Academic Fraud: Plagiarism, Deception, Fabrication and You

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In one of my first articles, I went off on something of a tangent when discussing plagiarism. Because the subject is so important to discuss, thoroughly and in detail, I thought that it would be a good idea to write an article covering some of the most prominent forms of academic fraud and dishonesty.

Read this article carefully, because it might just save your college career.

First, let’s talk about plagiarism, since it is the most prevalent.

It took me six years to graduate; I spent three years in community college, and three in Saint Joseph’s on Long Island. I was a full-time student the entire time, but it took me longer because I went for multiple degrees. The point is that I was in college for a long time, across multiple departments.

I made a habit of cultivating relationships with certain professors in each department. If I liked one professor’s teaching style, I made sure to sign up for classes with them later on. I made sure that I was on friendly terms with at least two in each one– English Literature, History and Education. I wound up with a few pretty close relationships, and I still correspond with a couple of them today, several years after I graduated.

I was the student who would pop in during a professor’s office hours to say hello and shoot the breeze. If you haven’t done this, I cannot recommend it enough. Find some professor you can converse with, and force your friendship upon them. Most of them wind up giving you the benefit of the doubt when you need it most; an extension on a paper, an excused absence, that sort of thing. Professors are people, and they like having friends.

Plus, it never hurts to be in a position where you can expect a letter of recommendation when you ask for one.

During my visits, I became privy to a lot of information not normally available to the student body. And I found out some things about some of my classmates.

During the last two years of my college career, I had completed my History and Education programs, and was entirely entrenched in the English department.

One of my classmates shared two classes with me– Chaucer and Shakespeare. I went in to Shakespeare early one day, and her and a couple of friends were sitting there. She was crying, and I asked what had happened.

She told me a story about our Chaucer professor, who had apparently cursed her out and failed her for the semester. I was pretty friendly with the professor, and that was seriously out of character for her, so I pressed for more information. According to the student, she had received an email requesting her presence at a meeting with the professor. Apparently, at the meeting, the professor threw her latest homework assignment at her, and cursed at her profusely for several minutes– because she had plagiarized some of her work from SparkNotes. The professor had then told her she would fail the semester, and would report her to the dean.

According to the student, it had been an accident. She had simply been using SparkNotes to help her understand Chaucer– admittedly, we were reading it in Middle English (which follows no conventional rules of spelling), so it’s reasonable to need some help– and had mistakenly used the articles she had printed out instead of her own notes.

Something about that didn’t track with me. When I was in the English department next, I wandered into the Chaucer professor’s office, and asked her about it. She told me that no, she hadn’t flown off the handle (my Shakespeare professor backed her up on that), and that then entirety of her assignment was lifted directly from SparkNotes, word for word.

I understood, told her she did the right thing, and moved on to discussion about The Miller’s Tale. Because you can’t mess around with plagiarism, even on something as simple as a homework assignment; it’s personally offensive.

Later, in an Early American Literature course, the very same student was in trouble with a different professor, after she did the same freaking thing.

She was expelled.

Plagiarism is one of a very, very few things you can’t get away with in college. This student wasn’t even the first one I’d seen expelled: over six years, four separate students were kicked out of school for it. And, a minimum of once every semester, at least one student was in trouble for it. For some reason, students keep trying to steal work and profit off of it.

I understand some of the reasons behind a few of them. College can be ludicrously stressful. When you hit the higher-level courses, it’s pretty common to be assigned to write four or five ten-page papers. If you don’t have the knack for getting them done quickly, they can pile up pretty quickly. I remember I had a particularly bad Hell Week (usually the week before finals or midterms, where pretty much every major assignment happens to be due) one semester. I had to tackle eight papers in about three days, totaling somewhere around a hundred pages. It should also be noted that I was only taking five courses at the time, so how I managed to accrue more term projects than courses is still something of a mystery to me.

Tasks like that can be daunting, and temptation is natural. It would be so easy to just copy someone else’s work. The professor has to grade a couple hundred of these, there’s no way he’s going to read closely enough to catch you, right? So you try it. Maybe you get away with it, maybe you don’t.

Sometimes, it’s not the upper-level students who fall prey to the tempting aroma of easy grades, but the freshman. This can occasionally be chalked up to inexperience and citation errors rather than deliberate cheating. In these cases, it’s usually just a slap on the wrist that is delivered by the professor, and corrections are made.

But, once again, even the relatively low-stress nature of these courses isn’t enough to make some students think they can coast.

One of my early group projects in a 100-level education course involved a trip to a school board meeting. A friend and I went and took notes for the other members of our group, thinking that it didn’t make sense for all of us to have to go. I used my notes to write a brief response to the board meeting, which was the assignment for that part of the project. It was only a page and a half long. But, the other members weren’t sure how to do it, so I emailed mine to them, along with my notes, so that they could have an idea of what they should do.

Two of the members wrote their own responses using mine as a template. One of them didn’t bother, instead putting his name on mine and including it with his section of the project.

Again, here is where it pays to take the same professor multiple times and have a good relationship with them: she recognized my style of writing immediately. She had a brief meeting with the guy who copied my work, and, in fairness to him, he came clean right away, hoping that wouldn’t get in trouble. Apparently, he just ran out of time, so the professor didn’t take action more drastic than giving him a zero for that part of his project.

But he could have avoided it! It is so easy to not plagiarize. I get why people do it, but I don’t get why people do it.

I worked full-time, between forty and fifty hours a week in a sales job and went to school full-time, taking no less than fifteen credits a semester. I had friends and a social life. I had family issues, weddings, holidays, girlfriends (well, dates at least), and I also happened to be the guy that people called when they were in trouble. I was the emotional support system for several people of genuinely questionable mental stability. I was writing a book that I had no idea would ever see the light of day. Most semesters I had to do student observation hours, necessary for an education degree. And I also battled my own crippling issues with chronic insomnia, something I still don’t have under control.

I was just as busy as anyone else. But I still figured out ways to make it work, and never cheated, not once, because I valued my own integrity more than I valued an easy grade.

So, really, there isn’t any excuse that I will accept to knowingly plagiarize. If you’re too busy to write your own material, maybe you need to take fewer classes. If you can’t come up with something on your own, maybe you need to change majors.

Plagiarism is personally offensive and morally repugnant to me. Representing work that you didn’t do as your own is right up there with armed robbery in my view.

The fact is that you know how much work goes into writing academic papers. It can be exhausting to adequately research a topic and synthesize that research into something that is unique and well-written. Imagine if one of your professors loved your paper, and, rather than give you a grade on it, stole it and published it. How furious would you be that you didn’t get credit for it? Because that’s what you’re doing every time you deliberately steal someone else’s work.

Moralizing aside, there are, as I said earlier, cases of accidental plagiarism. If you want to learn how to avoid it, follow these basic steps (outlined in greater detail in this article).

1. Know what you’re taking from each source you’re using. This is pretty straightforward. Read your sources carefully, and take notes if you have to. This isn’t the time to be vague. If you have a point that relies upon a source, make sure that you know exactly which source upon which it relies.

2. Understand the concept of Common Knowledge. Common Knowledge is basically things that everyone knows. Examples include: ice is frozen water, Lincoln was a President, alcohol lowers inhibitions, and fish have gills. These are things that everyone knows. A good general rule of thumb is that if you can find more than five sources that state the same fact, then it can be considered common knowledge, and you do not necessarily have to cite it in-text.

However, I err on the side of caution, and almost always include both a Works Cited and a Works Consulted page. The Works Cited page references each source that has an in-text citation, parenthetical or footnoted. The Works Consulted page lists each source that I read for general background information, but didn’t cite directly in the paper.

This is a great way to cover all of your bases and make sure that you didn’t accidentally plagiarize.

3. Realize that paraphrasing or summarizing doesn’t suddenly make an idea yours. Seriously. Rewording things doesn’t remove the original author’s ideas or efforts. You cannot simply summarize an article and then not credit the article.

Plagiarism isn’t restricted to the theft of words. It covers the theft of ideas. If a concept isn’t your own, cite it. It isn’t very hard or time consuming.

4. Do not misrepresent a source. This isn’t strictly plagiarism, but is still academic fraud. This includes the following:

A). Fabricating Sources. Sometimes done by students to hit an arbitrarily assigned minimum source requirement for a paper. The professor will tell them that they need four, but can only find three, so they make one up. This is a terrible idea. First, if you look at any of the sources you did find, you’ll likely come up with an extra source to hit your minimum. Second, if you honestly can’t get any more, then only submit the sources you have. Professors won’t usually mind if you’re a source short; those minimums are really only there to make sure you actually do some research.

B). Deliberately Misstating a Source’s IntentUsually, this is because a student can’t find a source that agrees with their thesis. This involves cherrypicking and manipulating quotes from a source to make it appear as though the article in question supports something other than it does. For example, here is one provided by this Wikipedia entry, on a blurb written about the TV show Lost:
“Mike Ryan had written that the show was “the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous —      yet somehow addictively awesome — television show of all time.” Naturally, the              blurb hunters at ABC chose to abridge the quote ever so slightly. What appeared on      TV screens was: “The most addictively awesome television show of all time” —              Vanity Fair.”

Source Again

Obviously, the original quote was far less positive toward Lost, highlighting a lot of the problems with the show, but with the judicious application of abridgment, they turned it into a glowing recommendation.

Don’t do this. It’s dishonest. It also completely circumvents the point of the assignment, which is for you to actually research something. I can make anything say anything about anything if the text is long enough. I can probably pick out enough quotes from Harry Potter to turn the whole thing into a particularly strange Alcoholics Anonymous meeting if I tried hard enough.

Finally, there’s:

C). Falsifying Data. This is just straight up lying. It involves either manipulating data to prove a point or straight up fabricating results to fit a hypothesis.

I shouldn’t have to tell you why you shouldn’t do this. It’s kind of obvious. There’s a theme here, and I’d like to invite you to apply some critical thinking to figure out why you shouldn’t lie about data.

Look, academic fraud is bad. There are plenty of moral reasons that you shouldn’t participate in it. But if those aren’t enough to deter you, then consider the ramifications if you get caught: failed assignments, failed courses, or expulsion. When you hit college, they don’t have detention anymore. And if you’re expelled for academic fraud, good luck getting into another university.

They’ve gotten very good and finding it, too. Services like Turnitin are becoming more prevalent, and I’ve had professors tell me to my face that they ran large sections of some of my papers through Google to see if they were plagiarized. Don’t think that you can sneak one past them, because most have a freakin’ Ph.D, and they’re probably smarter than you– at least about this.

At the end of the day, it just isn’t worth it.


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