Plagiarism a persistent problem

    Midterms are upon us, and we all know what that means — caffeine, frenzied paper writing and tense late-night visits to the gatekeeper of academic integrity, www.Turnitin.com. Professors are increasingly making the submission of papers to Turnitin.com part of the paper-writing process, which essentially puts the burden of proof on students in determining the legitimacy of written exams.

    Turnitin.com compares submitted papers with bodies of text accessible throughout the Internet, as well as other papers that were submitted for the same assignment (so-called “”peer review””). The aim is to deter plagiarism, use of Internet sources and collusion with classmates, and to analyze discovered plagiarism so that guilty parties are confronted with solid evidence against them.

    In short, upholding the university’s strict principle of academic integrity is requiring students to jump through more hoops than ever.

    Is it really justified to be suspicious of every student’s integrity and subject everyone to tests of academic integrity such as Turnitin.com, in the name of weeding out plagiarism? Considering that these innocent students have nothing to hide, and will no doubt be hurt by their dishonest classmates, then perhaps the answer is yes.

    But the strategies that the university is pursuing — constant reminders of the extreme consequences of plagiarism, “”guilty until proven innocent”” tests like Turnitin.com and the compulsory photocopying of title pages — ignore the most disturbing aspect of plagiarism at this educational level. This aspect, of course, is that college plagiarists don’t just spring up overnight — they are the product of many years of testing teachers and subverting true education, and the problem runs much deeper than a desperate student cutting a few corners with a research paper.

    If someone resorts to cheating at this point in their educational careers, they’ve most likely made use of it in the past; it represents an ingrained behavior, not just a last-ditch effort for an A. It’s regrettable that habitual plagiarists even made it to UCSD, but since they have, it shows that they’re sophisticated — too sophisticated to be caught with a simple and obvious test like Turnitin.com. Thus, at the very best, Turnitin.com catches the weaker sisters of college-level plagiarism: the occasional person who had a serious lapse of judgement or plagiarized inadvertently.

    Universities should simply not have to face the problem of habitual and sophisticated plagiarism, first because there’s considerable freedom in a university environment, and students should care enough about their classes to actually learn the material. The second and more important reason is that there’s no good way to weed out or deal with plagiarism when it’s progressed to such an advanced stage and the behavior has been reinforced by years and years of getting away with it.

    It’s absolutely essential that academic dishonesty be caught early in a students’ career, but it rarely is — and that is precisely the problem. The current educational environment of junior high and high schools is all too conducive to every form of academic dishonesty: Students are impatient, class sizes are relatively large and teachers are overworked. This breeds an environment where students, whether they’re academically gifted or not, are plagued by disinterest, and plagiarism is a thrilling and easy way to keep those grades up (because more emphasis is put on grades than anything else). The students who plagiarize are simple innovators; they accept the societal goal of earning good grades, but don’t accept the conventional means — studying and hard work — that constitute the conventional way to meet this goal. And how can they be blamed for that, when getting A’s through less-than-honest means is continually reinforced by parents and teachers? They should know better, of course, but the weight put on good grades is much stronger than ingrained morality — and that is the current sad state of American secondary school education.

    Ultimately, the focus needs to be shifted from university-level plagiarists to the incredible crop of dishonest junior high and high school students. Their plagiarism is as much a response to boredom as it is to their desire for good grades; thus, this should be addressed, since the incredible weight of good grades will never disappear. It’s a lofty goal to instill a genuine love for knowledge in pre-college students, but this would no doubt eliminate plagiarism before it sprang up.

    Or to be less ambitious, teachers should be more attuned to plagiarism in all of its subtle forms and punish it accordingly, so the behavior is never reinforced by an ill-gotten A. It’s also important — and seemingly obvious — that an open line of communication between teachers and students is maintained, but this is rarely the case. Many times “”school brains”” are continually bullied for information and answers, but their teachers seem so overworked or uncaring that the simple solution of reporting the crime is ruled out, and plagiarism thus proliferates (and the poor “”brain”” is essentially punished for being legitimately studious).

    A range of solutions present themselves, but the point is that universities, by their very nature, are ill-equipped to deal with plagiarism. Shift the focus to earlier education, where this terrible habit takes root, and progress will be made. But by subjecting every college student to compulsory tests of their integrity, the problem is being tackled way too late, and unnecessary resentment is being bred.

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