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Internet creates a rise in cut-and-paste plagiarism

| Monday, Jan. 23, 2012

"I'm not an idiot," Danae Brentzel-Martina tells her high-school English students. "So don't try to play me for one by plagiarizing on your papers."

Plagiarizing -- claiming someone else's words as your own without proper credits -- may be shameful, but not uncommon. In a Pew Research Center study released in August, 55 percent of college presidents said plagiarism had increased in the past decade; 89 percent of those who thought plagiarizing was on the increase cited the Internet was a major reason.

According to surveys of students and faculty by Rutgers Business School in Newark, N.J., about 33 to 40 percent of high-school and college students admit to having done some kind of cut-and-paste plagiarism.

Academic integrity is important, as is respecting people's intellectual property, says Brentzel-Martina, who teaches her students to value their own ideas and work and to give credit to other people's.

"My goal is that they know how to do it (credit) properly by the time they leave my classroom," she says. "One of the biggest things that I work on in my classrooms is encouraging them to have their own ideas, so they don't feel the need to ... fall back on cheating."

When the Norwin High School teacher sees something suspicious -- often caught through the computer program called Turnitin -- she will meet with the student privately. Sometimes, the student admits to cheating by copying someone's else's work, often from the Internet. Brentzel-Martina might will give students a chance to fix it, if they simply failed to cite their sources properly.

But in clear-cut, deliberate cases of plagiarism, the students will fail the assignment. A second offense could lead to the principal's office and failing the course.

Plagiarizing is easier than ever for students, who can just copy something from a website, change the font and electronically paste it into their papers. Yet, the same technology that makes plagiarism easier for students to do makes it easier for teachers to catch. Many schools use anti-plagiarism computer programs. Turnitin, which 10,000 educational institutions use in 126 countries, scans papers and the Internet and reports on text matches.

The Turnitin software has helped numerous high-school teachers and college professors enforce academic integrity in the electronic age, says Chris Harrick of the Oakland, Calif.-based .

"The means to commit plagiarism is much easier," says Harrick, a native of Peters. "It's definitely a growing concern among educators."

Turnitin isn't intended to be punitive, Harrick says. It may catch cheaters, but it, ultimately, aims to teach kids how to paraphrase and cite sources properly.

"We look at Turnitin not as a policing tool, but more as an educational tool for engaging students and helping instructors," he says.

Brentzel-Martina calls Turnitin her first line of defense. After that, she catches plagiarism the old-fashioned way: watching for writing that just looks fishy. The writing may be above the student's ability level, or it may shift in voice and tone in parts of the paper. Often, if she Googles something that looks suspicious, she will find it online.

Many people may assume that students plagiarize deliberately because they are lazy and just want to avoid doing their own work by stealing someone else's. Yet, these cases are the minority, Harrick and Brentzel-Martina say. She had a student who plagiarized on a personal-reflection essay years ago. When confronted, he told her, "I thought you'd rather have it be right than what I think."

"It's rarely that they're lazy," Brentzel-Martina says. "They're so afraid to be wrong."

Wendy Skinner, dean of students at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel, agrees. Students usually don't intend to steal someone else's work. Often, Skinner will hear students say that they were up until 1 a.m. working on a writing assignment, ran out of energy, and copied some work into the paper as a last resort.

"They rarely plagiarize when they are well rested and when they have plenty of time to do the assignment," Skinner says.

Plagiarism contains some gray areas and can be confusing, Skinner says. For instance, maybe a student will repeat a paragraph almost word-for-word from another source, but the paragraph contains mostly factual information and isn't easily rephrased. Maybe students gave proper attributions and citations in their papers, but only changed a few words here and there.

Sometimes, a highly gifted student may raise suspicions because his or her writing is so good, Skinner says, but after a few assignments, the teacher will know and recognize the student's ability.

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