McEntee: Writing wrong: Utah teachers confront the plague of plagiarism
Utah school administrators, teachers and professors all have strict rules and instructions to steer students away from the pitfalls of and punishments for plagiarism.
Still, educators say it's an epidemic.
The issue arose in the plagiarism scandal at Southern Utah University, where some international students in its English as a Second Language program used not their own words but unattributed passages or whole texts from other sources.
It's a practice that, regrettably, is all too common in our public schools.
Plagiarism has been around forever, but it's become ever more prevalent with the explosion of sources, citations, blogs, original texts, you name it, just a click or two away on the Internet. And it's so darn easy in this cut-and-paste digital age.
In my line of work, plagiarism is anathema. During the past 10 years, two Tribune reporters have lost their jobs because of it. The list of plagiarists and fabricators is painfully long. Just this year, writer Jonah Lehrer lost his job at The New Yorker magazine for making up quotes.
And try as they might, teachers and administrators cannot avoid plagiarism in Utah's public schools.
Nancy Peterson teaches language arts in 10th, 11th and 12th grade ("It's English," she says with a laugh) at Salt Lake City's East High. Students are taught about plagiarism, what it is and its consequences and sign statements to that effect.
But even before that, kids as young as third-graders are taught about the issue and how to avoid it.
"It's a rare thing," Peterson says, "that students don't understand it when they get to high school."
So why do it? Laziness or waiting until the last minute to do an assignment. And, she says, some students worry the teacher "will think they're stupid" if they don't do well.
In the fall, Peterson may see one or two plagiarized pieces per class. As the year progresses, though, her students learn that she's a stickler.
"By spring," she says, "I don't see it at all."
This fall, Peterson says she "just had a student turn in something he'd copied from the Internet and signed his name to it."
There's a penalty for that. Peterson gives an automatic zero on a plagiarized paper or one without citations, with no opportunity to redo it. The second time, she'll refer the student to the school administration.
She takes pains, however, to verify a piece was plagiarized. "I need concrete evidence to accuse someone."
For its part, the Utah State Office of Education addresses plagiarism in the standards of every course that includes writing, such as English, journalism, business communications and social studies.
Statewide, library media teachers present "The Big Six Information Problem-Solving Skills," which includes units on copyright and citing texts appropriately, writes Tiffany Hall, a K-12 literacy coordinator with the state office.
In addition, state core standards say students must understand and be able to "gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism."
I've heard about a student who submitted a New York Times obituary as his or her own work. About how parents will come in to defend their darlings, and how some administrators will give in to appease the parents.
Maybe the kids don't trust their own intelligence or point of view, and claim someone else's work as their own. But these days, there are multiple online sources, such as plagiarism.org and turnitin.com, that fully explain the problem and can detect plagiarism.
The sin isn't confined to public schools or universities. It's found in medical, science, computer-science and business writing, done by adults who know better.
Plagiarism is theft, plain and simple. If you are suspected of it, it's easy to bust you. Better to do your best with your own thoughts and words. You just might find you're better at it than you ever knew.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.