PLAGIARISM: Ethical Lapse or Misunderstood Act?

Chris is up against the clock as the semester winds down. The firefighter’s final class paper is due in exactly nine hours and he hasn’t begun writing the introduction.

Although he knows that copying and pasting material from the Internet is against college policy – and contrary to his morals – he justifies a few stolen paragraphs as a fast and expedient way to meet the required word count and attain a passing grade. His tuition reimbursement relies on it. His ability to test for lieutenant depends on it. Only one more class needed to graduate…everyone does it, anyway, right?

Plagiarism might seem a victimless crime, but not only are writers’ and artists’ work being stolen, the real victim could be the thief. To some educators, the studious copier of others’ works becomes what the French would call a “poseur,” which is less generous than what the term means in subculture terms, as someone who fakes an attitude or belief by stealing the symbolism of the group. Think of the Punk or Goth subcultures. The first-century etymology of plagiarism seeks to instill more gravitas to the word. It is the equivalent of the Latin plagiarius, or kidnapper.

Our modern-day kidnapping of words, which one source says 70% of college professors address at least once a year, has ethical and societal consequences. It could be one variable in the erosion of values of tomorrow’s firefighter. Although plagiarism is not codified as a crime, it is illegal when it constitutes theft of intellectual property. In a few celebrated cases, stealing song lyrics has generated multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits.

According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, “55% of college presidents say plagiarism has increased in college students’ papers over the past 10 years. Of those who say plagiarism is on the rise, the overwhelming majority (89%) believe that computers and the Internet have played a major role in this trend.

“Through their use of cell phones, smartphones, tablet computers and laptops, today’s college students are accustomed to being constantly connected. Increasingly, this has meant bringing these technologies with them into the college classroom. In the Pew Research survey of the general public, more than half of recent college graduates and currently enrolled college students report that they have often (35%) or sometimes (22%) used these types of devices during class time.”

The study sees this inter-connectedness as a reason for plagiarism. “Students’ ease of access to the digital world has created some problems for educators. A majority of college presidents surveyed say they have seen a rise in plagiarism over the past decade, and most believe that technology is a major factor behind that rise. Only 7% say these new technologies have played a minor role.”


Lack of understanding?

Regardless of student access to technology, Dr. Barbara Klingensmith, a professor at University of Florida (UF), says it’s the technology that educators possess that limits plagiarism. A retired firefighter/paramedic who teaches both undergraduate and graduate students at UF, Klingensmith disagrees with a portion of the Pew study.

“I can’t say that I have seen a great increase in plagiarism during the past 10 years. We use software at UF called Turn It In. It identifies anything that might be plagiarized. It will look at documents written at University of Florida and just about anything on the Internet written anywhere,” says the 25-year veteran of higher education delivery.

Klingensmith says that students lack understanding of plagiarism, which may be rooted in their lack of education before embarking on a four-year degree program. “I see that there’s a weakness in the APA (American Psychological Association) style usage…when students cite something in the body of the paper, and do not provide a reference for it on the reference page. I’m not sure that students even understand what plagiarism is.” Klingensmith routinely sees new students as they first enter the university.

“What I found is that if they simply mention the author, and use that passage, they don’t think that’s plagiarism. Students are not being taught about plagiarism or writing style in the associate’s level of college. It’s simple, if you repeat what someone says and you do not give them credit for it, that’s plagiarism.”

“I believe that there are instructors out there who are not sure what constitutes plagiarism – especially at the associate’s degree level. Some of the instructors who come into the associate’s degree level might be recently retired and don’t really know much about education – although they have years and years of experience in the fire service. I’ve counseled a number of new instructors in Florida… And we are going to do a seminar at the next National Professional Development Conference that will help those who are transitioning from the fire service to instructor. I’m sure we will talk about plagiarism as one of the topics,” she says.


Definitions vary

Plagiarism has different definitions at various institutions. Acknowledging this problem, the Council of Writing Program Administrators, which is a national organization of college and university faculty directly involved in writing, proffers this definition: “In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source. This definition applies to texts published in print or online, to manuscripts, and to the work of other student writers.”

Defining plagiarism is just one concern. Enforcement of those who violate an institution’s policy can range from severe to “if we ignore it, maybe it will go away.” But as Kevin Simpson writes in a 2012 Denver Post article, plagiarism is a major academic concern: “At the University of Colorado at Boulder…461 reported incidents (of academic cheating) from the spring semester of 2010 through the just-completed fall semester, 33% involved plagiarism. That makes it the second-largest category, next to the catch-all ‘cheating’ incidents that account for about 40%.”

Simpson points out that plagiarism in college work tends to bring with it substantial punishment, such as dismissal from the college or university. He says first-time offenders are more likely to face remedial education than dismissal.

Yet two college educators, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized by their institutions to speak about this subject, say enforcement is hindered by numbers. Higher education is big business with tens of billions of dollars spent annually, not only by individuals, but by states and the federal government seeking to bolster student enrollment. Because colleges and universities are competing for these dollars, higher education administrators may overlook some forms of cheating while eyeing the bottom line. As one professor lamented, “Dismissing students for plagiarism is bad for business.”

“They have made it almost impossible to discipline a student for plagiarism,” another professor complains. “They make it such a tedious process that some instructors are discouraged from moving beyond a simple classroom admonishment to sanctioned discipline.”


NFA’s one-strike policy

In Dr. Denis Onieal’s world, remedial education about plagiarism comes first, followed by punishment. The superintendent at the National Fire Academy, which offers the prestigious Executive Fire Officer (EFO) certification, says once warned, students at the Emmitsburg, MD, campus are expected to uphold the highest ethical standards, using the APA Manual as the guiding code for plagiarism.

“Our students are held to the highest of standards. I speak with every incoming EFO class and explain that if they plagiarize a paper, they will get caught – not because we have some secret way of catching them, because other people who do research will bring it to our attention. When they do, we review the two papers and then determine who copied from whom based on the date of the papers. The student in question gets a letter from me asking how this ‘miracle’ occurred. They have 30 days to respond. They usually respond with the adult version of ‘the dog ate my homework’. Their explanation and research paper is given to three librarians, who aren’t in the fire service, but know plagiarism, and they know how to identify it. They provide their findings to me and let me know if they found plagiarism or not. Their batting average for the last 19 years has been 1,000%.

“I then send the student a letter,” Onieal says. “If the person has been awarded an EFO certificate, I want it back; if it’s a single class, I want that certificate back. I want the money back that we provided as a stipend. The student is prohibited from ever attending the National Fire Academy again. Their transcripts will reflect that their certificate was withdrawn for reasons of plagiarism. We send their superior a letter, and then they have to explain to their bosses what they were doing on company time – cheating.”

In a 2011 article for the APA, Amy Novotney writes, “Some research even suggests that academic cheating may be associated with dishonesty later in life. In a 2007 survey of 154 college students, Southern Illinois University researchers found that students who plagiarized in college reported that they viewed themselves as more likely to break rules in the workplace, cheat on spouses and engage in illegal activities” (Ethics & Behavior, Vol. 17, No. 3).

Regardless of other ethical lapses, Onieal points out, “The students understand that there is no statute of limitations for plagiarism. If you cheat on a paper now, but it’s not discovered until nine years from now, their EFO certificate will be revoked. We very rarely see this happen, maybe once a year, perhaps – but that’s among 800 students each year for the past 20 years – an infinitesimal amount. Strict enforcement of plagiarism rules is the reason we don’t see much of it; students understand ‘up front’ that there are consequences for plagiarizing.”

Writer Novotney further cites studies that student knowledge of other cheaters can increase the incidence of cheating, a contagious effect that can turn a classroom of studious individuals into a bastion of cheaters. This situational ethics display can be combated by aligning peer pressure to display “disgust” for cheaters. Klingensmith agrees with the group mentality as it applies to the fire service and cheating. “It can become a group-think activity,” she says. This happens when an instructor’s tacit allowance of plagiarism can become the status quo for students completing written assignments.


A change in attitude

The opposite effect is what one university is attempting.

According to the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), “Academic Integrity Matters (AIM) at UCSD aims to educate students, parents, professors and high schools on the importance of academic integrity. We want to raise awareness about the problems that result from cheating in school and the benefits of academic integrity to an individual as a whole – and to society. We hope to help create a culture of academic integrity on the UCSD campus, local high schools, and colleges. We want to encourage students to aim higher in their education.”

Results of the AIM movement have not been widely reported. Yet a parable of human behavior comes to mind for Onieal.

“On day one or day two of basic training in the Army, we were told to buy a lock for our footlockers,” he relates. “We were told that a lock will keep an honest person honest, but it will never stop a thief. If someone in the fire service wants to cheat their way to promotion or any other endeavor, then that’s what they’re going to do. The honest person will not.

“I recently read an article that said being 100% ethical is so much easier than being 99% ethical. If you are 99% ethical, then every time an ethical situation arises you’ll have to make a choice. If you are 100% ethical there’s no decision to be made. There will always be among us – in the fire service, in medicine, nursing, engineering and in all endeavors – people who will try to beat the system. Sometimes they don’t get caught. Plagiarism is an arrow pointing to an ethical lapse.”


It’s your choice

The deadline hour approaches, and Chris is struggling for traction among internet sources and the keyboard. His surfing lands him on his college’s home page. Academic integrity jumps out. He clicks, looks at the consequences for the misappropriated passages and switches over to his institution’s email.

He begins to compose a message to his professor: “Sir, I wanted to let you know my final paper will be late. I have no excuse...”