Despite policy change, plagiarism cases up

Though English lecturer Fred Strebeigh, like many other instructors, asks his students to cite sources in their essays, Strebeigh sometimes goes one step further: For each endnote, he requires students to include the referenced passages and capitalize the key words they used to develop their arguments. The goal, Strebeigh said, is for students to avoid repeating the phrasing of their sources, thereby avoiding inadvertent plagiarism.

Since the Executive Committee initiated a new plagiarism policy in 2007, instructors like Strebeigh have taken varied approaches to teaching the nuances of academic integrity in the age of the Internet. But despite the policy — which requires professors proposing new courses to indicate to the directors of undergraduate studies how they will address plagiarism in their courses — the number of cases of plagiarism reported to the Executive Committee has risen in the past two years, said Jill Cutler, assistant dean for academic affairs and secretary of the Executive Committee.

“I don’t know if it’s a trend or just one year,” Cutler said.

As part of the new policy, the Executive Committee changed the course proposal forms professors submit electronically to directors of undergraduate studies when creating classes, Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said. The addition to the course proposal form requires professors to state exactly how they plan to address plagiarism and responsible source use in their courses. The form also advises professors to use handouts and lead class discussions to educate students about plagiarism.

“This came out of a sense from members of the Executive [Committee] that a number of students who appeared before that [committee] for allegedly plagiarizing were confused about what constituted appropriate collaboration on assignments in certain courses,” Gordon wrote in an e-mail, “and unsure what the standards (and format) were for quotation or paraphrase from a source.”

Despite the increased focus on educating students about plagiarism, in the 2006-’07 school year, the Executive Committee reported 23 cases of academic dishonesty, including 13 plagiarism cases, according to the committee’s page on the Yale College Web site. In the 2007-’08 school year, those numbers rose to 29 cases of academic dishonesty, including 18 plagiarism cases. Numbers for the 2008-’09 school year have not yet been released.

Cutler said she does not know what caused the upswing, but she added that students are often unsure about how to include Internet sources in their research properly. Alfred Guy, the director of the Yale Writing Center, said the Internet makes it easier for students to plagiarize by copying and pasting material directly into their writing.

“When scholarly journals were in print, students who wanted to plagiarize from them had to think more about getting the text into the paper,” Guy said.

At the same time, history professor Stuart Schwartz also noted that the Internet makes instances of plagiarism easier to catch because professors can scan electronic papers for material lifted from online sources.

Of six professors interviewed, only one was aware there had been a change in the plagiarism policy. (Four had not proposed a new course since the change was made.) But all of them said they address plagiarism in some way in their courses.

History professor Rebecca Tannenbaum said that to reduce plagiarism, she has modified her assignments so that it is more difficult for students to cheat. In her freshman seminar “Medicine and Society in American History,” Tannenbaum designates certain Yale archives for her students to use as research material, making it less likely they will plagiarize arguments from secondary sources they find elsewhere.

“It’s not appropriate to every course because not all courses assign archival research,” she added.

The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia often comes up in the discussion of plagiarism, Guy said. Wikipedia has no central committee reviewing its Web site, yet comes up often in search engine results.

All of the professors interviewed said that they do not prohibit the use of Wikipedia in essays written in their courses but that they guide students to use it only for background. The Writing Center has a Web site that specifically addresses how to source Wikipedia.

“Students should understand that Wikipedia is an unregulated source,” Schwartz said. “You have to be careful using it.”

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