When two department colleagues of mine were hit by a rash of cheating incidents near the end of the spring semester this year, my reaction was one of surprise and sympathy, but with a measure of smugness mixed in, I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit.
As the lone journalism professor in a 10-member English department, I had persuaded myself that the safeguards I had set up were sufficient to prevent plagiarism and other forms of cheating on writing assignments. Boy, was I wrong.
Before relating my own horror story, I should point out that the six instances of plagiarism that sent my two friends reeling in mid-April were all committed by first-year students who had pilfered the essays they handed in from the Internet. Fortunately, the two professors were computer-savvy enough to catch the cheaters with the help of an Internet site expressly designed for uncovering such brazen acts of academic dishonesty.
Still, any satisfaction derived from nailing would-be cheaters has to be tempered by the knowledge that many other students are almost surely getting away with yet-another misuse of the Internet. As faculty and administrators at my school and many others have been forced to admit, committing plagiarism via the Internet is a lot simpler, and a lot more tempting, than it once was. Anyone for downloading a nifty critique of Frost's poetry or Faulkner's novels? Find the right site, press a few buttons and ... presto! The assignment is ready for tomorrow's 9 o'clock American lit class.
And with so many college residence halls now equipped with or wired for computers, aspiring cheaters can save a trip to the computer lab -- not to mention the campus library (remember that place?) -- and do their deceitful downloading from the comfort (and false security?) of their dorm room.
Not all academic dishonesty, of course, is being aided and abetted by the World Wide Web. Take my experience, for example. When one of my less-gifted journalism students handed in a several-page story on drug use on campus, it included a direct quote from the campus safety director that didn't quite ring true to me. So I called the security official, read him the quote and waited for his reply.
"I never said that," he responded, "or anything even close to that."
Growing suspicious now, I called another source, the college's housing director, and asked about comments attributed to her in the story.
"I never even talked to him," she affirmed, explaining that she left the student a phone-mail message directing him to a superior for answers to his questions.
No more smugness
It got worse. When I checked several sources allegedly interviewed by the same student for an earlier story, one source said he not only hadn't been interviewed, but that the quote attributed to him was exactly the opposite of his position on the issue.
For the two stories I checked by this student, seven sources -- about 80 percent of the total -- said they had never been contacted by the student or that the quotations attributed to them were grossly inaccurate.
So much for my smugness over the plight of my two colleagues. In 15 years of teaching journalism at two colleges, I had reason at times to wonder about the accuracy or context of a quote, but the thought that a student would totally fabricate large chunks of a news story rarely if ever crossed my mind.
When I confronted the writer of these two stories in my office, he at first denied having made up the quotes. But with virtually no handwritten notes or e-mail messages to support his claim, his position was about as strong as Janet Cooke's at the Washington Post in 1981. Finally, he admitted to manufacturing "some" of the bogus quotes, describing his actions as "careless mistakes caused by stress."
Citing the example of Cooke and her infamous fabrication of the "Jimmy's World" story that briefly won her a Pulitzer Prize before the Post was forced to return it, I pointed out to the student that he was guilty of the worst possible journalistic sin: lying to the reader. He seemed embarrassed by the force of my denunciation, but not especially remorseful or repentant. I told him he would receive an F for the course, which he briefly contested.
Unlike many schools, the college where I teach has an honor code, and I suspect that it discourages many students who might be tempted to cheat from doing so. Hundreds more students, many of whom I've had in my classes, wouldn't dream of violating the honor code. Rutgers University professor Donald McCabe, who has studied cheating by college students for the past decade, recently told the Washington Times, "If you've got a well-run honor code and it's obvious students are expected to adhere to it, you are sending a message to students that academic integrity is an important institutional value."
Making the message stick
I think most of us try to send that message at my school. In fact, when our honor code was strengthened a year ago, the beefed-up provisions came at the urging of students, not faculty or administrators. But are all students getting the message that academic integrity is vital at my school?
I'm not sure, and I keep thinking of the seven students mentioned above who thumbed their noses at our honor code within the space of three weeks in April.
Maybe the unlimited resources of the Internet are just too tempting. Maybe stress can lead students to make up quotes from sources and hope that no one will notice.
Or maybe professors and administrators need to get a lot tougher when it comes to driving home this simple message: Don't cheat; the price is too high.
Terry A. Dalton teaches journalism and advises the student newspaper at Western Maryland College in Westminster.