Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Plagiarism Epidemic

A group of teachers-- some still working, some retired--were venting at my New Year’s party about the plagiarism epidemic. They mentioned a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students' papers tells his story” an article which got a lot of attention and wound up on the agenda of a few department meetings.

When I started teaching at Community College of Philadelphia, I loved the job, but as the years wore on it became more and more emotionally draining. So many of my students were victims of an educational system that had failed them miserably. There was no way I could make up for years of miseducation.

I know all old teachers are constantly complaining about the younger generation of students—but there really is something different. And the plagiarism epidemic which some of my colleagues say gets worse each year was driving me crazy. I didn’t go into teaching to be a cop.

When I retired, I let my subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education lapse, so I had missed this latest brouhaha. A friend sent me the link and if I had ever had any reservations about retiring, this would have put an end to them.

Anyone who is teaching or contemplating a career in teaching should read this article and take in the hair-raising details. The editors of the Chronicle preface the article with a statement indicating they had investigated the author’s claims. From Ed Dante( pseudonym):
I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology. ...I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

You've never heard of me, but there's a good chance that you've read some of my work. I'm a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can't detect, that you can't defend against, that you may not even know exists.

I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students.

Of course students have been cheating since time immemorial, but the internet has made it so much easier. Granted, online courses have brought access to college programs for students who might otherwise be shut out of higher education, but they have also been a major contributor to the plagiarism epidemic. From one of the numerous comments (and the comments are definitely worth a read) complaining about cheating in online courses :
Why doesn't anyone blame the administrators who don't back the professors when the professor says "I'm pretty sure the guy getting the A in my online class is the husband of the woman who's actually signed up for the class. When I called her up to discuss her midterm, she PUT HER HUSBAND ON THE PHONE."

I thought I had some insulation form the cheating/ plagiarism epidemic because I never taught online courses. I had some sense of my students’ verbal ability—a huge disparity between verbal communication and the written word would be a red flag. And then I had the option of the in-class assignment, so again a great disparity between in-class and out-of class work would be a tipoff.

But as many of the commenters on this article noted, administrators are often loathe to back a professor’s charge of plagiarism absent proof beyond the shadow of a doubt—not so easy to come by.

For so many teachers the real problem is that we didn’t go into teaching to be cops. Most of us do not get any pleasure out of catching plagiarists and bringing them to academic justice, but then if we don’t confront the cheaters we’re undermining the academic enterprise.

And it’s not just essays bought from paper mills that are making a mockery of a college education. It’s also the dreadful cut and paste jobs that students are cobbling together. Many of my students thought it was really okay to lift something from the internet without attribution or, if they were aware it was unacceptable, viewed it as a minor peccadillo.

One of the teachers at my New Year’s party had an interesting take on this. She said that in schools like hers (an elite secondary school) which emphasizes collaborative learning and focuses on the achievement of the group rather than the insights of a particular individual, students began to develop a more fluid notion of what counts as intellectual property.

I’m just too old-fashioned for this redefinition of intellectual property. How hard is it to cite the authors who have influenced us and if we are using their exact words to put those words in quotation marks?

For Community College teachers, this issue is particularly painful. Many of my students were poorly served by the Philadelphia public schools and often struggle to juggle college courses with job and family responsibilities. I wanted to be as supportive as possible, but the harsh reality was that although the College was paying me to teach and mentor, it was also paying me to evaluate and uphold something remotely resembling academic standards. It was becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile these two roles, and I was so happy I could retire.

This problem has been many years in the making and pre-dates the explosion of internet resources. When I began teaching, I thought of education as a process of reading, discussing, and writing about books. I’m not sure when I realized that most of my students were not reading and that the discussion questions I intended as an entrée into the text were functioning as a kind of Cliff’s notes.

I resisted one solution to this—-showing films. Many literature classes are apparently beginning to morph into film classes. Sandy Hingston in Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid? asks her son what he is reading in AP English:
“The Great Gatsby,” he said.
“Do you … like it?” I asked delicately, thrilled to be having what was almost a conversation with my teenage son.
“I don’t really like the actor who plays Gatsby,” he said. “He’s got these weird bumps on his face that keep distracting me.”
“The actor?”
“We’re not actually reading the book,” Jake informed me. “We haven’t read a book all semester. We watch the movies instead.”
......for his senior year, Jake proposed taking an English course at the local community college. ... where they never once read a book. They watched movies instead.
Jake got an A- in the course.

Hingston’s thoughtful article is not just a lament for what has been lost. Searching for some insight into her son and his age cohort, she interviews several professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education:
ELLIOT WEINBAUM, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, thinks I’m worrying unnecessarily...And as far as [Weinbaum and his colleagues are] concerned, the kids are all right. They acknowledge that there are differences in how kids learn these days, but … well, let professor Janine Remillard explain. “Take literacy,” she says. “There’s not really less reading. Kids are just reading in smaller chunks. They’re not digging deeply into texts, but they’re reading from a lot of different sources.”

But does this count as “reading” in any meaningful sense? Most of my students were not reading—unless you count skimming headlines as reading. Writing a decent academic paper requires both extensive and in-depth reading. The reluctance or inability to read certainly drives the business Ed Dante describes.

My pedagogical philosophy has always been: teachers need to understand their students’ world, start with their students’ own experience, and build from there. I still believe this but it’s a struggle I no longer want to wage. And I sure don’t want to be a member of the plagiarism police corps.

I know all old folks complain that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but the skills decline is real. I believe passionately in the mission of community colleges and I had some wonderful students. But I couldn’t deal with flunking 50% of my students, which I would have had to do if I were maintaining anything approaching reasonable standards. My standards got lower and lower with each passing year. I started to wonder how low can I go? I decided I didn’t want to find out.


  1. '...PUT HER HUSBAND ON THE PHONE'. Love it! I am a retired math teacher, so one might ponder how I could relate to the angst plagiarism places on those brave souls attempting to teach any subject that requires original writing. Well, it’s not so hard. To me, plagiarism is evidence of a student’s lack of understanding what education is suppose to accomplish. I believe most teachers, regardless of specialty, would like to have helped their students learn to think well. That was always my goal, but I eventually got exhausted with the Ed. D. crowd who did not seem to have a clue as to what I was talking about.
    Lowering performance standards was a well developed technique before NCLB, however, that law formalized the process. Leaving someone ‘behind’ implies that the rest of the group is proceeding to the desired destination while some hapless soul is left out/behind/off-the-bus. How do we remediate an entire K-16 population while on the road to that destination (‘higher standards’?) Remember, no one is to be left behind! Ans: adjust the destination. We’ll still leave a few short, but it doesn’t look so bad since we weren’t going that much further anyway. And that is exactly what we’ve done…for quite a while now.
    We’ve had enough years of ABE (Appearance Based Education) to have put students in college who don’t have any idea how mathematics can be useful for anything other than balancing a check book and who have never experienced the learning that takes place after finishing an (original) analytical writing assignment. It is now the norm. And that is how this math nerd relates very well to your post.
    Enjoyed it. Happy retirement!

  2. Karen,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response to my article. I posted it at my new blog, eddante.com.

    What stands out to me about your post is the notion that assigning bad grades appears to be the only recourse that most teachers have against poor performance. In my experience, this only inclines students with deficiencies to find ways around their work.

    I think your article goes a long way to suggest that we need to re-examine the idea of grading as the only way to address deficiencies or encourage improvement. Certainly, students lacking the ability, preparation, training, etc. to write or perform basic academic tasks are neither benefited by failing grades or rubber stamp passing.

    I welcome your thoughts at my website:

    Ed D.


  3. When I was a young teacher, I had also sorts of passionately held ideas about how to improve education. Now I haven’t a clue.

    The only thing I’m sure of is that we must invest more in high quality pre-school and elementary education.