Experts discuss ways to combat student plagiarism

By Daniel J. Fitzgibbons

At a time when the Internet has changed the nature of academic research, educating students about what constitutes plagiarism is a crucial element in preventing academic dishonesty, several campus educators told the Faculty Senate Oct. 20.

The three-member panel addressed various aspects of student plagiarism, including disciplinary procedures and new detection technology, during a special open discussion presented prior to the regular senate meeting.

According to Mary Deane Sorcinelli, director of the Center for Teaching, her offices takes a proactive approach to the problem by working with students on the proper use and citation of sources. However, she said, it might be useful for the campus to have one web-based destination for the community to obtain information on plagiarism.

Sorcinelli conceded that some students intentionally use undocumented material in assignments, but many others, including foreign students, don’t understand the nuances of conducting research. At the University of Indiana, Bloomington, she said, students must pass an online quiz on plagiarism.

Anne C. Moore, associate director for User Services at the Du Bois Library, said, “Plagiarism is out of control with the availability of the Internet. Students interact with media in a whole different way.”

In response, she said, the campus is in processing of licensing Turnitin, a web-based plagiarism detection service that had a trial run on campus last spring.

“A lot of faculty tried it and a lot of them really, really liked it,” said Moore.

Turnitin employs a huge database of Internet sources as well as five years of Internet archives, said Moore, then provides faculty with side-by-side comparisons of student work and publicly available material. Faculty can print out the comparisons and use them to educate students about what they did wrong, she said.

Turnitin has information for faculty on how to address possible plagiarism with students, Moore said, so that it’s a “proactive approach instead of a punitive one.”

Moore did note that participation in Turnitin is voluntary for faculty and students must consent to having their assignments screened through the service.

When faculty do choose to pursue official plagiarism complaints, said ombudsperson Catharine Porter, they should follow the campus’s Academic Honesty Policy, which was approved by the Faculty Senate.

Under the policy, faculty should informally discuss suspected dishonesty with the individual student and try to resolve the issue. Barring a negotiated agreement, a faculty member can opt to pursue formal charges by informing the Ombuds Office in writing and suggesting a sanction.

The Ombuds Office then informs the student of the charge and the right of appeal, which allow the student to have a hearing by a board of faculty and students. If the charge is upheld, the suggested sanction is imposed. If the sanction involves failing the class, a grade of F is placed on the student’s transcript. The grade remains on the record even if the student retakes the course, said Porter.

A separate disciplinary record is maintained for five years, she said, but all information about either record is confidential unless released by the student.

According to Moore, the entire issue of student plagiarism requires a broad-based response. She suggested the formation of a task force to foster a unified approach to the problem.

In response to the issues raised at the discussion, the senate will consider creating an ad hoc Committee on Student Plagiarism at its meeting on Nov. 3.