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Sunday, January 25, 2009

On plagiarism

I, like most educators, am very concerned about the trend to plagiarizing when it comes to term papers. I understand the cost-benefit comparison might motivate a student to do a little "control C - control V" even if they know that it is incorrect/immoral, but who is ultimately to blame for the behavior?

I think there is blame to be had at all levels. We in higher education do not impose great enough penalties when we find plagiarism at the college level. However, the behavior of 20 year olds isn't formed overnight. The culture of plagiarism must be permeating the secondary level as well, where students likely face even less enforcement than in higher education.

I now know that the plagiarism epidemic is much more widespread than I had feared because of this article in this month's Charlotte Parent that focuses on the problem and suggests that the plagiarism behavior might even start in elementary school:
"This is the age of instant gratification," says Katie Bogle, a media specialist at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis. "Everything kids encounter is in a digital format." Music is downloaded, movies are DVR'd, directions come from a GPS in the car and homework answers are just a text (to a classmate) away. Bogle says kids today don't understand why information on the Internet isn’t there for the taking, too.

And in this fast-paced, multimedia, special-effects world, she says, "Students don't even read (what's on a Web site) they just cut and paste. They don't want to sit and read and digest the information, because that’s work." Instead, they want the quick solution. Kids pick five words to change and say, "But I changed it!" says Bogle.

This is quite scary. Parents should hold their kids accountable for stealing other people's words just as they would hold their kids accountable for stealing from the local grocer. However, most parents are not in the knowledge creation business and therefore do not have a personal stake in curtailing plagiarism.

As with any behavior you wish to dissuade, plagiarism would decline if the costs were sufficiently high. What if those who are plagiarized could sue (although I am not sure what the damages are in most cases of plagiarism). To accomplish this, the source of plagiarized material would have to be identified and notified of the intellectual theft. A Beckerian approach would be to have a fine or penalty system (perhaps graduated according to the severity of the theft) which would be applied in each case of plagiarism and part/most of the cash penalty would be transferred to the source or the source's estate?

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The solution to plagiarism is for education institutions to impose large costs on those who plagiarize.

When I was in high school, I found out that one of my classmates had paid another student to write his government term paper for him. I reported their behavior to our government teacher. The next day, I was called to the principle's office and told sternly by the assistant principle to not accuse students of plagiarism. I suspect that others have had similar experiences.
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