The recent incidence of plagiarism at The New York Times set off some empathetic alarm bells throughout the academic community. According to a 2002-03 survey of 3,500 graduate students in US and Canadian universities, 23%-25% of students acknowledged one or more instances of "cutting and pasting" from Internet sources and/or published documents.1 Electronic journals, E-books, Internet "paper mills," and other high-tech sources of information have put a whole new spin on academic integrity today.
Catching a plagiarizer today isn't easy. Decoo2 observes that plagiarism is noticed more in the hard sciences such as medicine, as compared to the social sciences such as philosophy. To detect plagiarism, some books suggest looking for discrepancies in fonts and writing styles and the age of material. However, students who consciously plagiarize are usually smart enough to eliminate these obvious signs. Specialized software programs can detect Internet-mediated plagiarism, but they may not always work well because access to many online professional journals is limited to subscribers only. Some higher education institutions employ academic misconduct officers who investigate cases of plagiarism and/or scientific misconduct, but not all can afford to do that.
Note that all these actions occur after the deed is done. Perhaps a healthier approach would be to prevent plagiarism, rather than constantly policing the students' work.
For starters, we need to ensure that students understand the meaning of plagiarism and, more importantly, its consequences. The breadth of plagiarism, from copying a phrase to duplicating research data, is wide. Its definition not widely know, plagiarism is the act of stealing and passing off the ideas or words of another, without crediting the source, according to Webster's. We cannot presume students know this. After all, when students memorize facts from recommended textbooks and reproduce them verbatim during closed-book examinations, we do not penalize them for plagiarism. Yet, the same act committed on paper could well constitute plagiarism. In an article in The Scientist, one academic stated that it is the responsibility of universities to teach ethical research behavior and techniques for resolving disputes. "People are not born knowing this."3
Early learning from textbooks can strongly influence how a student thinks and writes. A further problem is familiarity with the language; non-native English-speaking students may borrow field- specific standard language while writing, not recognizing the underlying plagiarism because they perceive the concepts and/or data reported as their own. With many foreign students entering programs in higher education every year, we must be sensitive to this issue. Candid discussions with students, through case studies, for instance, could help them recognize unethical actions and their consequences and perhaps derail some embarrassing conversations. Honor codes could be implemented to reinforce the importance of ethics upon project submission.
We also need to clarify the difference between plagiarism and copyright violation, so students cannot use the concept of fair use of copyrighted material as an excuse to defend academic plagiarism. Jim Evans comments, "... if academics are not fully aware of the various types of plagiarism or its kissing cousin, copyright law, how can students in higher education be expected to understand it?"4 In addition to educating students on ethics, we need to ensure that academic institutions have discrete policies on handling cases of plagiarism and research misconduct; the National Science Foundation offers guidelines.5
Finally, we must be highly vigilant of students' activities without appearing insensitive, paranoid, or discriminatory. They must be held accountable for unacceptable acts. However, a trusting relationship between mentor and student is important for productive research; mentors may need to strike a balance so as not to be constantly suspicious about a student's integrity.
When a problem is identified, it must be investigated thoroughly before leveling accusations, and confidentiality must be maintained until a verdict is reached to ensure the accused's reputation and to avoid any lawsuits. Attention must be paid to the Human Rights Act. Nevertheless, it remains our moral obligation to be vigilant and ensure that proven ethical violations are punished.
I've no doubt that busy academics do not relish the idea of teaching ethics education and devising policies regarding digressions. Yet, if we do so, we may see significant, down-the-road improvements in ethical standards among our students and future higher education colleagues.
Sudip K. Das, PhD, is an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy, Idaho State University, Pocatello.
1. Personal communication with Donald McCabe, professor, Rutgers State University of New Jersey, and first president, the Center for Academic Integrity, Duke University, NC.
2. W. Decoo, Crisis on Campus: Confronting Academic Misconduct, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2002, p. 9-10.
3. B. Goodman, "What is misconduct?" The Scientist, 10:1, 8-9, Jan. 22, 1996.
4. J. Evans, The New Plagiarism in Higher Education: From Selection to Reflection, available online at www.warwick.ac.uk/ETS/interactions/vol4no2/evans.htm