite the sources from which they found the information they are using? Is not their "plagiarism" just a form of pastiche, an activity that their crusty old professors fail to recognize as creative?

Yeah, the modern world is totally different, dude. The article describes a student who copied an online FAQ, verbatim, in a student paper and didn't cite the source because there was no author listed. You know what source kids used to copy from in my day that didn't list authors? The World Book Encyclopedia. Indeed, from at least seventh grade, our teachers made a big deal of teaching us how to cite encyclopedia and newspaper articles with no named authors. Every citation guide I've seen in recent years (including the ones that talk about proper ways to cite web pages) includes instruction on how to cite such sources.

Maybe we're not talking about ignorance so much as indifference.

Indeed, this impression is bolstered by an anecdote near the end of the article:

At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others.

Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied — knowing it was wrong — who were “unwilling to engage the writing process.”

“Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice,” he said.

So, a modest proposal for students unwilling to engage the writing process: don't.

Take a stand for what you believe in! Don't lurk in the shadows pretending to knuckle under to the man by turning in essays and term papers that give the appearance that you wrote them. Instead, tell your professors that writing anything original for their assignments is against your principles. Then take your F and wear it as a badge of honor!

When all those old-timey professors who fetishize the value of clear writing, original thought, and proper citation of sources die out -- when your generation is running the show -- surely your principled stand will be vindicated!

And, in the meantime, your professors can spend their scarce time helping your classmates who actually want to learn to write well and uphold rudimentary rules of scholarship.

Really, it's win-win.

31 responses so far

  • Kyorosuke says:

    Yeah, as part of the generation of students apparently at the center of the article, I can tell you (in so much as I can decipher anything my peers do) that this has to do with laziness. It's physically easier with a computer to literally just copy & paste text in a few seconds, rather than transcribing it. I should say, though, that Wikipedia makes a point of noting the issues involved in citing its articles.

    But the problem comes down to my fellow students being too lazy to write even the most paltry of content. Doing real work is haaaaard!

  • Chad says:

    The culture of dishonestly is widespread in college. It's almost certainly much larger than was surveys indicate. Students cheat like there's no tomorrow. Probably because they know perfectly well that they won't get in trouble for it.

    When I transfered up from a community college to a university, one of my first classes was in engineering economics. The teacher was entertaining with his stories, but didn't really teach much. The mid term was coming up and he posted a previous exam online. He told us that if we did the homework and understood it, we'd be fine. I looked at the previous exam and it was nothing like the homework. My community college mentality told me there's no way that the mid
    term would resemble this previous exam. I sat down for the mid term, saw it was like the previous exam and started to curse myself. I noticed other students with the previous exam + solutions neatly printed out and tucked into their textbooks (it was an open book test). There were two graduate students walking up and down both aisles. I thought despite my impending failure on this test, I'd at least get the treat of watching at least one person get busted. No one got caught. They were cheating in plain sight! Unfortunately, no one got busted.

    It was even worse in thermodynamics. The solutions manual was available online and students would print out tons of problems from it. I printed out problems as well, but I used them to study. The final was hilarious. At that point in the semester, no one was even trying to hide their cheating. There was this one guy who showed up on time, but too late to get a seat. He sat on the floor in the back with printed out solutions ALL around him. He wasn't even hiding anything. Nothing happened to him.

    I guess this culture of academic dishonesty is not a real genuine concern (at least where I went to school).

    • Ryan W Sims says:

      If it was open book & the printed answers were from a *previous* test/solutions manual, I'm not sure I would be so quick to label that as cheating - it sounds like that was the accepted format for the test. I had a lin. algebra test where we were expected to reference notes & book, because we were supposed to cite chapter & verse for theorems and lemmas.

      Obviously you were there and I wasn't, but on face value I'm not sure there's anything seriously wrong with what you saw: just an open book/open note test. Whether those are as *valid* as closed tests is a different issue, but unrelated to dishonesty.

      • Chad says:

        Both tests were open book only. No solutions were posted by the professors (except for thermo HW problems). For the econ class, solutions came from groups of students who worked previous exams neatly typed in Word. For the thermo class, solutions came from the publisher's instructor's solutions manual which we weren't supposed to have access to (on-campus P2P file sharing). Using a previous exam to study is fine. Having that exam + solutions with you in an exam when you're not supposed to have anything but a textbook is cheating.

        The point I'm making is that none of the professors I had or their grad students whose job it was to "monitor" the tests appeared to even care. That being the case, I'm not surprised by students copy/pasting without attribution.

  • Zeke says:

    Nothing new here, move along .. I got out of the Navy in '82, having been a ham since my early teens and learning more electronics and computer skills while in. I did a couple years at a community college, which was awesome .. the instructors mainly came from industry and were able to teach interesting real-world material, and I learned a boatload. Once I transferred to the University of Maryland at College Park it became apparent that cheating was the norm. One of the IEEE subgroups actually kept files, indexed by instructor and course, containing annotated exams going back years. Most instructors simply recycled the tests with minor changes. Studying the previous exams virtually guaranteed you a decent grade.

    I was in a study group with others from the community college and we all took the 3rd semester of physics together at UofM. Giant lecture hall, large recitiation classes with unintelligible TAs, typical class in an undergrad engineering prerequisite at a large school. The midterm was a copy of the previous fall's midterm with the usual minor changes. We approached the prof after that midterm and suggested he consider giving us an exam for which we would be allowed to bring in a single sheet of notes, but which would contain non-trivial problems which would require understanding of the material rather than rote memorization of specific formulae for specific types of problems. He went along with it, the people in my study group did well, the rest of the class tanked. Needless to say he went back to the old way the following semester .. can't have all those failures to deal with ,,

  • skeptifem says:

    It is because school is a vehicle to get something they want (a degree, more money, job x). Almost no one wants to learn for learnings sake. The ones who do sure are more likely to resent jumping through meaningless hoops in school.

    That is my opinion of my generation, anyway. I don't know what it was like before that, but I cannot imagine the work ethic being an issue. I have seen so many clueless students put hours of effort into cheating because they can't understand the material (or can't in time for a test).

  • Kea says:

    AMEN! I actually had this on my syllabus when I taught at Front Range Community College - if you don't want to WRITE a paper, it's best not to turn one in at all; the worst you'll get is zero points, whereas plagiarism will get you kicked out of the class & on a very special Dean's list.

  • Ryan W Sims says:

    Couple points, in the interest of fairness:
    First off, sweeping generalizations about "this generation's" dishonesty would be much better for evidence. Has it actually been getting worse over time? Has that even been measured?

    Secondly, it's really easy to point fingers at students, but it might be worth taking a broader view and thinking about the ways in which we as a society tolerate dishonesty: the NYT themselves have been involved in at least one scandal[1] recently, and there are certainly plenty of examples of major, extremely consequential dishonesty from our leaders[2]

    Does this excuse academic dishonesty? Hardly. But it would be nice to have a little less righteous indignation over it. Perpetuating students vs. teachers animosity is only going to make the problem worse.


  • Rolly says:

    It isn't just students who plagiarize. A few years ago, I was in a tech bookstore where I saw a new college textbook in my field. As I thumbed through, I was startled to find a whole chapter that was word-for-word a paper I had published. No attribution. I thought about challenging the book's author, a professor at a mainline university. What good would it do? So to hell with it.

  • Zebee says:

    I don't think this behaviour is new. When I first went to uni in the early 80s it was happening, people copying from books and each other rather than cut and paste, but the reasons were the same as I think are the reasons now: The degree is what's wanted, not the education.

    A degree is a job ticket. Check job ads, the students and prospective students do. A degree is a quick way to cut down the number of applicants. The job probably doesn't need a degree level of education, it probably just needs someone with just above basic literacy and a tiny bit of focus. Employers figure that if you ask for a degree you'll get that and maybe a bit more, but mainly you will cut down on the number of resumes you have to read. But every decent looking job has that requirement. (Never mind all those articles on how grads earn more money.)

    Even in the 80s we knew that. We knew that the employer didn't really expect us to use anything we learned (unless we were studying engineering or agriculture and maybe not even then) but just wanted us to have the line on the CV. They weren't going to ask us questions about what we'd learned as long as the numbers were on the transcript.

    And why should the university care? Who is ranking them on what their graduates know? No one - they are ranked on research and amenities and maybe what their graduates earn. Is that last linked to what they know on graduation? Doubt it... it seems to be linked to the reputation of the university and the numbers on the transcript.

    It's simple: we are getting students who are doing exactly what they are being encouraged to do by everyone around them. Get a degree not an education. No one cares about the education, it's not measurable.

    • Chad says:

      It’s simple: we are getting students who are doing exactly what they are being encouraged to do by everyone around them. Get a degree not an education. No one cares about the education, it’s not measurable.

      I learned that the hard way. In the community college I went to, for the most part, the grade you got was the grade you earned. There was curving here and there, but the teachers were great and didn't feel the need to ambush you on a test. If you paid attention, did the homework, ask questions when necessary, you had nothing to worry about. Just learn and you'll be fine. So if you got an A you very likely blew away the class. I was in for a shock in the university. I failed a lot of my classes like most of my peers. In one class, the first mid term average was a 22/100. Not surprising because the teacher barely spoke English and demanded that we master 12 chapters for the mid term. He had to give us another mid term which was very similar to the first. We gave it the good college try and bumped the average up to a 44/100. Don't even ask about the final. Virtually everyone in that class learned nothing. But I got a B. That's when I realized that college was just a scam because the norm is to grade a student relative to their peers and not relative to what they are supposed to learn. If you fail a class, so what? If enough of your peers did worse than you then the numbers can be statistically massaged to transform a well-deserved F into a B.

      You think you're going there to learn things that you need to know in the workplace but you're just there to buy a piece of paper (at enormous expense) to make yourself look better than people who don't have the coveted degree. I still haven't gotten over how people I knew in college, barely if at all, use anything they "learned" in college in their jobs.

    • skeptifem says:


      People who really care about learning do it anyway. College level info about different subjects is meant to seem unobtainable, but anyone can find it now (usually for free).

      God, the number of incompetents with serious degrees I have to deal with day to day infuriates me... most medical study coordinators have degrees in some completely unrelated field (like anthropology), and screw EVERYTHING up. They could hire someone with a year of lab experience and get better results, but that won't happen, because it is a job that pays really well so they spring for people with degrees. It is supposed to be a badge to show how smart an applicant is but it does nothing of the sort.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    To be fair, some of us care a great deal about educating our students (and about helping them learn stuff that will be useful to them in the workforce and in life more generally).

    Sadly, this means we spend a lot of time frustrated that our students have convinced themselves that they don't need what we're offering.

  • Pam LaPier says:

    This is how to cite a website with no author:

    "Newborn Feeding." Welcome to Gerber. Gerber Corporation. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2008.

    There's a million websites that tell you exactly how to do this.

  • Steve says:

    I teach in the humanities and my problem isn't so much plagiarism. Indeed, most of my prompts and writing assignments tend to be things you wouldn't find on-line (e.g., create a dialog between Machiavelli and Hamlet, write an advice column in the voice of Seneca, review "Confessions of a Shopahaulic" in the persona of Mary Wolstonecraft). My struggle is to get students to document textual support for their thinking. I always tell them I'm no different than the math professor. They have to show their work. And good documentation is showing your thinking work. It's also how I measure the rigor and thoughtfulness with which they have engaged the material.

    Every semester I begin by explaining why they need to cite and integrate support into their work, and every semester they try to avoid doing it. There are likely three reasons for this.

    1.I haven't communicated my expectations clearly (i.e., it's my fault).

    2.The students don't know how to do it. In other words, I've set a performance standard, but they lack the necessary skills and practice to meet it.

    3.They know how to achieve my standard but are testing me to see if if it's possible to get by with a lower level of effort.

    In my younger years I probably would have suspected hypothesis one or three . I am pretty sure most of the time it's two. They simply don't understand what it means to build an argument from textual sources and why they need to do it. I hate to give an entire day over to something most of them should have learned before they left high school, but I'm not doing the job if I don't. Also, their learning curves really start curving the first time they get a paper back with a zero because it lacked support.

  • Pam LaPier says:

    And so I don't plagiarize:

    Harris, Robert. "Citing Web Sources MLA Style." VirtualSalt, 2009. Web. 2 August 2009 .

  • Ryan says:

    A note about statistics relating to plagiarism: UC Davis had 32,153 students enrolled in Fall 2009. 196 cases of plagiarism is peanuts(.6% of the student body?), when you really think about how many opportunities students have to plagiarize. It's unfortunate that it happens, and those who commit it should really suffer as much disciplinary action as the university can level at them, but to act like it's a sin of an entire generation is rather absurd without, as a previous commenter said, more information.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      It would be nice, of course, to know how many incidents of plagiarism are detected but not reported, and how many more are committed but not detected.

      But I agree that the "Kids today!" framing of the NYT article, making it seem like the current generation of college students partakes of more plagiarism than any of the generations that preceded it, is not helpful.

  • Pat says:

    This year, we received our first job application containing plagiarism. That was unexpected! The plagiarist had not even bothered to reformat the cut-and-pasted material.
    Do most of us even consider checking job applications for plagiarism? I never did it before, but now I will. Just as I now routinely ask HR to verify people's degrees.

    At our school, we use to have students check their papers for plagiarism. It never ceases to amaze me when students run their papers through, get dinged, and then turn in the papers without correcting them. The serious limitation of turnitin, though, is that it doesn't check papers against textbooks. I'm sure this has to do with publishers wanting to keep that text proprietary, but in curricula like allied health where students may have textbooks and encyclopedias from several different courses addressing the same material, it leaves a gaping loophole.

    • Ahhhaahaha! In the teaching philosophy? In the research statement? I am dying to know.... so I can copy your comment, and then post it as my own blog post, of course. With no credit, naturally.

  • Pat Cahalan says:

    Like the new digs, Dr. F-R.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    W00t! Looking forward to blogging with you in this communiTAY!

  • New Asst. Prof. says:

    When I review (biomedical science) grants and manuscripts, I use eTBLAST to check the abstract(s). Ostensibly it is to find similar grants or published papers that might shed light on what I'm reading, but it can easily catch sentences that are duplicated...

  • DLC says:

    Uh, right. why do work when you can copy and paste.
    Because nobody outside of Academia will worry about original work. . .
    Right ?

  • Sen says:

    As a PhD student who has to mark lab reports I can say quite clearly that undergrads in my school at my uni aren't taught how to reference properly. I learned in my year in industry, rather than during the undergrad course itself. They get told simply not to use internet sources. Of course they do use them, but then don't reference it because they think they aren't supposed to in the first place. Or if they're a little dim then they access a journal online but still assume that it's an internet webpage they have to reference. There needs to be more clarity in the system.

    • Pat says:

      I used to enjoy teaching citation, when I did the first-year courses. The thing is, making it an issue of giving credit or following directions does turn it into pieties, and I think anyone who gets through 18 years has learned to ignore a lot of adult pieties. The method I prefer is to teach it as strategy, and I used to use an exercise based on some of Bruno Latour's dialogues (in 'Science as a Process,' I believe). Here's how it goes:

      Give the students back issues of something like 'New Scientist' and have them take 10 minutes to find the most amazing thing in their issue. Then have them close the magazine and write a summary of it, so they learn to paraphrase. Then have one of them read the summary out loud, and then refuse to believe it. Make fun of it. This person you've known for half an hour is telling you komodo dragons have virgin births -- what nonsense! Refuse to be convinced until the student has demonstrated that the work came from a reputable source, that the author was a scientist and not an advertiser, that the data are recent, and has told you exactly where you can find it. Then have the students themselves come up with a list of what they need to put in a citation to support their statements, give them a handout on APA or your preferred standard, and send them off to the library to write a properly cited paraphrase of an article on an assigned topic.

      It doesn't 'take' with all of them, but it's much more fun than reading them a code of conduct.

      • Sen says:

        That sounds fun! I might suggest that as a suitable method so I don't have to berate them all by the time they get to the year that they're my responsibility. Thanks 🙂

      • skeptifem says:

        Man, friggin citation styles. That crap is so friggin worthless. It is one of those things you do to prove you went to college, and that is all it is worth. I began to question college after having to do that. My final essay in the class was about how meaningless and classist stuff like that is.

  • stripey_cat says:

    Not many people at my uni were dumb enough to try to cheat (unless they were so good they never admitted it or got caught!) or plagiarise outright (I can think of one woman caught cheating on finals, and she was sent down so fast she bounced, and I'm not aware of any actual plagiarism in my immediate circle), but a distressing number seemed to think, especially for weekly essays, that reading and paraphrasing one or two papers was an adequate substitute for thought. I still have fond memories of the tutor and I tag-teaming someone who'd clearly only read one paper off the reading list for the presentation she was asked to give - sadly, the paper she read was the crack-pot included to get you thinking outside the box. Even more sadly, it skated close to the tutor's personal research interests, and happened to be a subject I'd done in rather more detail for a different course the previous month. PWND. This was in the humanities (specifically Classics, and more specifically the economic history of post-dynastic Egypt), and our citation rules were a bit different (it's more-or-less OK to paraphrase and attribute from memory in essays because the exams were strictly no-book), but blind periphrasis without any attribution or original thought was way out.

  • faz says:

    When I was teaching, I had some real problems with plagiarism. Only 3 students out of my class of 20 didn't plagiarize. It's like they didn't even know what it meant. All of them, word for word from wikipedia. I had no choice but to flunk all of them, at which point they got another teacher to teach this group. He ended up getting so aggravated that he crossed out the names of the pupils on their cover sheets and wrote "Wikipedia" instead.