I have had the dubious honor of working with plagiarist students for almost two decades now. In spite of Herculean efforts on the parts of hundreds of colleges, the numbers of students who hand in work as their own despite not having actually created it themselves grows every year. What exactly is going on?
Some assume these students are mendacious, soulless creatures trying to get away with something in a premeditated, calculating way. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
What’s really going on in the overwhelming majority of cases can be summed up in two words:
By ignorance, I mean that many if not most college students have no idea how to use citations and those annoying quotations marks that they may only know in their colloquial use of snarky air quotes. And few have learned how to paraphrase another’s work or even what that means. These are skills that ought to be taught in every high school and first-year college curriculum ― carefully and thoroughly. Academic integrity is, after all, the coin of the realm of university life. At the most fundamental level, all we really have is our thoughts and ideas.
Passing another’s work off as one’s own is the academic equivalent of stealing. In fact, the word plagiarism derives from the Latin word plagiarius, which means kidnapper. I love that image, a person kidnapping another’s words or designs or ideas and taking them hostage into their own work. It’s kind of a delightful metaphor depicted nicely by the image above. (Source cited below.)
Of course, if you asked any of these students if they steal things on a regular basis, they would look at you as if you were nuts. After all, they’ve been brought up not to take another’s belongings without asking. It’s a basic tenet of a civilized society. So, why are they stealing another’s academic stuff in school?
Panic is the second most common thing going on here. The deadline is looming, and their time management skills have failed them or they simply don’t know how to meet the requirements of an assignment or their confidence is in the toilet. The pit in their stomachs grows, the adrenalin starts flowing, and desperation completely messes up their ability to think logically. Suddenly, cutting and pasting the paragraph or pages from someone who really knows what they are talking about sounds like a great idea. Or lifting the photographs or fashion designs of a skilled artist seems like a stroke of genius.
And then the deed is done, and the student collapses in exhaustion only to realize in the bright of day what they have done. Then the pit in the stomach returns and anxiety skyrockets. Until they know whether they have gotten away with it or not.
The solution to the panic issue is to help students develop mechanisms for handling distress and getting out of jams. It really is that easy. But it’s actually hard because enabling each individual student to think of the go-to people and actions for that potential future moment of feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place takes time and real care. Every college advisor and faculty member should take time in their advising conversations to cover this with their advisees. Students must be encouraged to both learn the rules of citation and paraphrasing and develop their own individual ways of coping with those panicky moments.
(Image Source: https://www.planetminecraft.com/blog/plagiarism-3955675/)
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.