Univ. institutes new plagiarism policy

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Along with awkward introductions and a thorough inspection of the syllabus, the first day of some Yale courses may include something new next year: talks about what constitutes plagiarism and how best to avoid it.

Professors proposing new courses must now indicate how they will incorporate plagiarism education into their syllabi, although they will not be required to discuss it in class, Writing Center Director Alfred Guy said. The policy is part of Yale’s efforts to crack down on plagiarism through a double-pronged strategy of tough enforcement and better education, he said.

“This was prompted not by a change in numbers, but by a deepening understanding by people on the Executive Committee [the top disciplinary body for undergraduates] that some cases of plagiarism might have been avoided by genuine education about plagiarism,” Guy said. “Members of the committee have told me, ‘It’s heartbreaking when you understand that students really didn’t know what they were doing.’”

Plagiarism has generally been increasing at the undergraduate level over the past few years, Executive Committee Secretary and Assistant Dean Jill Cutler said, though the number of cases of academic dishonesty brought before the committee — most of which involved plagiarism — actually decreased from 30 to 17 from 2004-’05 to 2005-’06. The committee’s 2006-’07 report is not yet public.

“[The number of plagiarism cases] is just much, much higher than it was when I started as secretary of the committee about eight years ago,” Cutler said.

Students found guilty of plagiarism normally face probation, suspension or expulsion, Cutler said.

The new policy has a primarily educational aim, Guy said. Some suggestions for professors on the Writing Center’s Web site include putting a warning about plagiarism in the syllabus, providing students with examples of plagiarism and conducting classroom exercises about it.

The rule will affect professors who submit course proposals to the Course of Study Committee from this point forward. Since spring 2008, courses were mostly proposed the previous spring — before the rule was put in place — students may not see the full impact of the policy until next fall, Guy said.

But some professors have already taken the initiative to talk about plagiarism in their classes this fall.

Prof. Paul Bass ’82, a New Haven journalist teaching a political science seminar, “Politics and the New Media,” this semester, began doing a plagiarism exercise with his classes a few years ago.

After sitting in on a training session for graduate students on how to encourage students to talk openly about plagiarism, Bass said, he was shocked to realize that he himself had been guilty of inadvertent plagiarism over the years.

On the first day of each course, he now has students read three passages that rely on the same source material and leads a discussion about which of them are plagiarized.

“It’s a twofold method,” Bass said. “The first is to get across the message that Yale is taking a hard line against plagiarism. The second is to have a discussion on the gray areas of plagiarism and how to be on guard against it in its subtler forms.”

The new requirement for course proposals is not the only change Yale has made to address the issue recently.

In the past two years, the academic regulations having to do with plagiarism have been rewritten to emphasize the importance of educating students so that plagiarism does not occur in the first place, Guy said.

“The danger of plagiarism is not to the original writer,” Guy said. “It’s to the student, who’s not going to learn anything.”

One of the main reasons for the new course proposal policy, Guy said, was that attribution styles vary across academic departments. For example, the method for citing a literary commentator’s work in a literature class is quite different from acknowledging a scientific study.

Matthew Lee ’08, who helps students revise papers at the Writing Center as a writing partner, said not knowing how to cite sources properly is a common problem.

“It’s so complicated because there are so many styles for citations and bibliographies,” Lee said. “It’s annoying, but it’s really important to know how to do it right, especially since it often varies from class to class.”

Professors said they welcomed the increased emphasis on plagiarism education.

History of art professor Jacqueline Jung said she thought it was important that students know the rules and expectations for papers from the start.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that Yale students need that kind of reminder,” Jung said. “But there are so many slippery difficulties when people are writing papers and using Web-based resources.”

Yale held its first-ever “Academic Integrity Awareness Week” last October, featuring speeches by Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and Graduate School Dean Jon Butler along with sessions for graduate students and faculty.

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