Report from the Academic Committee on Plagiarism
David Galef envisions how one university might deal with the thorny issue in 2005.
To the Dean of Academic Affairs:
Our special committee on plagiarism has concluded its research.* Below are the highlights of our findings.
Students are growing lazier about the whole process of copying, not even bothering to change fonts in a cut-and-paste excerpt or otherwise disguise their tracks. When asked why he inserted an entire page printed in Black Forest Gothic in a paper written in Courier, a student in freshman composition expressed surprise: "If you start changing things, that’s cheating, right?"
The path of least resistance continues, often refreshingly low-tech. A Psychology 200 instructor reported a student handing in a Xerox of an article with the author’s name whited out and her own inserted. "I did the best I could,” confessed the student. "I didn’t have my laptop with me, and I was in a hurry."
A student in an Art 303 seminar handed in a paper that had been plagiarized from another plagiarized paper, which was plagiarized from an earlier paper, which in turn seemed to be derived from another source. The instructor finally traced the work back to a papyrus scroll residing in the Cairo Museum.
In another recent case, a student handed in a paper that had been copied from the Lycée Populaire, all in French, though the student himself knew no French, and the course was an American literature survey.
Some of the faculty feel particularly betrayed, no longer sure of their ground. One instructor bemoaned "the lack of standards these days, when students are willing to plagiarize even mediocre texts.” He referred to a paper he’d recently received that duplicated a D+ paper he’d graded and returned the previous semester.
After one comp-lit lecturer told his students that plagiarism derives from the Latin plagium or "kidnapping," he received a ransom note: “Unless you leave $500 in small bills by the rostrum in 101 Henry Hall, you will see your darling lecture next in a paper for a world lit survey class at U Neau.” Luckily, proctors were able to apprehend the perpetrator playing a tape to the voice-recognition software at the Information Technology Center.
Spotted: a new trend called plagio-riffing, where students get together and mix and match five or more papers into one by sampling and lifting choice paragraphs to the beat of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (plagiarized from “He’s So Fine”).
How to tell if a student work has been plagiarized, Old and New:
Old: It looked suspiciously well typed.
New: It has a Web address printed on the bottom.
Old: It read like a) Thomas Jefferson, b) the student’s girlfriend, or c) Abigail the Academic for Hire, from the tutoring agency down the street.
New: It reads like document #1209583 on Cop-an-Essay.com.
Old: It had key phrases that didn’t fit with the rest of the student’s diction. Example: “The height of the Roman empire represented the pagan apotheosis of imperial grandeur, but the seeds of its decline were inherent in its decadence, and to me that sucks."
New: Since all the writing looks like a pastiche of web-based gibble-gabble, we’re still studying this problem.
Making the punishment fit the crime for those caught plagiarizing: Have the student copy the same sentence over and over again. Note: reproducing without permission has an additional meaning in China, as our resident Sinologist has pointed out.
According to a report from another university’s home page, over 70 percent of all students admit having used sources without acknowledgment, and plagiarism is “growing by leaps and bounds.” Any resemblance between that report and ours is purely coincidental.
* Note: The committee would have released its findings last year but for the unfortunate incident of committee member Professor Renquist’s "borrowings" for his latest book. The case has been settled out of court.
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).
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