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Faculty Perceptions of Plagiarism

The study was conducted to determine whether faculty perceptions of plagiarism differ from reality. Faculty do acknowledge the problem exists, our goal was to determine whether faculty had an accurate understanding of the extent of plagiarism.

Jean Liddell is a librarian at Auburn University and Valerie Fong is an adjunct professor of two San Francisco community colleges.

Most studies of plagiarism report on the extent to which students admit to plagiarizing. An extensive search of the literature reveals from student responses that plagiarism is a rapidly growing epidemic in this country on high school and college campuses. According to Bob Jensen “On most campuses, 75% of students admit to some cheating” (Jensen, 1998). Other studies in the literature provide similar findings; the New York Times’ Sara Rimer notes in 2003 that “40% of students acknowledged plagiarizing written sources in the last year” (Rimer, 2003).

Further, the Internet has not only made plagiarism easier, with students now able to cut and paste sentences, paragraphs, and whole articles, it has also misled students with regard to the seriousness of the offense. As Rimer notes, of the 40% of students acknowledging plagiarism, “as with Internet cheating, about half the students considered . . . plagiarism [of written sources] trivial” (Rimer, 2003).

The rise of Internet plagiarism has brought these rising statistics to the forefront: 10% of students admitted to engaging in such behavior in 1999, rising to 40% in a 2001 survey in which the majority of students (68%) suggest[ed] this was not a serious issue (Jensen, 1998). But the rise of Internet plagiarism has also surfaced a compelling and significant potential contributor to the problem: faculty. As Jensen reports:

“Internet plagiarism is a growing concern on all campuses as students struggle to understand what constitutes acceptable use of the Internet. In the absence of clear direction from faculty (author emphasis), most students have concluded that ‘cut & paste’ plagiarism – using a sentence or two (or more) from different sources on the Internet and weaving this information together into a paper without appropriate citation – is not a serious issue” (Jensen, 1998).

While these findings suggest that faculty can play a powerful role, positively or negatively, in the problem of plagiarism, few studies document how faculty perceive the problem themselves. This study was conducted to determine whether faculty perceptions of plagiarism differ from the reality. While most faculty members do acknowledge that a problem exists, our goal was to determine whether the faculty at one Southern university had an accurate understanding of the extent of student plagiarism relative to their own classrooms, their specific university, and the nation at large.

One might assume that on any particular campus, faculty members will use a common definition of plagiarism as determined by the university; however, this is not always the case. At Auburn University, the common definition is easily accessible in the student handbook, Tiger Cub, but while all faculty members have some familiarity with this definition, their personal definitions are often quite different.

How a faculty member defines plagiarism is significant, as it determines not only how he or she perceives the extent of the problem but also the methods by which it is addressed. Should faculty underestimate the magnitude of the problem, they may not adequately address it. Should faculty fail to provide clear definitions of plagiarism and consistent repercussions in the classroom, students are left without an understanding of their own responsibility for avoiding it. Finally, if faculty processes for dealing with plagiarism are not consistent with overall university policies, the problem, if it is addressed at all, is done so inconsistently and in isolation from the students’ overall academic experience. In all of these cases, faculty run the risk of exacerbating the problem by failing to understand university guidelines, failing to define the problem, and failing to give clear direction to students.

METHODS

In the Spring of 2003, faculty in eight departments of Auburn University were surveyed to determine whether a commonly held definition of plagiarism exists and whether individual definitions differ significantly from that determined and printed by the university in the student handbook, Tiger Cub. Two hundred and seven surveys were sent by email to all faculty members in eight departments selected in consultation with library subject specialists. The departments surveyed were Chemical Engineering, English, History, Nursing, Nutrition, Pharmacy, Psychology, and Sociology. The survey was conducted in three parts, with the second emailing sent out in June 2003, and the third emailing sent in early August 2003.

The survey included seven multiple-choice and open-ended questions designed to determine faculty definitions of plagiarism; faculty-perceived extent and frequency of plagiarism in individual classes, departments, the Auburn campus, and nationwide; and what processes faculty implement, if any, to address instances of plagiarism. With respect to the definitions and sanctions for plagiarism, the study sought to identify key discrepancies between individual faculty and overall university policies. (See Appendix for complete survey)

The definition for plagiarism found in Tiger Cub Online, the student handbook of Auburn University, under the SGA Code of Laws, Chapter 12011.1, Violations of the Student Academic Honesty Code, are found in subset 4:

“The submission of themes, essays, term papers, design projects, theses and dissertations, similar requirements or parts thereof that are not the work of the student submitting them. In the case of a graduate thesis or dissertation, submission is defined as the time at which the first complete draft of such is submitted to the major professor for review. When direct quotations are used, they must be indicated, and when the ideas of another are incorporated into a paper, they must be appropriately acknowledged. Plagiarism is a violation. In starkest terms, plagiarism is stealing – using the words or ideas of another as if they were one’s own. For example, if another person’s complete sentence, syntax, key words, or the specific or unique ideas and information are used, one must give that person credit through proper documentation or recognition, as through the use of footnotes. . .” (Tiger Cub Online 2003).

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

Fifty-three surveys were returned for a 25.6% response rate. While at least one faculty member responded from each department to question 2, Do you believe there is a problem with plagiarism?, only one faculty member marked “no problem” and chose the option to skip the remainder of the form but reply to the survey overall.

Following is a discussion of faculty responses by question.

Question 1: “Does your definition of plagiarism contain any or all of the following concepts?”

The most frequent definition of plagiarism noted by Auburn faculty included “submitting a paper that has been cut and pasted in part or all from a website or papermill,” with 40 responses. The second most frequent definition was “copying someone else’s words without foot/endnote,” with 39 answers. “Paraphrasing someone else’s words without foot/endnote” and “copying designs, drawings or graphs from someone else’s paper” received 34 responses, followed by “having someone else write most or all of the student’s paper” (33 responses) and “copying someone else’s words” (26 responses).

Of the respondents to Question 1, six indicated that none of the options applied to their students and chose to write a brief definition of plagiarism. Four responses are worth noting:

  1. “Plagiarism involves copying language or ideas w/o [without] the full documentation required according to the expectations created by the specific rhetorical context. In academic discourse, the standards are the most stringent.”
  2. “Plagiarism is the use of another person’s exact words or paraphrased or summarized attribute ideas (as opposed to common knowledge, which may be found in multiple sources) without using quotation marks for quoted material and without giving credit to the source. It is literary thievery.”
  3. “All of the above – w/ the intent to deceive.”
  4. “This is very complicated. . . in History you may copy someone else’s words, but you have to place them in quotation marks and indicate in a note of some sort where you got them. You may paraphrase, but you must once more indicate where you got the information from. Copying the general organization of someone else’s work is all right, although you will usually have a note somewhere acknowledging the usefulness or inspiration that came from that work. Finally, there is no problem publishing something that has no original thought. In History we do that all the time. But, and this is important, you must cite all the sources from which you borrowed those thoughts.”

It is important to note that the faculty members at the School of Pharmacy do not see “paragraphing someone else’s words” as a form of plagiarism, indicating that it is an apparently accepted practice to paraphrase as long as the work is cited. On answer D, “paraphrasing someone else’s words without foot/endnote,” twelve of thirteen faculty responding considered this to constitute plagiarism.

Question 2: “Do you believe there is a problem with plagiarism? In your classes; in your department; on this campus; nationwide; or no problem?”

A typical reply was “Probably, e.g., Greek organizations have ‘file,’ students can access the Internet, a lot of our population doesn’t seem to understand the concept (even research assistants for well-respected writers), and there is the mentality ‘easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.’”

Question 3: “What do you believe is the percentage of students who plagiarize? In your classes; in your department; on this campus; nationwide; none?”

Faculty members perceive that there is a higher percentage of plagiarism nationwide (29), on campus (27), and departmentally (18) than in their own classes (11).

It is notable that perceptions regarding the amount of plagiarism occurring vary widely. In individual faculty classrooms, the estimate for plagiarism is between 0% and 75%. The same is true for the perception in their departments and the percentage increases slightly and varies more, from 1% to 80% of students plagiarizing on campus overall. There is a more significant change in the variation of the perception of plagiarism nationwide, from 5% to 85%.

One faculty member responded that in his/her class, the percentage of plagiarism “cannot be estimated. I imagine it is quite [a bit] higher than any administrator would feel comfortable with.”

Question 4: “How frequently do you find students plagiarizing?”

Four faculty members responded that they had never found students plagiarizing in their classes, with many faculty indicating that they designed assignments such that students are not able to plagiarize. The average incidents of plagiarism discovered by faculty members were one to two times. Responses rose considerably to 19 selecting “less than 1 time a semester,” but responses dropped again with 16 selecting “2-4 times a semester.” Only one faculty member found students plagiarizing 5-7 times a semester and no faculty found students plagiarizing 8 or more times.

Question 5: “If a student is caught plagiarizing once, what is the outcome?”

Only 31 of 53 respondents reported discovering plagiarism in their classes. But although plagiarism may not be found in all classes, when it is discovered, it is never ignored.

When faculty members catch a student plagiarizing for the first time, the outcome varies significantly. Of the 48 responses to this question, five faculty members made the distinction between “intentional” and “unintentional” plagiarism, indicating that at least some Auburn University faculty members perceive their students as generally honest but ignorant. One faculty member in particular stated: “I think they should know better, but I’m convinced they [often] don’t.”

Fifteen respondents stated that they would take the matter to the Academic Honesty Committee/Honor Board. (It is interesting to note that faculty do not know the exact name for the campus committee that deals with plagiarism, with many referring to it in various ways, including Honor Board, the Academic Honesty Committee, Academic Dishonesty Hearing, Academic Violations Council, Honor Board Hearing/Disciplinary Action, and Honest Committee.)

Six respondents talk with students in order to use the offense as a learning experience, explaining to students what they have done and that it will not be tolerated. In most of these cases, the grade was lower on the assignment and most students were given a chance to rewrite the paper. Often the final grade on the revised paper was one grade lower than would have been given had the student submitted the rewritten work originally.

Of the seven respondents who chose “failure” as a form of action, three chose to fail the student on the assignment; four chose to fail the student for the entire course.

Question 6: “If a student is caught plagiarizing a second time, what is the outcome?”

Distributions of responses are similar to those for Question 5, with many responding that the student is taken before the Academic Honesty Committee. Seven respondents write a letter to be placed in the student’s record. Four respondents indicate that a second instance would not occur because the student would no longer be in the class, having received an “F” in the course after the first incident. Others reported that there has never been a second instance of plagiarism in their class.

Question 7: “If a student is caught plagiarizing a third time, what is the outcome?”

As would be expected, faculty who caught the same student plagiarizing a second or third time employed a more severe penalty. The most frequent response, selected by 14 respondents, was “Grade of ‘F’ given for the course.” Six responded either a “Letter written for the student’s record” or “Suspension for a certain time in the semester.” Only five respondents answered “Zero given on paper turned in or exam work,” while four responded “Expulsion from the University.” A possible reason for the low numbers of expulsion is that some professors expel after only one time and a good many more recommend expulsion after a student is caught a second time.

IMPLICATIONS

Because faculty identify fewer incidences of plagiarism in their own classes than in their own departments and on the campus as a whole, and more plagiarism nationwide than at their home institution, we might conclude that faculty control of plagiarism is effective. However, when considered relative to studies indicating the increasing problem of plagiarism, we cannot ignore the possibility that faculty perception differs significantly from reality, even within their own classrooms.

One contributor to the discrepancy is the variance in definitions. It’s significant to note that definitions and perceptions of plagiarism from responding faculty varied widely by department and discipline, and while some professors are aware that there is a university-wide definition, few use it when defining plagiarism for themselves and for their students. Without a clear understanding of the meaning and consistent communication of university expectations by faculty members, it is only logical that students will have little if any understanding of the definition and the consequences of non-compliance. As faculty members indicated, the general perception is that students do not seek to cheat the system, nor get by with as little work as possible. Rather, they remain ignorant of the problem.

A clear, consistent definition of plagiarism that is reiterated throughout the students’ academic career will ensure that students themselves have a clear understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and take responsibility for avoiding it. But while the number of one-time offenders does indicate that a large number of students fall victim to plagiarism due to ignorance, the percentage of repeat offenses also indicates that the problem requires not only clear definition and articulation, but also clear and consistent consequences, implemented university-wide.

RECOMMENDATIONS

We recommend that faculty members investigate plagiarism at Auburn University, proactively codifying and incorporating the university definition from the student handbook into their own syllabi and classroom expectations. Further, by clearly explaining this campus-wide definition to students, faculty have the power not only to reduce plagiarism within their individual course, but also to ensure that repeat offenses do not occur per student across the disciplines. Finally, by implementing and executing a clear and consistent university-wide process at the first instance of plagiarism, students are clear about the consequences, confident that they will be equally strict in all classes.

Reference List

Jensen, Robert (1998). Threads on Plagiarism Detection and Exam Cheating. Retrieved 09/09/2003 from http://www.trinity.edu/rjensen/plagiarism.htm.

Rimer, Sara (2003). A Campus Fad That’s Being Copied: Internet Plagiarism. The New York Times: nytimes.com. September 23, 2003. Retrieved 09/03/2003 from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/03/education/03CHEA.html

Tiger Cub Online, the Student Handbook of Auburn University, Rules, SGA Code of Laws, Title XII, Student Academic Honesty Code, Chapter 1200 Definition, Chapter 1201 Violations. Accessed online 10/15/04 from http://web6.duc.auburn.edu/sga/code_of_laws.pdf

Appendix

Survey Questions

Q 1. Does your definition of plagiarism contain any or all of

the following concepts? Please mark all that apply.

  1. ____ Copying someone else’s words
  2. ____ Copying someone else’s words without foot/endnote
  3. ____ Paraphrasing someone else’s words
  4. ____ Paraphrasing someone else’s words without foot/endnote
  5. ____ Copying someone else’s organization for their paper
  6. ____ Copying someone else’s organization for their paper without foot/endnote
  7. ____ Copying designs, drawing or graphs from someone else’s paper
  8. ____ Having someone else writing most or all of the student’s paper
  9. ____ Submitting a paper where there is no original thought
  10. ____ Submitting a paper that has been cut and pasted in part or all from a website or papermill
  11. If none of the above apply to your students please write a brief definition of plagiarism : —————————————————————————————

Q 2. Do you believe there is a problem with plagiarism?

  1. ____ In your classes
  2. ____ In your department
  3. ____ On this campus
  4. ____ Nationwide
  5. ____ No problem

If you have checked “No problem” above, you may skip the rest of the form but please reply.

Q3. What do you believe is the percentage of students who plagiarize?

  1. In your classes ____
  2. In your department ____
  3. On this campus ____
  4. Nationwide ____
  5. None

Q4. How frequently do you find students plagiarizing?

  1. _____ It never happens in my classes
  2. _____ Less than 1 time a semester
  3. _____ 2-4 times a semester
  4. _____ 5-7 times a semester
  5. _____ 8-10 times a semester
  6. _____ 11-15 times a semester
  7. _____ 16-20 times a semester

Q5. If a student is caught plagiarizing once, what is the outcome?

  1. ____ Verbal reprimand
  2. ____ Zero given on the paper turned in or exam work
  3. ____ Nothing; it is ignored
  4. ____ Other – Please list

Q6. If a student is caught plagiarizing a second time, what is the outcome?

  1. ____ Second verbal reprimand
  2. ____ Zero given on paper turned in or exam work
  3. ____ Letter written to student’s record
  4. ____ Grade of “F” given for the course
  5. ____ Nothing; it is ignored

Q7. If the student is caught plagiarizing more than twice what is the outcome?

  1. ____ Third verbal reprimand
  2. ____ Zero given on paper turned in or exam work
  3. ____ Letter written to student’s record
  4. ____ Grade of “F” given for the course
  5. ____ Suspension for a certain time in the semester
  6. ____ Expulsion from the University
  7. ____ Nothing; it is ignored

Author’s Notes – Contact Information

Jean Liddell, Ralph Brown Draughon Library, Auburn University;

Valerie Fong, San Francisco, CA.

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