The advent of personal computers and the Internet have made the writing of papers and doing research much simpler for students. The Internet offers a wealth of free information, there for the taking. Unfortunately, this same technology can also facilitate plagiarism, whether unintentional or deliberate. It is easy to cut and paste text or illustrations from websites. It is equally simple to copy extensive passages from a classmate’s paper with just a few clicks of the mouse. While statistics on plagiarism in college and high school have been well-documented, mainly through the surveys of Don McCabe, founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity, and professor of organization management at Rutgers Business School, less has been reported about the occurrence of plagiarism at the middle and elementary school levels. But what is known is that younger and younger children are using the Internet to download music and share games and software, and that this phenomenon “has created an enormous population of ever-younger pirates,” according to a New York Times article on piracy. McCabe observes that there is more plagiarism now than ever before because kids are growing up with the Internet. “You notice a change when students leave the comfort of a single teacher all day; the potentially moral influence of that one teacher can prevent them from cheating. In fifth through seventh grade, depending on when they leave the one-teacher classroom, peers become more of an influence,” he says. “When others cheat, it’s not cool not to cheat, especially when a friend asks for help.” A survey McCabe conducted with over 1,000 middle and high school students in New Jersey revealed that cheating increases from fifth through eighth grade. His survey found that 41 percent of middle school students copied from a written source, 59 percent of middle school students cheated on tests, 51 percent helped another cheat, and 87 percent witnessed others cheating. Some students in McCabe’s survey felt that if they were smart enough to do all the research, get the best information, and weave it into a good paper, what was the big deal if they didn’t cite and quote properly? The bottom line is that kids feel the Internet is public information, McCabe says. “That’s why it’s so important to provide adequate guidance at a young age — it’s hard to change habits once they’re ingrained.” He encourages teachers to engage students of all ages in discussions about what exactly plagiarism is, because the definition seems to differ from elementary school to college. Jim McAleese is a librarian at the elementary Stewart School (elementary) in Garden City; McAleese also has experience at the high school level. In the lower grades, especially in grades one to three, he says it is "difficult to get them to understand the concept of plagiarism." Students in this age bracket already are familiar with cut-and-paste word processing, as well as music-swapping websites like Napster. They often assume that, simply because these technologies are available, it is legitimate to use them to the fullest extent. Janet Mulvy, principal at Van Cortlandtville Elementary School for grades three through five in Mohegan Lake, says her school has not had any serious incidents of plagiarism because they teach the students about ethics starting in third grade. The teachers discuss the concept of ownership using examples such as: “How would you feel if someone took something of yours?” and point out that copying someone else’s idea or text is just another form of stealing. Mulvy explains that the morals are clear before research begins because the ethical standards are reinforced by the teachers, the librarian and hopefully also by the parents who receive the criteria for research reports from the school. At Van Cortlandtville School, kids in third grade are taught basic research skills, such as how to properly take notes and cite resources. For their reports, they are required to use three different sources: the Internet, a hard-copy encyclopedia, and some other source; and beginning in fifth grade, they must hand in the actual source so that teachers can see how much of it was used. Garden City public schools also have a formal program that teaches research skills, including the proper use and attribution of sources, with increasing sophistication from grade to grade. This year the program includes the second grade for the first time, and eventually the first grade will participate as well. As an instructor in this program, McAleese recognizes that younger kids cannot easily reconcile some apparently conflicting directives. On the one hand, teachers tell them to "write things as sentences." On the other hand, "in learning note taking, we tell them to use only phrases." It takes time, he says, before students realize that, while their assignments should be written in complete, grammatical sentences, the content should display some originality, and not be an exercise in copying. The dean of students at a private high school in Manhattan (which declines to be named) observes that plagiarism can tempt a procrastinator who is desperate to meet a deadline. His school shows students how to pace long assignments, mainly by having teachers conduct formal progress reviews. As students improve their work habits, they will be less likely to fall far behind and then scramble for "quick fixes”. McCabe notes that since often it’s time pressure or pressure from parents and teachers for good grades that drives kids to cheat, parents can help deter cheating by being accepting if their child does not get an ‘A’. He advises, “Parents have to be willing to address their kids’ deficiencies and work with the kids to strengthen them, rather than just to complain about grades.” The head of the writing program at another private school in Manhattan (it also declines to be named) notes that genuine plagiarism involves a "willful intent to deceive." Much more common is what she calls "accidental plagiarism”, whereby a student has erred by not citing correctly. In her experience, she finds that, certainly by the later grades, "Kids understand plagiarism as stealing and also that sharing [via sites like Napster] is stealing." “If kids don’t know that cutting and pasting is plagiarism, then it’s a matter of teaching them the proper way to do research,” says John Krouskoff, director of technology for Tarrytown schools. “The idea is to try to prevent plagiarism by teaching proper research skills and putting the focus on ethics.” Those interviewed agreed that teachers must put their efforts into prevention. But even though many schools seem to be taking this approach, some students continue to attempt to evade the rules and ignore both the moral and practical arguments against stealing work. This has forced schools to adopt a variety of counter-measures. Ironically, the technology that facilitates plagiarism is also its antidote. More than 1,000 educational institutions now use Turnitin.com, which matches written reports against a database of 2 billion web pages, 250,000 term papers, and a huge archive of books and journals. Similarities in phrases are pointed out. Garden City is implementing anti-plagiarism software that evaluates whether student papers appear to be copied from websites. A trick that Jim McAleese has seen is to copy text verbatim from one web address, then cite unrelated web pages as sources. This way, a teacher checking citations will see similar information, but not the precise wording that the student has cribbed. Krouskoff stresses, however, that schools should “not be in the business of ‘gotcha!’” and that the big challenge now is to look at how high technology can change kids’ educational experiences. He feels that teachers must learn to use the technology in new ways. Several of the high tech education gurus also lay responsibility for preventing plagiarism at the feet of teachers. Jamie McKenzie, editor of the web-based ‘zine, From Now On-The Educational Technology Journal, has written extensively on using technology in schools. In a 1998 article, he stated, “It is reckless and irresponsible to continue requiring topical ‘go find out about’ research projects in this new electronic context.” Instead, McKenzie urged, “We must replace topical research with projects requiring original thought.” Teachers must ask students to explore with “essential questions” in mind, such as why do things happen the way they do, how could things be made better, and which is best? He offers this example: Instead of asking kids to write a report on the state of New Jersey, ask them to research “Where should your family relocate?” To answer the question, students must determine their criteria, collect data, compare the information, and draw a conclusion. This kind of report cannot be plagiarized or downloaded from the Internet. In “Cheating in the Internet Age”, an article written earlier this year, Dr. David Thornburg, director of the Thornburg Center and senior fellow of the Congressional Institute for the Future, uses this ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ example involving websites that offer free downloadable essays or reports. When assigning a book report, he suggests teachers give students two choices: either they can write an original report, or they can download five existing book reports from the website and grade them, justifying the grading with their own observations about the book. Thornburg recommends that teachers ask for “responses that require that the student move beyond the information to thinking about its impact. In short, the Internet is not at fault. The problem comes from asking questions for which the Internet provides a ready answer.”
RESOURCES: Jamie McKenzie’s article cites several websites offering online projects that require original thinking and problem solving: • Blue Web’N is a Pacific Bell site offering Internet sites, lessons, projects and resources. www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/bluewebn/. • WebQuest provides ideas for research projects that ask more meaningful questions. http://webquets.sdsu.edu. • Classroom Connect at www.classroom.com also provides ideas for more thoughtful research. • From Now On—The Educational Technology Journal at www.fno.org.
Preventing Plagiarism How parents can help their kids learn right from wrong
By Carolyn Jabs
Parents have an important role to play. First, take plagiarism seriously. You knew it was wrong to copy word for word from the encyclopedia when you were in school. Lifting words from an Internet site is just as lazy. You’d be appalled if your child hired another kid to write his papers. Buying a paper from a website like researchpaper.com is every bit as reprehensible. Keep in mind that kids who plagiarize put honest students at a disadvantage. More important, stealing the words of others makes it less likely that kids will learn to think and write for themselves. The best way to steer your child away from plagiarism is to talk early and often about why education is valuable. Help your child understand that the goal of going to school isn’t simply to finish assignments as fast as possible, but to understand the ideas and master the skills behind them. If kids learn early to take pride in doing their own best work, they’re less likely to succumb to the temptation of plagiarism. Here are other steps parents can take: • Check for a plagiarism policy in your school’s handbook. If there isn’t one, talk to school administrators. Students who struggle honestly to do their own work should be protected from students who cheat. • Talk to your child about stealing. Even little children understand they can’t simply take what they want from a store. As your kids get older, explain that taking words someone else has written is just as wrong. • When your child is assigned a report, ask how she’s expected to handle source materials. Even young children should create a short bibliography showing what books and Internet sites they have consulted. Older children should have detailed information about using quotes and creating footnotes for Internet sites as well as books. If your child isn’t clear about what she’s supposed to do, ask the teacher for clarification. • Help your child manage time, especially when there’s a big writing project. Often kids copy other people’s work because they get behind and can’t see any other way to get the assignment finished in time. • After your child has done his research, encourage him to close all the books and websites and tell you, in his own words, what he has learned. Summarizing the important points from memory makes it more likely that he will use his own words when he starts writing. • Read what your child writes. If you’re used to reading her work, you’ll recognize her natural style and be able to identify vocabulary that sounds too advanced and passages that just don’t sound like her. Ask your child to share her research materials with you and encourage her to show you early drafts. • Acknowledge that writing is hard. When you go over your child’s homework, be gentle about pointing out errors in logic or grammar. Praise your child for doing his or her own work. Many kids cheat because they feel that they can’t possibly live up to the standards of the adults around them. Make it clear that you value the effort as well as the results. In the Age of the Internet, kids need, more than ever, to be able to do careful research and reflect on what they’ve learned. They must be able to generate new ideas and express them effectively. Plagiarism undermines all these skills. Parents who expect their kids to know the difference between right and wrong have to start early so their kids will value the Internet as a resource instead of using it as the latest way to cheat themselves out of a genuine education.