Tuesday, March 04, 2008

plague of plagiarism

I just put an 8 week on-line sociology class to rest; entered the grades and said farewell. I was, up until the very last moment, about to have an all time record for on-line classes. For the first time since I began teaching on-line classes in 2000, I was about to have a class in which everyone who had not officially withdrawn actually completed the entire course with a passing grade. Some of those grades were going to be D's, but they were still going to pass. Normally there are several students who neither complete the course nor take the time to formally withdraw and thus end up with failing grades -- an "E" in our system.

Unfortunately, when I got to the very last student (both alphabetically and because she had waited until the last day of class to turn all her papers for the whole eight weeks), all the work she turned in was plagiarized. Some were papers taken in their entirety from one of the free on-line paper mills, other she apparantly did the work of hunting down paragraphs to copy from the internet herself. Plagiarism is always upsetting and disruptive, but this coming as it did at the last minute to ruin what would otherwise have been a class for the record book, was crushing.

I have less plagiarism in my classes since I got seriously tough on it, and created ways of getting the message across to students at the beginning of the class (borrowed some great "For Better For Worse" cartoon strips from Lynn Johnston -- with references of course) that drive home the point. But even with all the warnings, students still do it. I don't remember have these problems when I first began teaching 30 years ago.

As a sociologist I have to wonder, is plagiarism more common today or is it just easier for teachers to check for it? If it is more common (which I suspect but cannot prove) why is it?

For a time I thought that what I perceived as an increased incidence of plagiarism was only because the types of students that I taught had changed. I began teaching at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and then moved on to the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, now I teach at a community college, in a poor, rural area. Was the increase plagiarism due to my students having poorer preparation and poorer college skills? Since discovering the Rate Your Students blog, I realize that the problem of plagiarism goes well beyond my little corner of academia.

So if, as I believe (but cannot prove), plagiarism has increased, the question is why? I know lots of people who would jump to "declining values" as their first response. That answer reminds me of a quote from sociologist Abraham Kaplan "We do not explain why there is a lion in the garden by pointing out that in fact there are two of them in there." If values have changed what caused them to change? Values are a cultural phenomenon, they are the result of social processes, and do not float down from the ether. For there to have been widespread changes in values, there have to be widespread changes in society that produce those value changes.

What has changed? One thing that has changed is opportunity. The technology of computers and the Internet has certainly made plagiarism far easier than it was in my college days. I would liken it to changing the channel on the TV -- from the time I was 5 until I was 34, when I wanted to change the channel on the TV I got up, walked across the room and turned a nob to change the channel. I didn't change channels often, and used the TV Guide to look up what I might watch before changing channels. Then I got a remote control, and overnight I became a channel surfer, and changed my viewing habits just like that. My values and attitudes about television viewing changed after the fact, as a result of access to a new technology.

Something else that has changed is that a much higher percentage of high school students (and the population in general) are going to college, than did when I went to college. While the increased access to college has benefited many people who want to go to college who might have been left out forty or fifty years ago, it has also meant that many people who aren't really interested in what colleges offer (academic learning) are nonetheless attending college. They are attending college because that is what the job market demands. As a society we have lost alternative career paths -- even though there are shortages in fields that don't really need college (electricians, plumbers, construction, repair work). When economic necessity is forcing you to get a diploma, but you don't care for the activities that are required to get that diploma, short cuts become appealing.

These are just two ideas I've had about the sources of plagiarism. I think that there are more things, and I'd like to hear other people's thoughts.

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