With rising confusion about copyright and the growing amount of Internet resources, plagiarism is a word kicked around college campuses like a hackey sack in a circle of students on a sunny day. Among educators, cheating--known as "academic dishonesty" on campuses--has become a hot button issue. Just how prevalent has plagiarism really become at Boise State?
According to the Boise State Conduct Office, it's a big problem.
Plagiarism is something the state's largest school has to take very seriously, according to Blaine Eckles, associate director of Student Affairs. A study conducted by Boise State indicates that 65 to 85 percent of students at the school have acknowledged cheating at one time or another. Administrators say that cheating matches only alcohol abuse as a top problem with student behavior.
Statistics can be misleading; documented cases are generally not categorized into specific methods of violations. But it remains clear that the numbers are considerable.
Still, some instructors at Boise State question whether plagiarism is really as common an occurrence as the numbers indicate. It remains fairly uncommon to encounter students who are repeat or chronic cheaters. Most often, the cases consist of one-time offenders who get penalized for not properly citing their research. In a day and age when most students copy and paste information from the Internet directly into their assignments, is using a randomly Googled bit of information in a paper really plagiarism?
"Of course it is," says Eckles. "Really, there's a large portion of students who plagiarize without intent." That includes students who cut and paste a paragraph but then don't cite it properly.
"Once a student learns how to do it [cite properly], they're mostly less likely to [plagiarize] intentionally," Eckles says. "We need to be diligent as educators, reviewing the material our students are submitting. We need to make sure we show our students the importance for appropriate citation."
Of course, more blatant cases of plagiarism exist at Boise State.
"Students are often naïve to think they're able to find something on the Internet their instructors couldn't," Eckles said. "Faculty is pretty familiar with their students' work capabilities and style."
If instructors feel a student has been academically dishonest, students can receive either a zero on the assignment, or an "F" in the course.
Eckles said the two offenses he encounters most at the conduct office were alcohol violations and academic dishonesty.
Is it possible that one problem leads to the other? It's difficult but perhaps not surprising to find that college students might cheat as often as they drink. It's easy to speculate that students who drink too much or too often may leave their school work to the last minute and feel they have no other option but to cheat.
But do cheaters drink, or do drinkers cheat?
In an informal inquiry, BW asked students whether they would or would not cheat or plagiarize for a term paper if they knew they wouldn't be caught and penalized.
BW surveyed 20 college students under the age of 25 in various bars in downtown Boise, and also on campus. All students questioned answered anonymously, to protect their identities. Of the 20 students, 14 said, yes, without a doubt, they would cheat. Six students said they would not.
When asked the same question, 17 out of 20 college graduates over the age of 30 said they would not cheat, leaving only three who answered that they would have cheated if there was no penalty.
This informal study offers no definitive information. But there remains a significant variation in responses between the over-30 college graduates and the under-25 college students. Are today's students less ethical than graduates a decade ago? Or are they less prepared for the sink-or-swim workload of college-level courses?
Dr. Heidi Estrem, Ph.D., director of first-year writing at Boise State's English department, is currently running workshops for instructors at Boise State with Writing Center director Michael Mattison that deal with issues of plagiarism. The workshops focus on promoting student and teacher conversations about citing sources. Estrem and Mattison are optimistic that faculty can design assignments that will reduce the amount of plagiarism and improper citing.
"If students have assignments they find relevant, they put the work in," Mattison says. He adds that plagiarism "is not fast and true through the ages."
Estrem is enthusiastic about the talk surrounding the serious issue.
"The one positive benefit of this focus has been the opportunity to have broader discussions about it," he says.
Estrem is quick to point out that the many resources students have at Boise State for assistance with writing. More than 30 professors teaching different courses have spoken to English 102 students about writing in their disciplines. Estrem considers this to be an invaluable asset for younger students, to be able to learn how historians, chemists and economists each cite cases and references differently.
"Students have a lot thrown at them, from four different courses all within the space of five weeks," Mattison says.
The Writing Center is open Monday through Saturday with online consultations available as well by appointment. It is Mattison's hope that "through good conversation with students ... the misuse of sources and opportunity for plagiarism will be vastly diminished."
"Here is another instance of education," Mattison says. "That's the positive."
The work doesn't end there, however.
"There are lots of legal and ethical issues we're thinking through as a campus," Estrem says. "There is a cultural moment happening now, where lots of focus is being pointed to how we use text."
This spring, Boise State will test out an online student database called "My Drop Box," aimed at helping students work through citation and writing rules. Through the service, students can submit their work and have its content checked for originality. Estrem is hopeful that faculty will use "My Drop Box" as a learning tool, instead of using it just to catch plagiarism.
Today's students, Eckles said, have unlimited access to millions of references from Internet sites they can copy and paste from. Students can also download pre-written term papers online for free, or commission term papers written specifically for their assignment, complete with sources, footnotes and all citing done for them.
"Twenty years ago, students had to literally walk to the library, get a book, and copy it down," Eckles said. "Now, they can do it from the comfort of their living room, while they're watching TV."
Eckles also said that, like colleges across the country, Boise State is dealing with students who may not have gotten proper training in high school. Which is why, despite the many pro-active measures the school is taking, cheating isn't going away overnight.
"The vast majority of students know right from wrong," Eckles said. But, he said, cheating will always be a temptation.
"From my perspective," Eckles said. "There will always be that certain percentage of students who will choose to take that route."