I found a link on Slashdot.org this morning here to a blog post by Richard N. Landers titled Online Plagiarism and Cybercheating Still Strong – 61.9%. Landers does an admirable job discussing some of the recent findings by Neil Selwyn in his article “‘Not necessarily a bad thing . . .': a study of online plagiarism amongst undergraduate students.” Landers notes the evidence in the article of undergraduate cheating facilitated by the Internet while raising some questions about the definitions used in the study. Nevertheless, Selwyn’s study appears to have produced useful information regarding the way students use the Internet to cheat as well as pointing to student attitudes about cheating.
Landers summarizes some of the results by the type of offense and then cheating by students in the major disciplines:
So how bad was it in Selwyn’s sample? 61.9% (757 students) admitted to engaging in online plagiarism. 59% copied a few sentences, 30% copied a few paragraphs, 12% copies a few pages, 4% copied entire documents, and 3% purchased essays. 22.3% admitted to engaging in such behaviors regularly.
Cybercheating rates were higher for males and for poor students. Contrary to prior research, rates were higher for more experienced students. Perhaps most interesting to me was the rate breakdown by field of study. Here they are in rank order of prevalence of at least a few sentences copied:
- Engineering and technology (72%)
- Computer sciences and mathematical sciences (71%)
- Social studies (64%)
- Business and administrative studies (63%)
- Law (62%)
- Creative arts and design (61%)
- Architecture, Building and Planning (60%)
- Medicine (58%)
- Natural sciences (57%)
- Humanities (46%)
The amount of undocumented and uncredited copying is alarming to me as a teacher in the humanities. According to some of the anecdotal remarks by students in the survey, there appears to be little concern that those students who cheat are doing anything substantially wrong and that there is little chance of their getting caught.
I am not only concerned about the results of Selwyn’s study. I am also concerned about the discussion about his study on Slashdot.org. If you read the comments on slashdot.org linked above, many commenters do not see a problem with copying the work of others–particularly in classes that are not in their major. I would assume that most readers of slashdot.org would fall into the first two groups of the study with the greatest prevalence of cheating: engineering and technology and computer sciences and mathematical sciences. Furthermore, their comments seem to be anti-interdisciplinarity: i.e., there does not appear for many commenters any benefit from their work in non-major courses. They do not realize that all of these classes do in some way contribute to their overall development as a professional. All of our experiences do things to our brain, but only if we engage those experiences directly. If some subjects are largely ignored thanks to cheating in one form or another, then the student isn’t getting the developmental benefits derived from that course. Perhaps the meta-work done by non-major courses isn’t always directly addressed by all teachers, but those things take place regardless. Simply knowing how to code or design an IC does not make someone an ideal candidate as a programmer or electrical engineer. This is even more true for those students at Research I institutions that primarily produce candidates aiming for management and upper-level management positions. There are a variety of skills that are needed by these students, and their major coursework is only one aspect of the total package that their future employers will be looking for. In addition to raw skill development, the translateability of skills and experiential development on the brain may lead to unquantifiable changes in the individual’s brain that gives her or him an edge in their field of work and life in general.
I believe that Selwyn’s article and the discussion on Lander’s website and Slashdot.org are pointing to larger issues than just cheating facilitated by the Internet. Perhaps there are systemic issues in the University that need to be addressed, and perhaps the interdisciplinarity of the humanities needs to be more fully developed and discussed so that students are more aware of why they need those extra classes and why it is important for those who cheat to participate in them rather than offload their responsibility through theft.