University leaders say Internet tests rules on plagiarism

COLUMBUS — As recently as 10 years ago, if you told someone to copy and paste, the appropriate response would have involved paper and glue.

Today, copy-and-paste is widely known computerspeak.

But copy-and-paste is doing more than complicating the English language. It’s blurring the lines between original work and plagiarism.

At Mississippi State University, a student copied and pasted a Wikipedia entry on the civil rights era into a research paper. He thought because the information was readily accessible at the online encyclopedia where anyone can contribute, it was common knowledge.

At Mississippi University for Women, a student’s permanent record was marked for academic dishonesty after she failed to properly cite an online source.

With information only keystrokes away, borrowing a few words from the Internet has become an easy and growing way to pad out papers.

“That trend has been evolving probably for several years,” said Dr. Bill Kibler, vice president for student affairs at MSU. And the trend is nationwide. “But the ease of access to information has not only made plagiarism easier, it has made it easier to detect plagiarism.”

Teachers can do a little copy and pasting of their own, plugging portions of papers into websites like turnitin.com to check for plagiarism.

MUW averages about 30 cases of plagiarism a year. In the years before the college’s Honor Code was founded, MSU averaged 50 cases of academic dishonesty reported a year. Since its opening in 2007, 587 cases have been referred to the Honor Code Office. And plagiarism is the most common, making up 57 percent of the cases.

“A lot of this is lack of awareness. A student has not been properly trained in how to appropriately cite their work,” Kibler said. “Most high schools do not teach the proper way to research and how to cite it.

“They find information somewhere else that they can use, so they cut and paste it and modify it a little bit and say it’s their own work.”

“If you simply take that information and put it in your paper, it’s kind of like intellectual theft, if you will,” said James Orr, coordinator for the Honor Code Office. Then, the students face a hearing before the Honor Code Council.

And the Honor Code Office does more than hear cases and hand down punishments, said Orr. The office tries to educate students on the proper way to cite sources and can remove an academic dishonesty flag from a student’s transcript if they complete an academic integrity intervention program.

Penalties for academic dishonesty range from an F on the assignment or failing the class to expulsion.

For students interviewed at the MUW library Wednesday, those stakes are too high.

“It’s just not worth the chance,” said Debra Randle, a senior family studies major from West Point. “I’m in my last year.”

Students at The W have a heightened sensitivity to plagiarism because of the school’s emphasis on academic honesty and are discouraged from using more than one or two online references.

“If it’s in my paper, I have to reference it,” said Aziza Jalalova, a junior nursing major from West Pakistan. “I think anything you get from somewhere else, you have to cite it.”

Shana Young, a freshman nursing major from Tupelo, admitted, in high school, she sometimes used information without citing it. But she didn’t know any better.

With a plethora of information at her fingertips, Young said, the prospect can be tempting, especially for someone who doesn’t like writing.

“I hate writing, but in our English class, we write a lot of papers,” she said. “But there is way too many consequences (for plagiarizing).”

“After the way they have stressed about plagiarism, it’s not really worth the risk,” agreed Tesia Puckett, a freshman chemistry major from Columbus.

Still, even having the Internet as a resource makes it difficult to write a paper the legitimate way.

“It’s made it hard to know who to give credit to and when to use quotations and not,” Puckett said.

Research compiled by Donald McCabe, co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and a business professor at Rutgers University, showed “about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments,” the New York Times reported.

The goal of eliminating this type of dishonesty in college, said Orr, is keeping it from bleeding over to the professional level.

Garthia Elena Burnett/The Commercial Dispatch