Cheating and plagiarism rampant on college campuses

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Academic dishonesty, otherwise known as cheating and plagiarism, has become a significant problem at college campuses across the country. At CSUN, that problem is no less real, according to campus officials and a MySpace survey of students conducted for this article.

Three hundred and eighty-nine students were surveyed from four departments. One hundred and sixteen participants were from the business department of the College of Business and Economics, 107 participants were from the liberal studies department, 116 participants were from the psychology department, and 50 participants were from the history department.

The survey indicates that the frequency of academic dishonesty, in the form of cheating and plagiarism, depends on the academic department.

What was consistent across all surveyed academic departments:

- An average of 83.25 percent of all participants said academic dishonesty is somewhat common or common, as opposed to being rare.

- An average of 58.25 percent of all participants chose laziness as the most common reason students resorted to academic dishonesty, as opposed to demands from school and work, societal and peer influence, or other reasons.

- An average of 73 percent of all participants have witnessed other students cheating.

What was inconsistent across surveyed academic departments:

- Sixty-five percent of business majors (the highest percentage of all) who responded acknowledged to either cheating or having thought about cheating while at CSUN.

- Thirty-two percent of history majors (the lowest percentage of all) who acknowledged to either cheating or having thought about cheating while being students at CSUN.

- Psychology and liberal studies majors fell in between, with 52 percent of psychology majors acknowledging to either cheating or having thought about cheating, and 51 percent of liberal studies majors acknowledging to either cheating or having thought about cheating.

- Asked whether society in general rewards cheating, an average of 52 percent of students from the business department, liberal studies department, and the psychology department answered yes, and 70 percent of history majors answered yes.

- Student attitudes toward the common zero tolerance policy – either an F on an assignment or in the course – varied by department. Eighty-four percent of business majors, 88 percent of liberal studies majors, 92 percent of psychology majors, and 98 percent of history majors thought the common zero tolerance policy was either reasonable or very reasonable, as opposed to unreasonable.

William Watkins, assistant vice president for student affairs, said he thinks the frequency of academic dishonesty at CSUN is similar to that of other colleges.

Watkins said he was not surprised that business majors had the highest percentage of students who acknowledged cheating or having thought about cheating. He said the College of Business and Economics was the only college at CSUN to observe an academic honor code in an effort to crack down on academic dishonesty.

The Center for Academic Integrity Web site says academic honor codes “effectively reduce cheating,” with campuses implementing them finding only one-third the level of academic dishonesty found at campuses that do not.

Of all forms of academic dishonesty, Internet plagiarism has been the only one to be on the rise in the past few years, Watkins said.

“By far and away, the greater amount of academic dishonesty that is reported these days has to do with plagiarism,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is so easy for students to access materials that can be used dishonestly in an electronic form.”

CSUN has seen a steady increase in the number of conduct violations in the form of plagiarism, according to Watkins. Conduct violation statistics have not been gathered, distributed or made available due to concern for the use of that data within a proper context, he said. Watkins said many faculty members have been combating Internet plagiarism by adopting turnitin.com, an online plagiarism prevention tool that screens submitted papers against a database of millions of papers, which are taken from commercial databases as well as previously submitted papers, and by searching popular search engines such as Google.

History professor Kathleen Addison uses both techniques.

“I think of turnitin.com as more of a deterrent because it is not a perfect system,” she said. “I generally assign questions that are a little more off the beaten path and customize it to what we have done in class discussion. But people are still going to try.”

Addison and many professors interviewed for this article said they have been compelled to be very specific and creative with questions and topics they assign to students for exams and term papers.

Students who internet plagiarize generally acquire term papers from Internet “essay mills,” also known as paper mills, for a fee.

One such essay mill, essaytown.com, offers “customer research service” where “one of their 150+ experienced professionals will write 300+ words per page, following” a student’s exact instructions. Although the Web site’s terms of agreement warn that the papers sold are to be used for reference only, the Web site boasts that their papers are “one-of-a-kind,” and are not vulnerable to being detected by turnitin.com.

Essaytown.com also offers paper customization for a requested topic, style, grade-level, and number of citations needed, and can send it to the student’s e-mail address within less than 22 hours. To bolster the Web site’s claims, a paper obtained for this article from essaytown.com was passed through turnitin.com undetected.

Essay mills have been around since at least 1971, said one professor who asked for anonymity. He knows because during that year he had worked for one for two months while working on his doctorate. He said one day he was flipping through the classifieds and saw an ad asking for experienced academic writers.

“I called the place and a guy who was running the office by himself had me come in and he looked at a couple of my writing samples,” he said. “He said, ‘You’re going to be writing for English and political science.’”

While he was working at the paper mill, the professor said he never met any of the other writers because all work was done away from the office and brought in upon completion.

“They were paying me about five bucks per page, and were turning around and selling it for 15 or 20,” he said.

In addition to using plagiarism detection software, many professors have had to change the structure of their courses and the way they allow students to complete assignments as a result of increasing rates of academic dishonesty.

Of 20 faculty members from the departments of psychology, liberal studies, business and history surveyed for this article, 79 percent said they now use a zero tolerance policy – an F on the assignment or in the course – in their courses, and 71 percent said that they have recently been compelled to change their course structure and the manner in which their students complete assignments.

The forms of academic dishonesty 100 percent of surveyed professors say are most common are traditional cheating (such as copying one’s neighbor or using cheat sheets) and plagiarism, as opposed to high-tech cheating with portable devices because most professors ban the visibility of portable devices during exams.

“I ended take home material in spring of last year,” said history professor Michael Ward. “In the past, in order to give a pretty thorough midterm exam and final, I would have part of the exam as a take-home written section.

“As a student, I loved those because I could sit at home in my own space and I could explore a particular topic, and I always appreciated that because I felt like I learned more and that was my intent when I was using that style of exam,” he said. “But what seems to have
emerged in the last few years has been an increase of the use of online papers ? the diversity of topics and perspectives on particular topics appearing in them is really quite astounding.”

“I no longer allow students to write traditional term papers,” said George Lough, psychology professor. “All writing assignments are specific answers to certain questions, and handwritten to reduce the opportunity to cheat.”

Joe Albert Garcia, assistant professor of psychology, said all professors structure their courses at the most basic level to circumvent cheating.

“If I am not worried about cheating, why don’t I just hand out the midterm and leave the class?” he said. “I should just tell the students to turn in their exams at the department office when they are done.

“I don’t because it’s obvious, and has been shown in several research studies, that students will cheat in greater numbers when they feel they are not being observed,” he said. “You can check the literature . . . like business students cheat the most, and when you ask why, they say it’s because they are preparing for the real world.”

The “literature” was an August 2003 Rutgers University study spearheaded by management professor Donald McCabe, which concluded that “students majoring in business once again self-reported among the highest levels of cheating with 63 percent of the business students who responded acknowledging one or more instances of serious cheating in the past year.”

“I guess you can make an association between business majors and corporate scandals,” said business major Jose Aleman. “People have a tendency to say that corporations are corrupted and that many business practices are somewhat shady, but I certainly hope it is not a trend.

“Living in Los Angeles, you see a lot of people who tend to cheat the system and they don’t always put their best efforts into it but they always come out on top,” he said. “So a lot of people want to take the shortcuts rather than working hard to achieve their goals.”

Another business major, who asked for anonymity, said cheating is a result of required courses not feeling relevant or interesting enough for students.

“Nobody wants to learn about accounting if they are real estate majors, or calculus and classes like that,” he said. “I would say the business major is too broad.”

Most professors offer a myriad of reasons why so many students resort to academic dishonesty.

“There is a feeling that if you don’t get an A then you don’t succeed,” said Frederick G Elias, psychology professor. “I think that is a misnomer and has to be addressed.

“Also, much of the time, students do not know how to cite references so they sometimes unintentionally cite the author’s work,” he said.

When asked to speculate on why more business majors admit to cheating more than students from other departments, he suggested there is the bigger culture to consider.

“It is the need for achievement,” he said. “In business, there is competition, a striving to get ahead, and is geared toward the question of, ‘How are you going to get to be number one?’ Number two is not good enough anymore.”

“What happens is that the pressure to make money, the pressure to maintain material wealth, is incredibly common in the types of situations we are in – in the economy. People have to start looking at more of their own emotional and spiritual values,” he said.


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