Around Tappan Square
The Business of Cheating Stirs New Solutions
Mellon and Hewlitt Foundation grants propose to keep students honorable. By Yvonne Gay
When 122 University of Virginia students were accused of cheating on term papers in an introductory physics course last spring, faculty members throughout the collegiate community were initially stunned, but upon reflection, not surprised after all. With a click of the mouse to Genius-papers.com, AcaDemon.com, or several other "bargain-price" mills, students can have a term paper delivered faster than a Domino's pizza.
Fortunately there are web sites that allow suspecting professors to pinpoint such Internet plagiarism. TurnItIn.com, Plagiarism.com, Paperbin.com, and HowOriginal.com promote themselves as tools to "ensure academic integrity." In the UVA cases, physics professor Louis Bloomfield acted upon a tip from a student who, upset over a low grade, alleged that some higher-scoring classmates had cheated. Bloomfield ran 1,800 papers--five semesters' worth--through a computer detection program. To his astonishment, the site red-flagged 60 papers that matched exactly with online sources.
Oberlin faculty and administrators do not deny that some instances of plagiarism exist on campus. Dean of Students Peter Goldsmith maintains that misuse of web resources may be inadvertent, however, and that students may not understand the fundamental standards of academic citation.
So what distinguishes plagiarism from research? Students are about to learn.
Professors are now being urged to work with College librarians to create or revise courses to incorporate information literacy--teaching students how to find, evaluate, and use information. A prototype course is under way in the Women's Studies program, where one of the tools includes "The Women's Studies Guide to Citation," written by associate professor Wendy Kozol and reference librarian/instruction coordinator Jessica Grim.
The course revisions are funded by a three-year, $475,000 Mellon Grant awarded to Oberlin and four other colleges last year for literacy programming training.
"In library instruction sessions, we often emphasize the ethics of using information," says Cynthia Comer, head of reference and instruction at the Main College Library in Mudd. "This includes understanding the ethical, legal, and socio-economic issues surrounding information and information technology, and the importance of acknowledging the use of information sources in one's research, work, or performance."
Another program, still in its infancy, will offer seminars for first-year students. Intimate classroom settings in a variety of subject areas will emphasize discussion, writing, and the ethics of scholarship.
"Information literacy will be an important part of this early intervention program," says David Kamitsuka, associate professor of religion and supervisor of the proposed program, which is funded in part by a three-year $150,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Liberal Arts Initiative.
"In scholarly writing, proper citation is, of course, essential," he says. "Our students are learning not only how to learn, but how to be scholars. They're learning that information needs to be treated with respect."
HONORING THE CODE
But training students in accurate research and citation methods won't prevent every instance of cheating, particularly among those who do so knowingly. Rutgers University management professor Donald McCabe found that more than three-quarters of nearly 2,000 students at nine large public institutions admitted to one or more instances of serious cheating on tests or examinations, or to having engaged in serious dishonesty in written assignments.
"There are incidents of plagiarism at Oberlin every year and, while the honor system is notified of some of them, my sense is we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg," says Jim Helm, Oberlin classics professor and chair of the Faculty Honor Committee.
"It's difficult to identify, and thus to prevent it. I used to give closed-book take-home exams, but found that the pressure this puts on students is too great. I have stopped giving take-home tests unless they are open-book."
With term papers, he adds, an option is to assign very specific topics; finding the subject on the Internet is more difficult.
In another study, Rutger's McCabe asked 800 faculty members why they ignored possible plagiarism violations. Professors cited "inadequate support" as a primary factor. At Oberlin, Goldsmith speculates, some faculty members may feel reluctant to report instances of plagiarism under the current Honor Code system because of a perceived inconsistency or lack of severity in penalties, which range from honor probation to suspension. Or they may be concerned about the time required of them in the follow-up hearing of a case.
At President Nancy Dye's request, an ad-hoc committee of faculty, students, and administrators was formed to review Oberlin's Honor Code, which hasn't been revisited in more than a decade. Working to create a more user-friendly code, the group hopes that a revision---which will require a two-thirds approval of the existing Student Honor Committee and approval of the Student Senate and General Faculty---will better define offenses and improve faculty confidence in the system.