Monday, February 20, 2006

Reflections on Academic Honesty

Plagiarism is, without a doubt, the ultimate dirty word in academia.

But why should I worry, I think to myself, as I try to appear attentive to the admonitions of the instructor regarding academic honesty on the first day of class. The instructor seems to recognize the tedium of the speech.

"I know you all have heard this before, but..."

I'm not a cheater. I respect my education. I should, right? After all, it's not cheap. I wouldn't throw it away over a term paper freshly purchased from the net.

This unit on academic honesty has, however, managed to raise my eyebrows as to the many shades of plagiarism. To me, it's obvious that you don't swipe someone else's direct words, even with the use of supplementary synonyms, and present it as your own doing. But the unit really got me thinking of what truly constitutes plagiarism. Here are some questions that I had after partaking in the unit:
  • Whom do you cite when you reference a combination of two or more works' ideas in just one sentence?
  • What exactly serves as "common knowledge"? If I know without having to check my facts that, say, the year in which the City of St. Louis split and became an independent entity from St. Louis County was 1876, how do I prove that this was my prior knowledge?*
  • How should a truly unwitting plagiarist be punished?

To me, these questions indicate the problem with the drive to placate plagiarism: are we becoming too harsh? Is there not a lot of wiggle room as to what constitutes plagiarism? Should there be?

Too many professors, it seems, are so bent on catching a plagiarist "in action" that the environment for academic writers becomes a hostile one. Student researchers and writers become forced into assumption of a delicate and precise citation regimen that deindividualizes their writing styles. Writing, and research, especially, become a burden rather than an opportunity to expand the collective mind of academia. The result is dull and cautious writing, laden with block quotes and ample footnotes.

That said, I do not think that measures to hunt out cheaters should be scaled back. I just believe that the average perpetrator of plagiarism is ignorant of his or her crime. That probably means schools should start defining academic dishonesty at an earlier point in the course of a student's education.

Technology has made plagiarism impossibly more complicated. On one hand, students can now escape a procrastination pickle with the help of a little plastic--a simple purchase of a pre-written paper online on a multitude of topics. On the other, that same internet technology has made it possible for professors to search for random phrases in a basic search engine to see if the material is swiped. Often, though, the "Deep Web" can prove to be a cheater's salvation and a professor's bane.

Plagiarism will remain a problem no matter what measures are taken to trump it: cheaters will always find a way to cheat. The important thing to remember is that sometimes the fault is on the side of the professor rather than the student when the alleged plagiarist is as surprised as his or her disappointed instructor that proper citation techniques were not applied.


And, to set a good example...

* Cited from a conversation with Matt Fernandez, St. Louis, MO, February 16, 2006.