A dubious story about plagiarism

I’m not sure if today’s New York Times story on plagiarism qualifies as one of Jack Shafer’s bogus trend stories. I’ve asked him, and I’m curious to see what he thinks.

But in six years of teaching, I have found the overwhelming majority of students are extremely careful about attribution. If anything, journalism students need help in figuring out when they don’t have to attribute background material.

In the one traditional academic course I teach, on media law, I have discovered that many students don’t know how to do citations properly. We had Turabian drilled into our heads in high school, but apparently those days are long gone. But few students have a problem in being clear, consistent and thorough with their citations, regardless of what self-taught method they use.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. I’ve had a few students who cheated, and I ended up dealing with one before the university’s disciplinary board. There may also have been a few others who slipped something past me, though I doubt that it’s a regular occurrence. Plagiarism is generally not that hard to spot.

Overall, there’s an unattractive kids-these-days tone to the Times story, linking plagiarism to digital phenomena ranging from Wikipedia to downloading music and films. Hey, you! Get off of my lawn!

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8 thoughts on “A dubious story about plagiarism

  1. Doug Mustard

    Agreed. And some of us are looking forward to the new generation taking over from the current (and past) ones. Indications are that it will be BETTER.

  2. Glad you saw this piece too, Dan. The whole thing was overheated. A helpful version would have been to look at end-to-end transparency in all research writing, for high school students to learn to consider not only how to write and cite but to evaluate others’ clarity, motives, potential conflicts of interest, etc.

  3. Aaron Read

    I have not read the article, but I will say this: as I recall, Dan, your six years of teaching are limited to Northeastern University. Please don’t assume that a teacher’s experience at any one college is applicable at any other college.

    Of course, one could…and should…say the same thing to Shafer. But I’ll digress:

    This is one case where, truly, every college is unique. You can have a lot of honest kids at one school, and have another rife with cheating, and everything inbetween. And the climate can, and does, change from year to year. And from classroom to classroom, even. Nobod

    I think this may be especially true with a college like NEU where the public perception was that it was a “pathway to a job” college. It was intentionally different – with a strong career-placement strategy and internship-friendly trimeters instead of semesters. Obviously NEU was gone more “mainstream” in the last 10 years, but IMHO it still has a reputation for being for students that care more about working hard and getting a career after graduation than they care about having a four-year liberal arts bullfest. (for the record, I find that quite admirable)

    The end result being that I would rather think it’d bias your students to be more on the honest side, wouldn’t it?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: If you had read the article (always recommended before commenting!), you would have seen that there isn’t a smidgeon of statistical evidence in it to suggest that cheating has gotten worse over time, even though that is the entire premise. The closest we get is this:

      Perhaps more significant, the number who believed that copying from the Web constitutes “serious cheating” is declining — to 29 percent on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade.

      Pretty lame, no?

      Much as I would like to buy into your assumption that Northeastern students are more ethical and honest than others, I doubt that’s the case. I do think it’s possible that journalism students are grilled and drilled on ethics more than in other departments, and that therefore j-students might be less likely to cheat. But I have no proof of that, either.

      If there had been a single piece of compelling evidence in the story that cheating has gotten worse in recent years, I wouldn’t have written the post.

  4. B.A. DuBois

    Jack Schafer’s “bogus media trends” is always a wonderful and informative read… and I congratulate him for maintaining it, and you, Dan, for linking to it…

  5. Bill Schweber

    These “trend” stories accomplish two things: makes the author and his/her publication look “hip” and prescient, and lets the author get away with sheer laziness by connecting a few anecdotes to make a story, rather than do actual hard digging.
    Plus, who actually ever looks back to see if the trend(s) materialized as predicted? So there is no downside at all to doing this kind of loosey-goosey story, except to the readers, of course.

  6. BP Myers

    @Dan said: there isn’t a smidgeon of statistical evidence in it to suggest that cheating has gotten worse over time, even though that is the entire premise.

    Don’t know where you are getting what you describe as the “entire premise.”

    It appears to me that the premise is not that it has “gotten worse over time”, but that students doing it now ostensibly believe it is “okay.”

    The article indeed cites “evidence” in the form of surveys conducted between 2006 and 2010 supporting that specific premise.

    For what it’s worth, I think you’ve had a bee in your bonnet about the Times for a couple of days now and may be reacting a little hastily.

  7. LFNeilson

    Thanks for the Turabian link, Dan.
    I’m constantly wrestling with my father’s work in which he seldom cited — and often deliberately obscured — his sources. He was paranoid about other papers stealing his material.
    While I am following him in researching local (Wilmington) history, I am attempting to avoid such insanity and I therefore thank you for the link to those T. guidelines.
    zzzzzzz

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