Plagiarism and Your Grad School Apps

Copying and pasting from Wikipedia in your college papers may seem totally normal to many college students, but this NYT article ("Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age") makes clear that (1) there is a casual attitude among many students about what constitutes plagiarism, and (2) copying and pasting and "borrowing" language is still considered plagiarism by any self-respecting university. From the article:

At Rhode Island College, a freshman copied and pasted from a Web site's frequently asked questions page about homelessness — and did not think he needed to credit a source in his assignment because the page did not include author information.

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student's copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.

Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.

But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.

It does appear to be a pervasive problem: a recent study found that "40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments."

Is this just another Gen Y phenomenon? The last paragraph of the article suggests there may be more at work:

And then there was a case that had nothing to do with a younger generation's evolving view of authorship. A student accused of plagiarism came to Mr. Dudley's office with her parents, and the father admitted that he was the one responsible for the plagiarism. The wife assured Mr. Dudley that it would not happen again.

In the admissions process, I see parents crossing ethical lines with some regularity. That's not just student laziness; that's also a message from such parents that the ends justify the means, and I would think that's not the best way to help launch their kids into adulthood.

I bring this all up not to finger-wag, but to remind college students that if you get caught plagiarizing -- even if YOU don't consider it plagiarizing -- there are likely to be longer-term consequences that can affect your graduate school applications down the road. If your college, or even just an individual professor, takes any action against you for plagiarism, you will have to disclose that on your applications. Examples of such actions, whether as a result of cheating on a test, lifting language from someone else's paper, or copying and pasting from online sources without attribution, can include things like:

  • Giving you a failing grade and making you redo the test/paper/exam/class
  • Initiating formal proceedings within the college
  • Making you appear before an academic integrity/honor code/academic honesty panel
  • Recording a finding of academic dishonesty in your permanent college record

Even if nothing ever gets noted in your official college record, and even if such a notation gets expunged after a certain period of time, you would still be expected to disclose in your applications that any action was ever taken. And graduate schools take academic integrity violations seriously, so think twice before you borrow someone else's language in any of your college work or on your applications. The consequences are hardly worth it.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts. Why this epidemic of plagiarism? Is it really something new under the sun, or it is just the old-fashioned vice of laziness manifesting itself on a larger, technology-enabled scale? I'm especially intrigued by this argument made in the article by Sarah Wilenski, a senior at Indiana University:

"[Plagiarism] may be increasingly accepted, but there are still plenty of creative people — authors and artists and scholars — who are doing original work," Ms. Wilensky said in an interview. "It's kind of an insult that that ideal is gone, and now we're left only to make collages of the work of previous generations."

In the view of Ms. Wilensky, whose writing skills earned her the role of informal editor of other students' papers in her freshman dorm, plagiarism has nothing to do with trendy academic theories.

The main reason it occurs, she said, is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing.

"If you're taught how to closely read sources and synthesize them into your own original argument in middle and high school, you're not going to be tempted to plagiarize in college, and you certainly won't do so unknowingly," she said.

At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others.

Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied — knowing it was wrong — who were "unwilling to engage the writing process."

"Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice," he said.

Yes it is, and yes it does. Do you agree that students are plagiarizing because they are underprepared for college-level analysis and writing? Please weigh in.


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Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).