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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
The T.M. Landry College Preparatory School in Louisiana has an intensive mentoring and coaching program. The school was celebrated for teaching and sending its poor and under-educated high school kids to elite colleges, such as Yale, Brown, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Dartmouth and Cornell.
Bryson Sassau was one of its outstanding students. According to The New York Times, Sassau was credited with founding a community service program, the Dry House, to help the children of abusive and alcoholic parents. He took four years of honors English, was a baseball team M.V.P. and earned high honors in the “Mathematics Olympiad.” The school narrative earned Sassau acceptance to St. John’s University in New York.
However, Sassau confessed to a problem. None of his academic success was real.
“I was just a small piece in a whole fathom of lies,” Sassau admitted to the Times. “In reality,” The Times said, “the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity.”
In Previous Eras, Plagiarism Was Easy
When I was in college, long before the Internet, it was easy to buy a term paper (and harder still to get caught). All one had to do was look in the classified ads of the local newspaper.
The back of The Washington Post, for instance, printed daily advertisements giving students a number to call to sign up to have a college paper written for them. Did I try calling one of those places? You bet I did.
For only $200, I could get a paper on any topic from an original theory of the nervous system to a complete Ph.D. dissertation for $500. Did I buy such a paper? Heck no!
My writing career started when I was 12 years old. I started writing science fiction stories and began amassing rejection notices from the pulp magazines. By the time I was graduating from high school, I had a shoebox full of them.
But I never bought a scholarly paper and never even considered it. When I was in college, I knew other students who did buy them. They would brag to me about the “A+” their papers received, while I received a “C” or a “B” if I was lucky.
The Internet Age Has Made Plagiarized Text Simpler to Access
The computer age has created a wealth of easy access to plagiarized papers and quiz answers. If you as a teacher do not think so, post some quiz questions on the Internet or Google as a search item and add the word “answer.” You will be shocked at how many answers to your questions are out there for free or for a small fee.
My students and peers tell me that students routinely receive solicitations from companies on the Internet advertising how to earn an “A” on their next college paper. The ads even go so far to boast that they have a group of college professors who will write those papers for you.
In this age of robo phone calls, it appears students are being spammed to buy term papers. These term paper factories have the names, phone numbers and emails of students and the temptation is too much for some students to resist.
Strong Penalties for Plagiarism
Plagiarism is a difficult concept for students to grasp. In many college classes, the first week is when we ask them to read the college policy on plagiarism and the penalty for doing something so wrong. It seems we stress the penalty part more than the teaching moment.
But it is necessary. When students see that they can create an original paper and be praised for their work, they feel a sense of pride and professionalism.
How do we as teachers instruct our students about the perils of cheating when there is so much evidence of people getting away with it? One method is to write a nice statement urging students not to plagiarize and to offer to help them succeed. But in the online world of teaching, just reading words may not be enough.
Make a Video to Talk about Plagiarism
If you are comfortable making videos, you can create a simple YouTube video on your laptop to talk to students. Just turn on your camera, start a recording session and talk to them as you would in class for about two minutes. Any longer will stretch students’ attention span. I have one video I use for my classes to discourage my students from plagiarism.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines plagiarism as, “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: use (another’s production) without crediting the source.”
Today’s students are bombarded by ads and promotional materials encouraging them to cheat on their college papers. We face a sea of promotional thieves working to grab our students’ money and pride and need to continue our campaign for legitimate student work.
One way that college and universities address this issue is to use the plagiarism checking app Turnitin for all student papers. American Public University students are told how Turnitin discourages plagiarism and what a low numerical score means on their papers. Those students then have a chance to correct their work or discuss with their professor the contents that are being flagged as plagiarized.
Some copying of material is permissible but only with proper style citations and reference listings. Some students may be new to writing college papers. So, as teachers, we must be sensitive to such students and inform them about what constitutes plagiarism and about how useful Turnitin can be for their success.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was the program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics.
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