Teachers combat plagiarism with new honor code

Some teachers at Northern Kentucky University hope to curb instances of plagiarism with a new honor code and use the Internet to catch literary thieves.

The honor code is up for approval by the Board of Regents after having been passed last Spring by the Faculty Senate. The code sets guidelines for instructors to follow in the case of plagiarism and, according to the first line in the preamble of the code, creates “a commitment by students of Northern Kentucky University…to adhere to the highest degree of ethical integrity in academic conduct.”

The current university policy toward plagiarism is very liberal and leaves it to the discretion of the teacher on how to handle it on a case-by-case basis. The honor code won’t take the authority away from teachers in dealing with plagiarism, said Mathematics professor Dr. Charles Frank, one of three NKU professors responsible for drafting the code. The code will create a uniform method in confronting academic dishonesty and allow recourse for the accused student, he said.

“There is not a consistent practice on campus,” Frank said. “It protects students. If a student is unfairly accused, he has a way to defend himself through the honor code.”

Under the honor code, a student accused of plagiarism could appeal to an honor council. The code creates a honor council comprised of 12 faculty and 15 students that will convene a hearing for any appeal made by a student accused of plagiarism. Faculty will be selected by the Faculty Senate and the president while each department will select a student representative. The council is required to come to a decision based on the evidence presented by both sides within five days of the initial hearing.

Such hearings, Frank said, will hopefully be a rarity.

“We will try to get it resolved with the student,” Frank said. “Most cases will be resolved by the faculty and the chair.”

For a first violation, the latitude the honor code gives teachers in handling plagiarism ranges from an oral admonition to a failure for the course. A second violation warrants suspension for up to or over one year or expulsion from the university.

The honor code doesn’t just focus on the penalties for plagiarism but also works to prevent it, said Ed Brewer a professor of Business who also helped draft the honor code. The honor council will also talk with students and organize a presentation at Transitions, the orientation for incoming students, regarding the dangers of plagiarism.

Faculty will also be encouraged to put part of the honor code on their syllabi and discuss it with students, Brewer said. “What we need is a visible and tangible representation of the integrity that we will hold people to,” Brewer said.

Both Brewer and Frank said schools with honor codes have less instances of plagiarism. An honor code helps teachers better convey how important academic honesty is by shedding more light on the issue, Brewer said. “Anything you pay attention to becomes more important than what you don’t,” Brewer said. “By not paying attention to integrity, you make it easier for people to ignore it.”

Internet provides a tool for fighting plagiarism
While the Internet offers free term papers for downloads and what seems like an endless stream of information , many teachers have become adept at spotting Internet plagiarism and use search engines to find material copied from it.

The Internet makes it easy for students to copy material but it also makes it easy for teachers to detect it, said Dr. John Alberti, assistant chair of the Literature and Language department.

“If the prose doesn’t fit and you wanted to verify it, you take the phrase and put it in a search engine,” Alberti said.

In a Literature and Film class last semester, Alberti said he caught four people who took large sections of work off the Internet and pasted it into their reports.

“It is tempting for students to just copy and paste,” Alberti said.

In dealing with such cases, Alberti said he will either fail students for the assignment or the course, depending on the degree of plagiarism involved.

“It is something I think a lot about,” Alberti said. “I deal with it on a case by case basis on if I feel right about someone failing the course for deliberately cheating as opposed to being disorganized.”

One of the tell-tale signs of plagiarism off the Internet is a shift in topic that doesn’t exactly fit with the subject, said Dr. Jonathan Reynolds, a history professor.

“You can tell if the writing style is different or there is a radical shift in tone,” he said.

Because of this, Alberti and Reynolds said plagiarized material usually is of poor quality. Even if the teacher doesn’t find out, it will still usually lower the grade, Alberti said.

Kenny Sahr, the founder of www.schoolsucks which offers free term papers, agrees that a majority of papers found on the Internet are horrible and not worth plagiarizing. Sahr said he began schoolsucks.com in 1997 to prove the inadequacies of the United States education system.

“I think most of the papers on School Sucks are awful,” Sahr said. “Look at the garbage there! Don’t blame me. I didn’t teach the writers of those papers. School Sucks is a mirror of the education system. This is what you get from educators.”

Rather than promoting plagiarism, Sahr said he feels sites like School Sucks helps teachers crack down on cheating since it gives them a place to search.

In the Literature and Language department, chairman Dr. Danny Miller said he has noticed an increase in reported cases of plagiarism since the use of the Internet began to rise and estimates there are about 10 cases a semester on average in his department. “It does appear plagiarism is increasing, but maybe we are getting better at catching it,” Miller said.

Miller said plagiarism is the most serious academic offense, and the university needs to be tough on it. “There is not need for it because you can always cite material,” Miller said. “Expulsion is not an excessive punishment.”

Dr. Jonathan Cullick, director of the writing program and a professor who has made a career of giving advice for teachers on handling plagiarism, cautioned that a teacher shouldn’t accuse a student of cheating unless he has unmitigated proof.

Cullick suggests that if a teacher suspects plagiarism, to first speak with the student and have the student submit his research.

Unless the teacher has a smoking gun, Cullick said the best way to approach it is to have the student rewrite the paper. “I always advise them to be careful to make accusations,” Cullick said “We need to respect student’s work.”

Cullick said the Internet has made a great source for teachers to find proof of plagiarism. He said in one of his classes, he suspected a student had plagiarized part of a paper, and it took him about three minutes of searching on the Internet to locate the original source.

Not all plagiarism is intentional, Cullick said, and is the result of improper or nonexistent citation.

Cullick said it is imperative that student educate themselves on how to properly cite material.

“They need to learn for their own protection so they aren’t accused of being dishonest.”