Déj? Vu All Over Again?

It’s not everyday that I’m asked to assign grades to the works of Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates. No Siree, this only happens twice a year, when it’s time to read term papers. Each semester, I ask my students to write a concise, thoughtful paper on some current topic of interest, and, each semester, I am disappointed to find out that few students are willing or able to pen an original thought.

Now, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Students have been copying term papers for about as long as term papers have been assigned, but it’s gotten easier for the students to commit plagiarism and it’s gotten easier to detect it. Back when I was in school, if you wanted to plagiarize a term paper, you did it the old fashioned way – you bought one. But in this age of the internet, anyone, just ANYONE can log on and, in an hour or so, come up with a few sources that can be cut-and-pasted into a rather decent discussion of a topic. You don’t have to be popular, rich, or clever to do this. You just need a modem and a few key search terms.

So when I read this opening sentence – “Biology once was regarded as a languid, largely descriptive discipline, a passive science that was content, for much of its history, merely to observe the natural world rather than change it” – I just KNEW that this was not the original work of a college sophomore. In this case it’s the first line of an article Barry Commoner wrote for Harper’s in 2002. I was really enjoying reading Gina Kolata’s description of how gene therapy is showing promise in treating cancer, until I realized her name wasn’t on the front page of this paper. Ms. Kolata writes for the New York Times, and she wasn’t signed up to take any courses with me this semester. That’s too bad, because she would have gotten a very nice grade on her work. The student whose name DID appear on that paper, however, will probably be disappointed with the grade I assigned.

I’m not sneaking around behind the backs of my students – I explain to them the difference between copying and paraphrasing, and we go over some examples in class. I require them to show me their work in progress – research, title, outline, first draft. I tell them I will use the text to search for their sources. We faculty have gotten pretty good at this sort of thing. But I still get one or two completely plagiarized papers each year.

What is to blame for this appalling state of affairs? There are a few theories that we can consider:

First, the “different culture” explanation. Some people claim that the owning of an idea is a peculiarly Western way of thinking, and that using someone else’s words is a form of flattery. In this country, we allow this if you put quotation marks around the material, but we also discourage students from using too many direct quotes. I get a few papers each semester where a stdent has composed a paper nearly entirely from quotes, and because they cite each properly, it’s not exactly plagiarism. I call this style of paper writing the “quoto-montage”, and it usually doesn’t earn a high grade, but it also doesn’t get you dragged into the Dean’s office.

Then, there’s the declining standards argument. “Back when I was a student this sort of thing never happened. We were expected to multiply three digits in our head…” blah blah blah. The fall of civilization is blamed on widespread use of calculators, or computers, or the internet. I’ve conducted a completely unscientific study and have concluded that there’s simply no meat to this argument. I asked a bunch of college professors about these ‘declining standards’, and each believed that standards were at their peak when THEY were in school. According to my sources, standards have been declining for at least the last 45 years. By logical extension of this argument, no one should be able to tie their sneakers by now, which may account for latest trends in footwear.

There’s also the “everyone else does it” argument. This is usually combined with the “clueless professor” argument. This states that it’s just too tempting for computer-savvy students NOT to run rings around their computer-challenged professors by doing what comes naturally to them – researching a topic on the ‘net and then copying the text and gently rearranging paragraphs to say what they want to say. It’s not plagiarism, they say, it’s simply the way things are done today. BUNK! I cry. If this were this case, there wouldn’t have been an original thought in the last 15 years.

But this doesn’t answer the bigger questions – WHY can’t our students write an organized paragraph? Whatever happened to the good old thesis statement? I haven’t found ANYONE who can answer that.

Let’s review. I’ve just ranted about a problem nearly every college professor has, I’ve rehashed some arguments that I didn’t originate, and I’m about to sign my name to it. Hmmm, maybe I’d better work on this a little more – I’m not sure I’ve got a passing grade yet.

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Lori Kelman, MBA, Ph.D.

Lori Kelman is a Professor of Biotechnology at Montgomery College and the Editor of BIOS, a journal of undergraduate research. She is a member of The Science Advisory Board Steering Committee, http://www.scienceboard.net. The Science Advisory Board is an online community of 25,000+ life scientists from 62 countries committed to improving research tools and technologies.

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