From the Content Director: You Can’t Say That Again

Preventing plagiarism in a Web full of words

When the news broke that author Jonah Lehrer had been recycling his own writing in publications including The Wall Street Journal and Wired, and when he was then found to have fabricated a quote by Bob Dylan in his new book “Imagine” (giving the book’s title an ironic twist), I couldn’t help but puzzle over it. Why would someone so apparently intelligent, well-educated and in possession of the plum job of New Yorker staff writer do this? Was it hubris? A self-destructive tendency? Was he simply in a hurry?

The journalistic world gets rocked by the occasional scandal (Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair), but it is on college campuses that plagiarism and other violations of academic integrity run rampant (the recent Harvard cheating scandal, for example). And since these college students include the media employees of tomorrow, it is well worth noting their habits. Donald L. McCabe, professor at the Rutgers Business School and lead author on the new book “Cheating in College,” has been studying academic integrity and dishonesty since 1990, and his most recent stats from summer 2012 quantify the incidence of plagiarism in higher ed.

From a study of nearly 150 schools, of more than 100,000 undergraduates surveyed, 34 percent admitted to having engaged in cut-and-paste plagiarism from online sources. Of just fewer than 17,000 graduate students also surveyed, 29 percent admitted to this type of plagiarism. These numbers might seem high, but in a study only a few years earlier, 62 percent of undergrads and 59 percent of grads admitted to plagiarizing. Lest anyone draw the conclusion from these numbers that plagiarism in college is on the decline, they might instead indicate something troubling. McCabe explains: “They don’t think it’s cheating anymore so they don’t report it. It’s becoming more accepted among students.”

Susan D. Blum, Professor of Anthropology at University of Notre Dame and author of “My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture,” has also researched the why, when and how of plagiarism among students. What Blum sees is that, “students are mostly focused on success and achievement, a bottom-line mentality.” Asked to speculate on Lehrer’s actions, Blum says she sees: “a very high-achieving, very visible young person who’s maybe in over his head and desperate to keep making a splash, so he’s turning to whatever possible techniques he can figure out.”

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  • steve mark

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