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Xavier Magazine | March 25, 2017

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Beating Cheating

Greg Schaber

Paul Fiorelli sat behind his desk grading papers when he suddenly became excited. Grading papers is a monotonous task, but occasionally a good paper comes along that makes the effort worthwhile. For a moment, Fiorelli, a professor of legal studies, thought he stumbled onto just such a paper.

As he continued reading, though, a cloud of doubt began settling over his mind. He started comparing the quality of the paper with the student who wrote it, and the two weren’t matching up. “I thought it was really good,” he says. “And then I thought perhaps it was too good.”

Turning to his computer, he logged onto a legal research database, and his instincts proved correct. Five pages of the student’s seven-page paper were lifted from a Harvard University civil rights law review. Fiorelli’s heart sank.

“I don’t want to say I was mad, but I was disappointed,” says Fiorelli. “I confronted the student, and he admitted to it. My syllabus was very specific about that. I went through the dean and the academic vice president, and we had him removed from the program. It was a troubling incident.”

That was more than 10 years ago. And though he didn’t know it then, Fiorelli was seeing an early ripple in the new wave of academic cheating—stealing from the Internet. On campuses around the country, university administrators are trying to combat this growing problem. Last year, the University of Virginia found itself in the news after catching 122 students plagiarizing term papers in an introductory physics course. Ohio University made the news in 2000 when it reported 35 cases of cheating after averaging just 12 per year in the five years prior. Wesleyan College in Middle-town, Conn., also reported 32 violations of its academic honor code.

It’s an age-old challenge that has developed a 21st century twist. And even though New-Age technology offers high-tech ways of dealing with the problem, simply catching the culprits isn’t enough because the problem’s roots are deeper and the implications wider. Universities must place a greater emphasis on teaching ethics, say those who deal with the issue, because if a student graduates thinking it’s all right to cheat, he’ll carry that mentality into the corporate world.

While a number of web sites that sell complete research papers exist, the most common problem revolves around mosaic-style papers with bits and pieces of information lifted, uncredited, from a variety of sources, says John Barrie, founder of Turnitin.com, a service that helps detect Internet-related cheating. Barrie’s company analyzes nearly 10,000 papers daily. Of these, about 30 percent are “less than original.”

It’s “cut-and-paste plagiarism,” says Donald McCabe, a management professor at Rutgers University and founding president of the Duke University-based Center for Academic Integrity. McCabe has been studying student cheating since 1990. He’s surveyed more than 25,000 students and found that students begin cheating as early as the fifth grade. The percentages reach a staggering 97 percent of high school students if behavior such as copying another student’s homework or turning in homework done by parents is included.

Though the college numbers never reach the levels of high schoolers, they’re hardly comforting. The most common offenses are longstanding ones—sharing questions and answers on tests, nonpermitted collaboration. But, says McCabe, cut-and-paste papers from electronic sources are quickly catching up. Internet-related plagiarism is the fastest-growing form of academic cheating over the past five years.

Still, McCabe argues there’s no hard evidence that the Internet actually creates new cheaters, despite some reports to the contrary. Instead, he says, the Internet is just increasing the frequency among those who already cheat. Its convenience is a mighty temptation and hard for them to pass up.

There are no statistics on the frequency of cheating at Xavier, but Mike Webb, dean of the Williams College of Business, says his experience mirrors McCabe’s research. “We haven’t really seen a rise in plagiarism overall,” he says. “But we have seen more of the electronic plagiarism using the web.”

Like Webb, Xavier colleagues Janice Walker, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Neil Heighberger, dean of the College of Social Sciences, have also seen an increase in the number of reported cases of Internet-related plagiarism in recent years. But, Heighberger adds, it’s difficult to know whether to attribute it to more students actually plagiarizing from the Internet or to an increased awareness among the faculty.

For administrators and faculty, this raises two questions: How can cheating be detected? And how should the attitudes behind it be dealt with? Ironically, the Internet, which provides a convenient avenue for cheaters, has also made detection easier. The establishment of Internet-based tracking services such as Barrie’s Turnitin.com are helping to level the playing field. Xavier subscribes to PlagiServe and Turnitin.com, which requires instructors to set up individual accounts. That allows for easier tracking. Thus far, the service was used 76 times with several positive hits.

If fear of detection isn’t enough of a deterrent, disciplinary consequences exist for those caught. The University has three disciplinary options in cases of cheating: students may be given a zero on the test or project, failed for the course or expelled from school. Walker says that in most cases, instructors choose to give students a zero. In a few more extreme cases, instructors fail the student. Expulsion, like Fiorelli’s case, is rare.

Changing the attitudes behind academic cheating, however, is a much deeper and more global challenge. “Everybody does it” is a popular excuse among students caught cheating, says Walker. McCabe agrees.

“Students generally see an erosion of ethics and standards in the larger society,” McCabe says. “So clearly, even in cases where they know it’s cheating, they’re able to justify it quite readily. And then there’s just this feeling of intense competition. Certainly students feel that the competition to get into better colleges, to get the better jobs, is much more intense today than it has been historically. It’s a pressure that many of them just can’t resist, particularly if they see other students getting away with it.”

It’s this erosion of values that concerns Turnitin.com’s Barrie. “That’s the biggest problem that we are going to face as a society in the future, that we’re breeding all of these students—not just students, the high-achieving students—who have a philosophy that cheating is the way it works,” he says. “I think, whatever problem we have right now with Enron and Arthur Andersen and Firestone is going to seem like a baby problem compared to what we’re going to have in the future. I think it’s naive to believe that once you get your high school or college diploma, suddenly you become an ethical person. So you combine that with a lack of critical thinking skills and people reaching positions of power, and you get future leaders with a shaky ethical foundation. I don’t think it’s pretty.”

To be fair, there are gray areas. Walker believes that most students know when they’ve done something wrong because most deny doing it. But she also admits there are some cases where students clearly don’t understand the impact of their actions. McCabe says that most students readily agree that sharing information on a test or plagiarizing constitute cheating, but adds that they don’t always agree that using uncited sources—or even fabricating a bibliography—rise to that level.

Even so, Heighberger says, the University has taken steps to boost its value-laden curriculum with an even greater effort to provide students with a solid ethical foundation. He points to the ethics, religion and society block of required courses that addresses ethics in philosophy, theology and literature.

Last year, the University also established the center for business ethics and social responsibility, with Fiorelli as the director.

“We’ve done a good job with ethics in the past, but we really hadn’t coordinated it and encouraged the faculty to do more of that,” says Fiorelli, who is also a senior fellow for The Ethics Research Center in Washington, D.C. “The goal is really to give more exposure to ethics to the students. And the way we want to accomplish that is by making the faculty more comfortable incorporating ethics into their classroom material.”

The center launched a program to bring in experts from finance, marketing, management and accounting to talk to the different departments. The center also awarded six grants to faculty to work on incorporating more ethics into their particular classes.

Faculty members already “talk about ethics and values across the spectrum of courses that we do,” says Walker. And although there’s no uniform policy, Walker believes that faculty are being more explicit in conveying their expectations concerning plagiarism.

“They don’t tell them right up front, ‘If you try this, I have the means and methods to catch you,’ ” says Walker. “You want to make sure that they understand plagiarism first of all. If they’re aware of it, then they make a deliberate choice not to engage in it. That’s the hope. However, we know that there are some students who clearly understand and for some reason choose to do it.”

In spite of the best efforts of all involved, no one is foolish enough to predict the end of cheating. “You’ll never stop it completely,” McCabe says bluntly. “The objective is to reduce to as low a level as possible the more significant forms of cheating.”

Walker got a potent reminder of this at the end of the spring semester. Her office typically gets “a couple” of cases of cheating a year. It dealt with “a half-dozen or so” around exam time. Ultimately, Walker says, part of the difficulty in dealing with a dynamic issue like cheating is that instructors, who are on the front lines, have to strike a balance between dealing with ethical issues and covering the required course material.

“It’s a lot like raising children,” she says. “You think you’re doing the right thing, but how do you know until they’re grown and you look back?”

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