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Unintended Lessons: Plagiarism and the University

by Carol C. Thompson - 2006

Plagiarism, like other ethical problems, flourishes in atmospheres with few consequences. The finding by one survey that only 27% of college students thought cutting and pasting someone else's work was "serious cheating" is troubling evidence of student inclination to cut corners ethically. Papers are easily copied from the Internet, and adult role models in the larger world are equivocal. Academic settings themselves may subtly encourage such behaviors if they think of their students as customers and outsource teaching to adjuncts. Plagiarism detection software, though helpful, is not without its own problems. Colleges and universities that carefully outline consequences, particularly if these are part of an honor system collaboratively run by students and faculty, can reduce plagiarism.


The college freshman sitting across from me in my office looked me in the eye and insisted vehemently that he didn’t know why his paper was a word-for-word rendition of its twin, which I had found on the Web and was holding next to his own. Another student, having waited 3 days until I returned his graded essay—a cut-and-paste collage of several Web sources labeled "final"—assured me that he had simply given me an incorrect draft. A third brought his mother to the conference; it turned out that not only had she prepared the paper for him, but she also had done the plagiarizing. That year, I found at least 6% of the essays submitted by my college freshmen had been plagiarized. These were not cases of unintentional copying or carelessness, but rather papers deliberately taken in toto or pieced together from Web sources without acknowledgment. Disposing of these cases thrust me into a complex web of societal and university expectations and sanctions, leaving me to question what the real lessons were.

One semester I spent the entirety of my spring break dealing with plagiarized papers. I had not expected or wanted to find them, but the questionable papers were clearly not good matches for the previous work of the students. I was dismayed because I thought I had done as much as I could, short of altering departmentally mandated course goals, to make plagiarism difficult in each of the eight courses I taught during the year. I changed the standard freshman syllabus so that my students couldn’t borrow the papers of others, and I insisted on seeing their sources a week before accepting their papers. I taught the classes in roundtable fashion so that students weren’t in jeopardy of feeling excluded and so that everyone had multiple chances to ask questions and get help. I added extra office hours and taught students how to use the library databases, thinking that along with my exhortations about academic honesty, the inference that I was Internet savvy would be inescapable. During freshman orientation, students had received booklets on academic honesty that contained clear examples and consequences for plagiarism, and I referred to the booklet in class. Because in each course the primary goals included the responsible use of sources, a point stated repeatedly on the syllabus, the board, and in class discussions of research and self-checking, I had an extensive paper trail in my favor.

In the end, my disappointment in my students was equaled by my chagrin at the difficulty of persuading the administration to accept my failure of students who wished to fight my decision. Some of the meetings with administrators—carried on by phone until the final resolution of the last case 5 months after the end of the semester—extended well past the time in which I was on the faculty of the university. My grades for all students were ultimately upheld, but the experience has caused me to wonder what factors made these challenges possible, perhaps even likely. The students who looked me in the eye and insisted on their innocence have counterparts elsewhere; Hans P. Johnson (2002, ¶ 2) noted one professor’s remark that they tend to “feel no remorse, just anger at being caught.” And administrators often find themselves persuaded by their anger.


My students were not alone in their desire to avoid doing their own work. One needn’t go further than the morning newspaper to find accounts of plagiarism by students or, even worse, faculty or other professionals. In October 2003, the U.S. Naval Academy demoted Brian VanDeMark, a member of its history faculty, for plagiarism (Steinberg, 2003). In the fall of 2002, the president of Hamilton College, Eugene M. Tobin, resigned after plagiarizing a speech from an Amazon.com book review (Lewin, 2002). Richard L. Judd, president of Central Connecticut State University, retired after he was found to have plagiarized material from the New York Times and other sources in 2004 (Stowe, 2004). A New York Times article (Petersen, 2002) detailed how physicians have ghostwritten pharmaceutical research before trials are completed and in accordance with “outlines approved by” marketing companies “before [they] were given to the doctors who were paid to be listed as the authors” (p. C4). One hardly need mention Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, among other recent well-publicized examples of professorial malfeasance. But as Bartlett and Smallwood (2004) found, there are also abundant cases among less well known academics. Clearly, students are having chances aplenty to see their elders act dishonestly; it should not be surprising that the students interviewed by Kate Zernike (2002) for the New York Times asserted that using a paragraph without attribution did not constitute cheating; echoing the physicians above, 45% said “falsifying lab or research data” did not constitute cheating (p. A10).

If professors are sending equivocal messages, so are the parents of students. In an article in Newsweek, May Akabogu-Collins (2003a) described the lengths to which parents now go to prepare their children’s college essays. Her friends insisted that she should hire an editor to help with her son’s essay; she went a few steps further and wrote one for him (which he refused to use). In a radio interview shortly after the Newsweek piece was published, Akabogu-Collins (2003b), herself a professor, insisted that she would still provide her son’s essay with some “motherly editing.” Small wonder that students are confused about or uninterested in the expectations for ethical behavior and that such confusion begins well before students are in college. Indeed, one high school student interviewed for a CNN article described honor as “a passe thing that no one really believes in anymore”; another described cheating as "efficient" (Slobogin, 2002). Slobogin cited Donald McCabe’s 20031 survey of 4,500 students indicating that “75 percent of them engage in serious cheating.” In addition, McCabe noted, high school students see the Internet as “public domain” (Kellogg, 2001), further muddying the waters.

Why do students, parents, faculty, and administrators behave in a way that seems opposed to their stated policies on academic honesty? Such dramas are enacted within a web of societal expectations for higher education, which is variously seen as the “conscience of the culture” (Dugger, 2000, p. 18), as “an arena for free discussion assuming a diversity of viewpoints . . . of the most important issues of our time” (Zinn, 2000, p. 173), as a generator of business, as a trade school, or as an institution “for hire” (Steck & Zweig, 2000, p. 298). Those of us who confront academic dishonesty realize that it occurs in a nexus of sanctions from outside. That does not, however, decrease our distress in seeing students abuse the trust we hope they have in the sharing of knowledge. Nor does it, as I show in the final section, necessarily mean that faculty hands are tied.


As mentioned above, the kind of plagiarism that we are dealing with here is the wholesale copying of another’s work or the collaging of several papers (or Web sites) via the Internet. Students who have become inured to the idea of cutting and pasting and of downloading music appear sometimes not to understand the import of their actions (though it’s difficult to believe that a student using a paper by a Nobel Prize winner, as one of my students did, doesn’t know what he’s doing). They can obtain papers through two kinds of sites. First are the publicly available search engines such as Google. Students typing in keywords can easily access any public site, including university postings, with relevant information. Even students merely searching for information with key words, however, are likely to see another kind of site—one that gives access to already-written term papers or papers-to-order. Sites such as SchoolSucks.com have free papers (not good ones—denoted as “free crap” on the home page) that are also easily traced. SchoolSucks.com also advertises better term papers, dissertations, and book reports for sale. So well known is the site that separate contact numbers for press and business inquiries are also posted on the home page. Genius Papers charges only $19.95 for a one-year subscription to a large database of papers. Like SchoolSucks.com, it also provides custom papers. At the time of Joanna Glasner’s article in Wired (2002), Genius Papers had sold 20,000 subscriptions. Like other term paper mills—and there are hundreds of them—it was, Glasner noted, one of the few highly profitable dot.com sectors. Sharon Stoerger’s Web site (2005; adapted from one she prepared for the vice chancellor of research at the University of Illinois) contains a lengthy list of such sites from Cheater.com to Other People’s Papers, and a longer list prepared by university librarians at Coastal Carolina University. A growing number of these sites hire grad students and others to write custom papers that are completely untraceable. AcaDemon.com encourages students to submit papers for pay, but won’t, remarkably, accept plagiarized papers. Speedypapers.com advertises a staff with graduate degrees; the site contains model dissertations.

As such sites proliferate, so does the copying—at a startling rate. Donald McCabe’s 2003 survey of “18,000 students, 2600 faculty and 650 teaching assistants” found a “considerable jump from the 10 percent who acknowledged such practices in a similar survey conducted two years ago” (Rimer, 2003). McCabe found that half the students he surveyed did not view cut-and-pasting without attribution as plagiarism, a finding that replicates Scanlon and Neumann’s (2002) from the previous year. Graduate students are not, it appears, immune from such temptations; a quarter said they had engaged in some “cut and paste plagiarism from Internet and written sources” (Muha, 2003).

Indeed, as Zernike (2002) noted in her New York Times article, “an increase in cheating was clear from the response to some questions that had been asked two years earlier. . . . From the 1999-2000 academic year to 2001-2, the number of students who said they had cut and pasted from the Internet without attribution rose to 41 percent, from 10 percent. . . . Students who thought cutting and pasting was ‘serious cheating’ declined to 27 percent from 68 percent” (p. A10). Zernike quoted the Center for Academic Integrity’s statistics:

[A total of ] 27 percent of students questioned during the 2001-2 academic year said that falsifying laboratory data happened “often or very often” on campus. Forty-one percent said the same for plagiarism on written assignments, 30 percent for cheating during tests or exams, and 60 percent for collaborating on work when a professor has instructed students to work alone. Moreover 55 percent of the students said it was not serious cheating to get questions and answers from a student who had previously taken a test, and 45 percent said falsifying lab or research data did not fall into that category either. (p. A10)

Students plagiarize for a variety of reasons. Some of my students were simply overloaded, hated the required course, or hadn’t planned their time well. But certain characteristics, said R. Dean Gerdeman (2000), seem to be related to a proclivity for academic dishonesty, including “membership in a fraternity/sorority, frequent partying, and increased extracurricular involvement" (¶ 5). Following Crown and Spiller’s 1998 work, Gerdeman added that “studies have consistently indicated that students are more likely to cheat if they observe other students cheating or if they perceive that cheating is commonplace or acceptable among peers" (¶ 6).

The case that has received the most popular attention is one from the University of Virginia, where Professor Lou Bloomfield was told by one of his students that others were plagiarizing papers in his physics class. He devised a computer program, now available on his Web site, to detect similarities in papers, and after extensive scrutiny, a number of students had their diplomas rescinded. That this had occurred at a school with an honor code was dismaying to those who had hoped that the codes carried sufficient weight to deter such behaviors. But Bloomfield’s action seemed to have a salutary effect on other universities, which began to formulate (or dust off already extant) policy statements and to alert faculty that administrative support would be forthcoming. It is perhaps a sign of the complexities of honor codes, however, that when Bloomfield was interviewed again on 60 Minutes, some students who were also interviewed said that Bloomfield’s continued use of his computer program to check for violations was itself a violation of the trust in his students, and thus of the honor code.


Two shifts in university structures and aims have contributed to the ethically equivocal atmosphere in education. First is the increasing use of business models that encourage administrators to view students as customers who must be kept happy. In an increasingly litigious climate, parents who threaten to sue for higher grades or lesser punishments—or none at all— for their children, as the parents of one of my students did, are able to exert the pressure of bad publicity or legal hassles. Such legal consequences compound the changes that have left many faculty to conclude that integrity is less valued than it might be. Fear of backlash isn’t unrealistic, especially amid talk of so-called posttenure reviews (Nelson, 1999). Students and their parents often appeal decisions; John Sutherland (2000) remarked that “academic institutions are increasingly nervous about ‘exemplary’ punishments. . . . Undergraduates (paying up to $30,000 a year) are ‘customers.’ They increasingly litigate. And cheating (or plagiarism) is very hard to prove. Moreover, it gets the institution a bad name. And bad names hurt financially" (¶ 5). It is perhaps not surprising that Terri LeClercq’s (1999) survey of 177 law schools found them unconcerned about plagiarism. And Vivian Sobchack, assistant dean at UCLA, has said that “over the years, increasingly ‘client-centered’ and ‘user-friendly’ universities—while becoming more corporate and afraid of litigation—have encouraged plagiarism by softening its seriousness” (Johnson, 2000, ¶ 5).

The response of chairs and deans often is simply to acquiesce despite clearly written ethics codes such as that at my university. And the eagerness of administrators to put ethical breaches behind them means that faculty often have little recourse. My chair wanted me to "reconsider" my grade for the student with the "wrong" draft, saying he’d had an insufficient chance to prove his case. What finally convinced the chair to let my grade stand wasn’t the evidence I provided, but the Student Affairs record of the student’s failure of the previous term of English for plagiarism. Similarly, blaming professors for student malfeasance isn’t uncommon. Several recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, and a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times (Raiford 2002) blamed cheating on “unimaginative instruction,” or failure to write unplagiarizable essay questions, or even on asking students to write essays at all. Certainly such prescriptions are a reflection of our confusion about the value of integrity. Stephen Willett’s (2002) online thread mentioned UC Davis as an example of clear consequences: “The administration . . . [backs faculty] with the result that its faculty turns in three times more students for cheating than any other campus”; plagiarism is probably simply disguised at institutions that ignore it.

The other profound shift in university climates concerns the increasing use of part-time faculty whose ad hoc status makes them particularly vulnerable to administrative pressures. The increase in the number of part-time faculty is arresting: There was a 79% increase in the period from 1981 to 1999, according to Sharon Walsh’s 2002 article in the Chronicle. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES; 2003) report released in November 2003 indicates that as of 2002, there were 632,824 full-time and 506,910 part-time faculty across all institutions of higher education nationally. One survey, noted by Alison Schneider in the Chronicle (1999), found that “having a tenure track faculty member instead of a graduate student . . . reduces the likelihood of cheating by 32 percent”; but clearly the chances of full-time faculty teaching courses have been declining. And part-time faculty are easily “fired”: contracts, often written only for a semester at a time, are simply not renewed. As Schneider (1999) indicated, adjuncts have been fired for contesting alterations in their grades, and both she (1998) and Johnson (2000) cited the case of a Fordham University adjunct who was not rehired when he confronted a student over plagiarism.

Before adjuncts worry about administrative backing, however, they need the means to catch students who plagiarize. Because most plagiarism is an Internet phenomenon, computers are essential; yet about 51% of adjuncts, according to Townsend (2000), did not have access to their own computers. In my office, 13 faculty shared a single computer for nearly 2 years. Adjuncts who cannot afford their own computers (as many of my colleagues could not) are simply unable to do much in the way of searching the origins of suspicious papers. If, as Gerdeman (2000) noted, even tenured faculty are reluctant to pursue plagiarism "formally" because of “time constraints, due process protocol, fear of backlash, [and] lack of administrative support" (¶ 9), such difficulties are far more severe for adjuncts. Even with the availability of computers and easily searchable databases, determining whether and how plagiarism has occurred can be time consuming. Administrative procedures for failing students require, as they should, that faculty make cases as airtight as possible because they will affect students’ lives and thus be subject to appeal and review at all levels of the university. The hours required are substantial, and adjuncts must often determine whether they have the time to devote to the task amid the other requirements of their teaching, especially when heavy essay loads and 70-hour workweeks are the norm.


There is, it appears, an academic culture that increasingly fails to discourage dishonesty. Students may feel that the rules are unclear or that cheating is "efficient." Professors resent playing policeman. "Plagiarism," remarked Michael Bugeja (2000), “is all about gambling—a student betting that you lack the fortitude to come up with the evidence to back your suspicions. . . .[It] is more than theft. It represents a challenge to your integrity and expertise and puts your reputation on the line" (¶`20). One thing that stops plagiarism is consequences; its existence must be acknowledged and then dealt with. Two of the most frequently suggested methods for dealing with plagiarism are honor codes and computer detection programs.

The easiest detection devices are the large search engines. I found many of my students’ plagiarized sources by using Google’s Advanced Search. When papers contain interwoven sources, however, as several of mine did, reconstructing the originals can take several hours. Some sites, such as Plagiserve and Edutie.com, offer detection services; one of the perversities of these two sites, Sharon Stoerger (2005) noted, is that they also sell papers to students. Other kinds of detection are provided by Turnitin.com, a plagiarism-sniffing site that can be accessed by departmental subscription. Turnitin.com, which was moderately helpful when I tried it, comes with its own set of problems. My department used it on a trial basis, but none of us was aware that papers we submitted for scrutiny were being archived into a database. As Andrea Foster’s (2002) article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, such databases may violate copyright and privacy law. Pointing out that screening of papers presupposed guilt rather than innocence, a McGill University student brought a successful legal challenge against the university in 2004, arguing that Turnitin.com “would profit from his work” (Curran, 2004). McGill has since decided to continue to use some computer detection software but to allow for other ways for students to establish that their work is their own.

When my students handed in papers that were clearly not their own, sanctioning the papers would have served no one well. But part of what we hope students will learn in college is how to take part in a larger socially constructed conversation, and carefully conceived honor codes may offer the space. Honor codes, however, vary hugely in their aims and methods; some work, and some do not. As Lou Bloomfield noted (personal communication, 2004), “an ‘honor code’ that is simply imposed by the institution . . . is just a glorified set of academic rules.” And even when students take responsibility for such codes, there can be equivocal outcomes. According to a CNN report, well before Bloomfield’s case, a student in another department at the University of Virginia was targeted by the Honor Committee even after his professor insisted that no cheating had occurred (Hoover, 2002). The subsequent hearings raised questions about due process. They also raised the question as to whether such honor code procedures have less to do with academic integrity than with, as Bloomfield asserted, providing “a venue for future lawyers to test out their skills as prosecutors.”

Robert Boynton’s (2001) piece in the Washington Post reexamined his own experience of the honor code as a student at Haverford College 20 years ago. The Haverford code was “a philosophy of conduct” rather than “a list of rules.” Boynton’s description of the way the code worked on him is profound; he could “cut corners, cheat, and lead an inauthentic life” or “discover what was possible when my motivation was completely internal.” Both a journalist and professor himself, he ends up on the side of avoiding what many call the “cat-and-mouse game of detection.” I can’t help liking Boynton’s idea. If all concerned take the code seriously, it can exert a powerful force for integrity and real learning. As McCabe and Makowski (2001) indicated, “the lowest levels of cheating were found on campuses where students had exclusive responsibility for the campus honor code” (p. 19), but even “modified codes” can have positive results.

If only 27% of college students think that cutting and pasting someone else’s work into your own is “serious cheating,” there is clearly work to be done; allowing such plagiarism to continue teaches all parties that corruption is acceptable. The lesson of what constitutes ethical behavior must be clear to all. Universities must have policies that they use and believe in, they must clarify them with faculty and students, and they must deal with infractions in a fair but expeditious fashion. Issues of morale simply must be addressed, and all members of the university must behave ethically. Faculty simply must have access to both the time and the tools to catch plagiarism, which will almost certainly decline if it is taken seriously. It is these resources, unfortunately, that probably will continue to be in short supply in view of the current crisis in higher education funding and the increasing number of students (Zusman, 1999).

If students arrive at college with confusion about the seriousness of academic dishonesty, what will help them are clear expectations, repeated in all their classes, for ways to avoid dishonesty. If many of us were grateful for the ways in which the Virginia case helped open up the discussion of plagiarism, as Bloomfield (personal communication, 2004) noted, students “still don’t understand honor codes.” As universities have required students to avoid downloading music files, perhaps they can do the same with written files, and then begin a substantive discussion of the kind of honor code Boynton found so valuable in his undergraduate years. McCabe and Makowski (2001) found that honor systems can work well if collaboratively constructed and managed by both students and faculty. Students who understand that plagiarism will be met with severe consequences, according to Scanlon and Neumann (2002), tend to avoid doing it. And whether a college or university community signals its disapproval convincingly, McCabe and Trevino (1996) asserted, will play a huge role in whether plagiarism continues. A host of other studies, including Gerdeman’s (2000), say the same: The most effective discouragement of cheating is that those around you aren’t doing it.

I am indebted to Stanton Wortham and Matthew Hartley, and to the anonymous readers, for their helpful suggestions.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 12, 2006, p. 2439-2449
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12848, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:18:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Carol Thompson
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    CAROL C. THOMPSON, Assistant Professor of Foundations of Education at Rowan University, received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (2006). Her dissertation focused on the relation of technology, social language use, and frameworks of participation in one urban youth organization. Her most recent publication is ‘‘Hopeworks: Technology, Youth Identity, and Youth Organization’’ in Digital Generations, edited by David Buckingham and Rebekah Willett (2006).
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