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Plagiarism Is a Structural Problem

How our campuses can minimize plagiarism.

August 24, 2022

Twitter and the right-wing and academic press are abuzz with accusations of plagiarism directed against a Princeton professor who allegedly copied and cribbed portions of his dissertation and a 2015 book. These accusations have in turn prompted counterclaims: that a flawed or a missing citation or even sloppiness is note taking shouldn’t be confused with systematic cheating.

To this, the professor’s critics reply, plagiarism isn’t simply a matter of copying and pasting. It also includes, as the economic historian Phillip W. Magness points out, rearranging words and reordering quotations. Magness goes on to cite the professional standards laid out on the American Historical Association’s website.

“Subtle forms of plagiarism encompass ‘an inadequate paraphrase that makes only superficial changes to a text’ resulting in ‘a patchwork of original and plagiarized texts that echoes the original sources in recognizable ways’ such as ‘cosmetic alterations’ to the wording or order of the original text.”

I am not here to adjudicate this particular case. Instead, I want to ask why undergraduates cheat—why they copy and paste from websites or rely on term paper–writing sites or pay another student to write a paper.

Is this because these particular students are fundamentally dishonest or unmotivated academically? Is it because all too many students are lazy and procrastinate and lack appropriate time-management skills? Is it because a culture of cheating runs rampant on many campuses, often abetted by fraternities? Is it because the cheaters are ignorant about higher education’s rules of academic honesty? Or is it because some students are desperate to live up to their own (or their parents’) expectations about their abilities?

Dave Tomar’s recently released The Complete Guide to Contract Cheating in Higher Education offers another explanation: that cheating, to a large extent, is motivated by structural factors:

  • Students who are overwhelmed by their academic and outside-of-class workload.
  • The pressure to enter high-demand, highly competitive majors.
  • Institutional and noninstitutional scholarships that require students to maintain a minimum grade point average.
  • The willingness of many colleges and universities to enroll students with subpar English language or math skills.

In his gloss on the book’s arguments, former college president and Forbes contributor Michael T. Nietzel succinctly sums up some of the institutional factors that contribute to cheating: “colleges’ failure to train students how to write effectively, written assignments that are dull and repetitive, a lack of sufficient support and services for students who are struggling, overburdened graders, disengaged professors” and the pressure on institutions to raise retention and graduation rates, rigor be damned.

I couldn’t agree more. If a single student cheats, that’s the student’s problem. But when many plagiarize, the problem lies less in the campus culture (though that can certainly worsen the situation) but in structural variables that we have the power to address.

Tomar is himself a former academic ghostwriter who outed himself in a widely read article before publishing a 294-page account of the paper mill industry. Not surprisingly, his claim to have written made-to-order papers for everything from introductory college courses to Ph.D. dissertations caused a sensation, producing outbursts of outrage and denials that anything like what he described could occur at scale.

But his work also generated some accolades. The Wall Street Journal called Tomar’s revelations a “harrowing indictment of the modern American university’s current shortcomings as a meritocratic, credentializing institution, much less a home for mental and moral growth.” Similarly, The Washington Post called his exposé a “stunning tale of academic fraud … shocking and compelling.”

Wrote Washington Monthly, Tomar’s disclosures were “ultimately an indictment not just of the paper mill industry but of the contemporary higher education system, which allows the industry to flourish.”

As an insider, Tomar is well placed to speak truth to power: our institutions create conditions where plagiarism, in particular, can flourish relatively unchecked.

No one knows how common plagiarism is or whether its incidence is increasing. Our measures, like self-reporting or the number of cases handled by campus academic honesty committees, are notoriously unreliable. Any statistics we have from campus reporting almost certainly pale compared to the number of cases handled by faculty “informally” or that have gone undetected.

But I can personally attest to the fact that in my large 3200 to 400-student sections of the U.S. history survey course, plagiarism occurs with some frequency, even though students know that every written assignment goes through a plagiarism detector.

So what should we do? Some steps are obvious:

  1. Require frequent low-stakes writing, including in-class writing.
  2. Encourage every faculty member to devote time to writing instruction.
  3. Work with instructors to teach them how to design plagiarism-proof writing assignments.
  4. Urge instructors to divide longer writing assignments into distinct components (e.g., a proposal, a bibliography, a draft thesis statement, an outline, a first draft and revisions) with specific due dates to ensure students remain on track.

But if plagiarism is a structural or systemic problem, we need to do more:

  • Colleges and universities need to rethink students’ academic workloads. This will likely require institutions to recalibrate the number of credit hours assigned to particular classes and to consider introducing credit-bearing courses (like practicums, studio courses and for-credit, supervised internships) with different workload expectations.
  • Writing across the curriculum needs to become more than a catchphrase. Instead of relegating writing to a limited number of rhetoric and composition courses or to a handful of writing-intensive courses, we truly need to embed writing across the curriculum.
  • Writing instruction needs to become a greater part of instructors’ responsibilities. This will require campuses to do much more to prepare instructors to formulate writing assignments, instruct students in discipline-based writing conventions and provide regular, substantive feedback.

My own teaching assistants worked hard to provide their students with concise, actionable writing advice about how to:

  • Distinguish between opinion and analysis.
  • Recognize that much academic writing is not descriptive but argumentative, persuasive and analytic and requires students to formulate a thesis that is original, provocative and compelling.
  • Focus a paper around a core theme.
  • Avoid vague generalities.
  • Effectively paraphrase and not simply engage in text lifting.
  • Not only cite evidence, but interpret and weight those sources.

Teaching students to write effectively strikes me as higher education’s single most important task. An inability to write clearly and cogently will inevitably impose a glass ceiling on our graduates. Even worse, those who can’t write lucidly can’t communicate or argue effectively.

Not only is glibness in speech no substitute for the clarity in writing, but students who can’t express their thoughts in logical, coherent and intelligible language haven’t really mastered a particular topic.

Teaching writing is an art, but it’s an art that we’re all capable of mastering.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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