Mason Professors and Students Confront Plagiarism

Posted: July 20, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Last semester, August McCarthy, an adjunct professor in the English Department, was reading a student paper from his composition class and became suspicious of the paper’s wording. Something about it didn’t seem right. Maybe the sources used were ones he had never discussed in class, or the tone was just a little more sophisticated than the student’s in-class writing assignments.

McCarthy went on the Internet, searched for a few key phrases in the paper, and voila! The student’s paper appeared before his eyes—or rather, the original encyclopedia article that the student had copied verbatim and attributed as his own work popped up, confirming McCarthy’s suspicions. For that particular assignment, McCarthy found that seven students had plagiarized their papers—and that was in just one class.

Plagiarism appears to be alive and well, not only at George Mason but also at other institutions around the country. According to a survey by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, 80 percent of college-bound students admit to cheating on schoolwork, yet 95 percent of them never get caught. A recent U.S. News and World Report poll showed that 90 percent of students believe cheaters are never caught or have never been appropriately disciplined.

At George Mason, the Honor Committee saw more than 250 cases last year alone. The Honor Committee comprises students who serve on panels that investigate violations of the university’s Honor Code. The code asks student members of the George Mason community to “pledge not to cheat, plagiarize, steal, or lie in matters related to academic work.”

“Yes, plagiarism is a problem,” says Jerry Mulherin, dean of students and faculty advisor to the Honor Committee. “The number is significant, and we don’t catch all of them. Part of the reason might be the increase in student body numbers, but that’s not all of it.”

Even though faculty members post the Honor Code on their web sites, make an effort to include the rules in their syllabi, and devote class periods to the correct way to cite material and use the library for resources, students still cheat. Often they copy whole articles, changing only the author’s name.

Technology has made cheating much easier. An Internet search using Google for “Hamlet term paper” yields more than 74,000 hits. Companies specialize in selling research papers to students in a bind, and millions of articles are now available online. The ease of cut-and-paste makes cheating a breeze for some.

Of course, plagiarism exists in different degrees. There are blatant plagiarists, who take an article they have read, put their name at the top, and hand it in. Mulherin recalls a case where a student was caught plagiarizing a paper. The professor had found the source online and highlighted the plagiarized parts, which turned out to be about 98 percent of the paper. The student pled guilty and was given a sanction to write a paper about why plagiarism is wrong. When Mulherin received the paper from the student, he discovered an even sadder offense.

“He plagiarized the paper on plagiarism,” Mulherin says, shaking his head. “Students often don’t put plagiarism into a moral context of stealing. If someone’s contribution to society is their words and thoughts, and how they form them, then taking those words is the same as taking money from their pocket or taking the car from their garage.”

Sometimes cases of plagiarism are not that cut and dry. In many cases, students forget to cite references properly or might not understand how to paraphrase. In other cases, students from other countries may experience cultural differences in U.S. academic settings, which may cause them to be accused of plagiarism. In Asian culture, for example, the professor is held in such high regard that it would be seen as disrespectful to try to change his words around, but in America, paraphrasing a class lecture is the norm.

One of the most common reasons students say they resorted to plagiarism was that they were stressed for time. “Some students, who are more concerned with things other than their academic work, rush to finish assignments and use plagiarism to get their work out of the way,” says Ryan Pettit, a student on the Honor Committee who has tried several cases at Mason. Sloppy work is also a common cause of plagiarism, says Todd LaPorte, a professor in the School of Public Policy. He cites the example of a student who copies and pastes an article found on a web site and forgets to note where the article came from. Later, when the student goes back to finish the paper, he or she might forget what was copied and what was paraphrased.

And it’s not just students who commit plagiarism. Mulherin points to several high-profile cases of prominent faculty and administrators caught stealing words. According to cnn.com, the president of Central Connecticut State University was fired for plagiarism in a newspaper article he wrote for the Hartford Courant. Other professors across the country have lost tenure for making the same mistake.

In George Mason’s Writing Center, Director Terry Zawacki and Assistant Director Scott Berg see many gray areas of plagiarism—cases where students use uncredited sources in their drafts. In these cases, often the students don’t realize that paraphrases still need to be cited, or they will merely change a few words in their paraphrase to avoid quoting large portions of text. “In these cases, our tutors try to instruct the student on the proper way to cite sources,” says Berg. “These are all examples of unintentional plagiarism.”

At George Mason, faculty members often look to their own teaching practices to see whether they can prevent plagiarism. Zawacki, who is also director of Writing Across the Curriculum, holds faculty workshops on assignment design and other topics that also address issues of plagiarism and how to deal with them. She has created a short fact sheet with tips for professors on ways to help students avoid plagiarism. Some of her tips include asking students to keep research logs, having them write about their research process and sources, and finding time in class to practice citing research materials.

In his courses, McCarthy, who just earned his juris doctor from the George Mason School of Law, devotes an entire class period to the discussion of the Honor Code and plagiarism. “I am extremely active in talking to my students about what plagiarism is. It gets to the point where they roll their eyes at me when I bring it up,” he says. But he gets results. “If I get a student who does mess up, and I call him on it, many times he’ll be just that much more eager to get it right the next time.”

Laurie Fathe, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and chair of the Academic Integrity Task Force, also works with faculty on ways to avoid plagiarism in the classroom. She suggests that changing small things in the way a professor teaches a class—such as not using the same assignment or research topic two years in a row—can really help reduce cases. “Construct assignments so that if they aren’t plagiarism-proof, they are plagiarism-resistant,” she urges.

La Porte uses Turnitin.com, an Internet-based search engine that helps curb plagiarism by comparing a student’s paper with a rich database of articles and other research papers. He allows his students to submit their papers to the database before turning them in to him just to make sure they’ve done everything correctly. La Porte also prohibits students from using any Internet-based source for his courses. “I want them to become familiar with the library. It’s very easy to type in a few words in Google and find dozens of sources, but the quality of sources might not be that high.”

Along with these efforts by George Mason administrators and faculty to actively make students aware of the problem and get them involved in the issue, the Honor Code was rewritten last year to make it easier to understand. Yet, some faculty and students say that even these attempts are not enough.

McCarthy says that the Honor Code should be eliminated at the university because it is so ineffective. He believes that George Mason does not do enough to encourage academic integrity.

Pettit, a student senator and third-year government and international politics major, also sees deeper problems in the university community, but he’s hopeful that there are ways to fix them. “There is one simple solution to the problem of plagiarism, and that is to change the atmosphere of the university to one that expects and demands academic integrity,” he says. “To achieve this goal, a number of steps can be taken. First, make the Honor Code and the Honor Committee more visible to the students…and show students where to report violations of the code and encourage them to do so…. I also believe that…making penalties more severe may help.”

Plagiarism and other forms of cheating might stem from another deep-rooted problem of our culture, namely isolation, says LaPorte. He feels that although it is good to have many sources of information coming from the Internet, the Information Age also has a downside. Databases online take away the need for students to go into the library and become familiar with it. “Taking students out of the library is a huge, huge mistake,” he says. “There is a sense of isolation that people have from one another. If our connections to each other are lacking, we might not feel like we have to do the right thing,” says LaPorte.

When asked how he thinks the problem can be solved, LaPorte replies “vigilance.” “Give students the message, ‘This is the way you do work,'” he says. “Pay attention to them.”

“It’s really up to the students to solve this problem,” says McCarthy. “If we give them an Honor Code that works, it would solve a larger goal. It would ask them to bring those morals, those values, with them into the world, and that’s what’s most important.”

Write to at