Education Law

Copy and Paste: Students Abuse Internet Info

One DePaul University student may have thought copying paragraphs from an internet source into a research assignment presented no problems. There was just one: The lifted portion appeared in an obvious purple text, without proper recognition of the source. His response, when confronted, was not contrite, but: "So, how do I get rid of the purple?"

While most schools do cover plagiarism in conduct codes and in course requirements, it's a practice on the rise. There's a disconnect between how students and their schools view and respond to plagiarism.

Plagiarism among Students Is on the Rise

The internet gives students access to research sources as never before. At the same time, technology means the physical steps needed to incorporate a source into their work is a far cry from the labor-intensive steps of the past. Copy and paste, and it's done; skip the tedious and time-consuming task of writing or typing sources into your document.

Some of today's students stop before completing the required step to give proper credit to the source. Students may also be confused about when and how they have to to give credit to an internet source in their school work.

Casual Attitudes and Plagiarism

Donald L. McCabe, the co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and a professor of business at Rutgers University, ran student surveys on plagiarism. McCabe's results showed that about 40 percent out of 14,000 undergraduate students admitted to copying "a few sentences" in their written assignments from 2006 to 2010.

Fewer students view copying passages from the internet as "serious cheating" when compared to past years.

Generation Gap?

Younger students and older, non-traditional classmates view academic ethics differently. The two groups often don't see the definition of "original work" in the same way. The younger the student, the greater the comfort level with shifting from one resource to another while doing research.

Many students and instructors note there's simply not enough concern about giving proper attribution to reference sources in school work.

College Efforts to Curb Plagiarism

Many post-secondary schools address their policies against cheating and copying early and often. College web sites, student handbooks and discipline codes define copying, cheating and plagiarism, as well as the consequences for violations.

Teachers and professors often list their rules about copying, plagiarism and proper attribution or citation on course outlines. The consequences for plagiarism may be found in class or school-wide rules.

The Consequences of Plagiarism Can Be Severe

The most serious incidents can lead to suspension from school for a few days or more. It may even lead to permanent expulsion. Minor offenses may affect a student's grade or end with removal from a class. Most schools have an administrative process to appeal or review disciplinary actions, carried out by on-campus review boards and discipline committees.

In some extreme cases, the student - or their parents - might turn to the courts to challenge a school's disciplinary decision. State law may affect what kind of relief is available and the path to follow. For example, a student might have to first complete an administrative appeal at the school level before going to court, meeting all deadlines and procedural rules along the way.

There's absolutely nothing wrong when a student is motivated and driven toward academic excellence. But that drive shouldn't lead to plagiarism. Students and instructors alike need to take steps to make sure students do their own work and not take credit for someone else's.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • When is a source protected, requiring attribution? Is everything covered by copyright or another legal right? What is in the "public domain"?
  • What administrative powers do schools have? What if there's a true dispute over a student's action and whether it was against a policy, rule or law?
  • Someone contacted me because they saw my paper posted online and said I copied their work without attribution. How do I prove I didn't copy them?
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