Purloined Letters

When students use the specific thoughts, ideas, writings, or expressions of another, they must accompany each instance of use with some form of attribution . . . Failure to do so is plagiarism, a major form of dishonesty.

—Moravian Student Handbook

So what part of “use” and “must accompany” and “each instance” and “attribution” is so hard to understand?

Ask the popular World War II historian Stephen Ambrose, whose new book is called The Wild Blue. The January 14 issue of the Weekly Standard ran a side-by-side comparison of passages from a 1995 book, Wings of Morning, by Thomas Childers, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. (Both are about the experiences of a World War II bomber crew.) Ambrose has apologized and said he will attribute the all-too-evident “borrowings” (which are copyings) in future editions.

Or ask a Moravian student whose theft of someone else’s words has crossed the desk of Carol Traupman-Carr, associate dean for academic affairs.

Instances of students’ passing off the words of another as their own have more than tripled on campus this semester. A former academic dean told Traupman-Carr to expect half a dozen cases a term. As last semester ended, she had been apprised of 22 cases.

Moravian is not alone. “According to a 1998 survey by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, four out of five college-bound high school students admit to cheating on schoolwork, and a recent Center for Academic Integrity study reports that 80 percent of college students admit to cheating at least once,” says the Web site plagiarism.org.

All Moravian students get a copy of the Student Handbook, whose policy on plagiarism is spelled out on pages 51-52. To be admitted to college, they must sign a form saying they’ve received it, which carries the legal inference that they’re responsible for its contents. But perhaps “plagiarism” gets lost in 148 pages of college policy.

Students are operating under several assumptions, Traupman-Carr said:

    1. The Internet doesn’t count.
    2. Plagiarism happens only in English classes.
    3. Citation and quotation mean the same thing.

Though a few students still steal from books or magazine articles, most now download material straight from the Internet. Sometimes, in all innocence, they believe that because text appears on their computer screen without charge, it’s available for their use. But information obtained from the Internet requires the same attribution as a printed book or journal.

“The Internet is making it easier for the students,” Traupman-Carr said, “but it’s also making it easier for faculty to track it down.” Type in a one-word topic, she says, and a professor often may find that the student has gone no further than the first two or three Web sites, scooping up the contents for a term paper.

Even more damning evidence can be obtained by using a common search engine such as google.com.

“I had a student hand in a paper on Gulliver’s Travels,” said a Lafayette College professor whose specialty is Jonathan Swift. “I looked at the first page and knew she had copied standard sources. I do know a little about the subject,” he added dryly. “Then I searched for a couple of telling phrases [using the computer] and the rest of her paper came up.”

Nor is plagiarism exclusive to English classes. Traupman-Carr said any program in which writing is required has seen its share of plagiarism. Last semester’s crop included sociology, psychology, nursing, and history.

“I’ve had it from a phys. ed. class, believe it or not,” she said.

As for confusion between citation and quotation: “One student protested that he had cited his sources,” she said. He did not place quotation marks around the author’s words, however, and seemed to think that this constituted a paraphrase. “I liked his words,” he explained earnestly.

Traupman-Carr said she answered with the “That’s fine, but” explanation: While glad to know you liked his words, the author would have been even happier to see that their exact repetition was honored with quotation marks.

January 15, 2002

Purloined Letters
Student plagiarism on the rise at Moravian, as on college campuses all over the US. First of two parts
Those Who Can, Teach
Profile of asst. professor of education Joseph M. Shosh
Farewell (and Hello)
Staff members Lujean Baab and Melanie Vollman leave; Melanie's replacement
The Dream Remembered
Moravian's Martin Luther King Jr. Day program
Prized People
Winners of the annual support staff awards
Faculty/staff achievement)
Events calendar
All-campus announcements
Now Hear This!
New rules/regs in effect on campus as of Jan. 1