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Report on deterring plagiarism seeks to foster academic integrity

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - September 19, 2005

UConn students may in the future be required to provide an assurance in writing that each assignment submitted for credit is their own work.

They would include a sentence at the top of the assignment stating, “I have neither violated nor witnessed any violation of the University of Connecticut Student Code,” and sign to attest to its truth.

That scenario is one of the recommendations in a report that seeks to foster a culture of academic honesty, help prevent plagiarism, and detect and punish plagiarism when it does occur.

The report, “Deterring Plagiarism at UConn,” was prepared by an ad hoc committee of the University Senate’s Scholastic Standards Committee chaired by associate professor of pharmacy Gerry Gianutsos.

Completed in 2004, the report was presented to the full Senate at the end of last semester. A public forum planned for later this fall will provide an opportunity for input from the University community, before a final set of recommendations is presented to the Senate in the spring.  In addition, a presentation on plagiarism by Don McCabe of Rutgers University, a national expert on the topic, is scheduled for Sept. 28 at 2 p.m. in Konover Auditorium.

The issue of plagiarism faces all higher education institutions around the country, says Debra Kendall, a professor of molecular and cell biology and chair of the Senate Executive Committee. Not all are addressing the issue, however, she notes: “I’m glad to be in the group that is.”

Andrew Moiseff, a professor of physiology and neurobiology and chair of the Scholastic Standards Committee, says, “Plagiarism has always been an issue, but I think people are becoming more aware that it happens. And the prevalence of the Internet makes both planned plagiarism and inadvertent plagiarism more possible. There’s now a cut-and-paste mentality.”

Before the Internet, “these things took a different form,” he adds. And as new technologies emerge, new methods of plagiarism and other forms of cheating will likely evolve too. “It’s a moving target,” says Moiseff.

One of the report’s recommendations is that the University to purchase technology that can detect plagiarism.

In a 2002 survey by the English department’s Freshman Writing Program, nearly 30 percent of respondents said they had knowingly plagiarized at least once, and nearly 43 percent claimed to have unknowingly plagiarized at least once.

In addition, the task force found that many students at UConn do plagiarize, and that they do so both because many are poorly educated about what constitutes plagiarism and because many of them lack an overall respect for the educational ideals of academic honesty and integrity.

Plagiarism is “a really complicated issue,” says Moiseff. “It’s not always clear whether it has occurred. If students are working from the same sources, at what point are their papers just similar, and at what point are they copied?

“Certain things are egregious,” he says. “If a student bought a paper and submitted it as his own, there’s no way that cannot be wrong. But a student who doesn’t know the right way to quote can potentially be educated.”

The report defines not only plagiarism, but fabrication, cheating, and academic misconduct.

It draws a distinction between plagiarism – “submitting someone else’s ideas as one’s own or attempting to blur the line between one’s own ideas or words and those borrowed from another source” – and the misuse of sources: “carelessly or inadequately citing ideas and words borrowed from another source.”

It also notes that misuse of another’s ideas may be deliberate, or the result of ignorance about proper methods of citation.

“One of the fundamentals is to educate folks on what the rules are,” says Moiseff. “We need to established clear boundaries, so that people will know when they’ve crossed them.”

He says time constraints and competitive pressures are among the reasons why students plagiarize.

Veronica Makowsky, vice provost for undergraduate education and regional campus administration, welcomes the report’s emphasis on preventing plagiarism.

One of the strategies recommended in the report to reduce the risk of plagiarism is that faculty design course assignments so students submit work at various stages rather than only at the end. This can do a great deal to deter both intentional and unintentional plagiarism, the report says.

“Thinking about the kinds of assignments that can’t just be downloaded off the Internet will not only help prevent plagiarism,” says Makowsky, “it also represents better pedagogy. I think this will improve teaching and learning.”

To help educate students regarding about plagiarism, staff of the Institute for Teaching and Learning have developed an online module that will be available to instructors using WebCT Vista. These instructors can easily make the module available on their Vista class websites.

The report proposes other measures intended to encourage academic integrity and foster both respect for intellectual rigor and respect for intellectual property. These include developing a “President’s statement on plagiarism” to indicate the high priority placed on academic honesty, and incorporating a student pledge into the Student Code, as well as requiring students to vouch for their work.

It also addresses the procedures and sanctions for handling academic misconduct. Recommendations include changing the policies to require discussion between instructor and student prior to meting out sanctions, and placing the appeal process in the hands of the dean of the relevant school or college instead of the provost.

Other suggestions are the introduction of transcript notation as a sanction for academic dishonesty, and a mechanism to petition for removing the sanction that includes completing a non-credit education program.

“The goal is not to destroy someone’s career,” says Moiseff, “but to ensure due process.”

The recommendations will be subject to discussion during the fall open forum.

The task force report on plagiarism addresses primarily the undergraduate level. Graduate student issues will be addressed through the Graduate Council. Issues surrounding academic misconduct in faculty research and other scholarly work are outlined at http://www.osp.uconn.edu/misconduct.html

The report is available at http://senate.uconn.edu/REPORTS.HTML. Feedback on the report may be sent to Andrew.Moiseff@uconn.edu.

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