When Jeanne Wilson's 10-year-old son gets stuck in his computer game, he doesn't have to spend hours rethinking strategies or plotting a new course. Instead, he turns to the Internet, where he quickly finds tips - otherwise known as "cheats."
Most adults, like Ms. Wilson, don't have a problem with that - it's only a game, after all.
What's more troubling is the number of students who have extended the habit to dealing with everything from nightly homework to term papers. As director of Student Judicial Affairs at the University of California at Davis, Wilson is concerned enough with what she's seeing on campus to have initiated a trial run with a Web-based group that can help professors detect plagiarism.
Lifting others' work has long been a problem in schools. But the ease with which students can pawn borrowed material off as their own has added a new issue for educators: the blurring of lines between what is acceptable and what is not in academic writing.
Students - who typically turn to the Internet as their first source for information and research - frequently perceive the Internet as lawless and anonymous. Many also assume it is infallible.
Add to that the fact that the information is free, and it is tantalizingly inviting to cut and paste paragraphs from different websites into a patchwork quilt of a paper.
Students may be prompted by night-before-deadline hastiness, or simply lose track of sources. But whether poor motives or disorganization are at the root of the behavior, the growing nonchalance about the practice suggests that schools face an uphill battle in encouraging students to take plagiarism seriously.
"Unless somebody starts to teach high school students and even middle school students proper use of the Internet and citing resources, the problems at the college level will increase dramatically," says Don McCabe, a researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey and founder of the Center for Academic Integrity.
Nearly half of all high school students admit to cut-and-paste plagiarism from the Internet, according to Mr. McCabe - much more than the 1 in 10 college students who say they do the same. A similar relationship exists between the numbers of high-schoolers and college students committing full-scale Internet plagiarism (verbatim copying or downloading).
But not all see it as problematic. Just under three-quarters of college students think that obtaining a paper from an online site is a serious offense, and just over two-thirds think cut-and-paste plagiarism is a serious offense, according to a 1999 survey by McCabe of about 2,200 college students from 21 schools.
Most students recognize that putting their name on a paper written entirely by someone else is wrong, but then that clear-cut line of right and wrong gets fuzzy. Students may justify plagiarism in some cases, especially if they think they don't have time or the assignment is, from their point of view, busywork.
"On one level, students know that cutting and pasting something on the Internet into their paper is wrong, but they can come up with a lot of rationalizations," says Barbara Petzen, former professor of Middle Eastern studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Faculty views are sometimes just as ambiguous about what's excusable in terms of lesser degrees of plagiarism - including failing to properly attribute ideas and cutting and pasting.
"We haven't developed very careful standards ourselves - that process is just beginning to be solidified," Professor Petzen adds.
Only 40 percent of faculty and 35 percent of students think that failure to include footnotes is worthy of disciplinary action, according to McCabe. Most consider it "trivial cheating or not cheating at all," he says. Thus, many students get away with lesser degrees of plagiarism because there are no fixed guidelines.
Clear expectations and consequences tend to diminish the number of offenses. Many colleges and universities have revived honor-code systems or created new ones. Smaller classes and more specific or creative assignments that cannot easily be skimmed off the Web also draw students away from the temptation to plagiarize.
"The carefully designed assignment is both more likely to positively encourage student learning and ... to deter students from academic dishonesty," says Sara Johnson, the College of Arts and Sciences associate dean at Washington University in St. Louis.
Technology can help, too, ironically. Professors suspicious of certain papers turn to such Web enterprises as Plagiarism.org, which searches the Web and an extensive internal database for plagiarized material. A number of universities have signed up for the service.
Although the total number of plagiarism cases has not noticeably increased recently, Internet-related cases have mushroomed. The Campus Judicial Board at UC-Davis sees an average of 100 plagiarism cases each year. Five years ago, the Internet was not a factor in plagiarism cases, while today, it accounts for 25 percent of the offenses, Wilson reports.
The Internet provides a rich source of information, but students often don't realize that it is a flawed resource, riddled with bias, weak writing, and poor documentation.
Professors ought to teach students "how to evaluate what they see online and not to fall for every Internet legend they come across," Petzen says.
Cheated out of skills
Understanding the limits of the Internet enables students to use it responsibly - and to develop the kinds of skills they need. Reliance on "cheats" doesn't help students learn how to generate and communicate their own ideas.
"This isn't a game we're playing to see if you can outwit us," says Wilson. "You will need those skills, especially in the knowledge economy - very well-honed thinking and writing skills. There's no way to cheat your way into getting those skills."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society