It’s a story that I hear all-too-often. A professor, in this case Panagiotis G. Ipeirotis, an Associate Professor at Stern School of Business of New York University, cracks down on plagiarism in his classroom and makes a push to catch and report cheaters.
Ipeirotis’ efforts definitely produced results. Over the semester, he found that some 20 percent of his class had plagiarized to one degree or another and began taking action against them. His reward, however, wasn’t a promotion or praise, but rather, him having his raise reduced to the lowest amount he’d seen.
The reason, according to both Ipeirotis and the justification he received for the small raise, was that his students, many of which he had caught and reported for plagiarism, had rated him poorly.
What made Ipeirotis’ case unique was not that he fought plagiarism and was punished, but that he spoke out about it on a now-removed blog post. Behind the scenes, teachers have long been boiling over with concerns that their schools are not taking plagiarism issues with weight and, sometimes, are actively discouraging addressing the problem.
For that to change. schools need to take plagiarism seriously and begin rewarding teachers, the ones on the front lines, for addressing this issue. This means both taking the detection and discipline side of fighting plagiarism seriously as well as looking to alternative solutions that could render the problem moot.
Why Schools Turn a Blind Eye
To be blunt, it’s a difficult time for schools, especially in the U.S. At all levels and both public and private, money is tight and resources are very limited. Dollars for plagiarism fighting are a low priority in the big scheme of things, especially as issues that could impact the safety of students and faculty are growing in number and priority.
The truth is that fighting plagiarism doesn’t help test scores, improve graduation rates, bring in new students or improve the school’s reputation. As important as it is, a school can turn a blind eye to plagiarism and still function.
To make matters worse, fighting plagiarism often times hurts the schools in meeting benchmarks. Disciplined students often drop out, lowering graduation rates, and students that fail classes due to plagiarism lower the overall GPA.
Image-conscious schools have also become wary of the reputation issues that come from actively pursuing plagiarists. Dealing with a large amount of it earn a school a reputation for being a plagiarism haven, even though the amount found actually proves the opposite.
This is then compounded by plagiarists who use social media to bash schools online. Smaller, lesser-known schools are especially vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.
These challenges have led to an atmosphere where many instructors feel that students are treated more like customers, to be pleased and cared for, rather than students who need to be educated and graded.
That problem doesn’t just impact plagiarism, but all areas of academic unpleasantness. From homework, to grade curves and more, the relationship between teacher and student is changing, likely not for the better.
Getting Serious About Plagiarism
If schools want to provide the best education they can to their students, this attitude must change and soon.
For one, if there to be any merit to the idea that college is meant to prepare students for later occupations, plagiarism must be dealt with and strongly.
While it’s true that those who plagiarize an assignment successfully located the needed information, which is a part of any assignment (both in and out of school), it’s a part that is almost trivial with the birth of the Internet and the student still skipped on many of the most important elements.
Academic assignments, at least good ones, do far more than teach students how to find and spit back information. They teach critical thinking, including how to challenge ideas. They teach students how to spot connections and trends among bits of data they have and they even help improve writing skills, a necessary tool just about anywhere one goes.
Students who plagiarize an assignment miss most of the education that could have come from it. That, in the long run, means a lower quality education, which means a lower-quality graduate if they go that far.
But before one walks away thinking plagiarists only cheat themselves. consider the following issues:
- Good students, sensing or knowing that their peers are cheating to get good grades, often better than theirs, will either start cheating as well, reduce their efforts or simply leave.
- Good instructors, detecting plagiarism but unable to effectively respond to it, will often reduce their efforts or leave, once again reducing the quality of education for all students, cheaters or not.
- Students who cheat are, generally, less dedicated to their education. They make poorer graduates that not only are less likely to become active alumni, but also will reflect badly on the school in other ways after graduation.
This isn’t to say that every plagiarist is a doomed failure that will sink your school, but plagiarism as an epidemic will, over time, erode the quality of education for everyone there and hurt the school’s reputation.
However, since most of the dire impacts take years to show up, many schools are happy to kick the can down the road and hope for a better solution to the plagiarism problem later.
Today is the Day
The problem with kicking the can down the road is that now is, most likely, the ideal time to address these issues.
First off, the technology to detect plagiarism is the best it has ever been and the cheapest it has ever been. It’s less expensive, easier to use and more powerful than ever. Unfortunately, new plagiarism techniques may soon shift the balance, making it critical to address these issues now, while instructors have the upper hand.
Second, the Internet generation is just now truly coming of age. Students who have never known research without the Internet are just now reaching the higher levels of education. Sadly, these are the ones perceived to be the greatest risk of plagiarizing, rightly or wrongly, but if they are reached now, then those behind them will see the shift in culture.
Finally, we have ways of dealing with plagiarism other than punishment. If we’re going to shift the academic culture away from the trend toward plagiarism, we can’t simply punish our way out of it. Education is critical and the tools above make it easier to do just that. However, in a few years, education might not be possible, or at least not as easy, as the plagiarists will be the ones who have done nearly all the teaching.
In short, now is the time to strike and waiting until tomorrow just makes the batter harder and even less-winnable.
It’s time for schools to reward teachers like Professor Ipeirotis for their hard work fighting plagiarism and, more importantly, to start opening addressing the issue. Though it’s tempting to sweep that matter under the rug, doing so misses a valuable opportunity to deal with the issue and risks lowering the quality of education for everyone.
Plagiarism is certainly not a pleasant business, I know that well because it’s my 9-to-5, but it’s an important one.
Schools need to address it. Not just so that they can make better students, but better creatives and better workers. After all, when cheating becomes a way of life, its impact is felt well beyond the classroom.