Once again, college faculty are writhing over the paucity of decent research by their students, who increasingly are turning to the electronic version of the frat file to download term papers from the Internet or to access professional term-paper writers who for a fee will write on whatever the doctor -- a doctor of philosophy, that is -- ordered.
The situation has gotten so bad that some faculty members are reconsidering their careers. After spending hours tracking down violations in his journalism class, Tom Yulsman, an associate professor at the University of Colorado, said it consumed him mentally for days and that he agonized the decisions he had to make after finding that some of his students had cheated. Yet there are alternatives.
Easy way out: That so many college and university students are choosing the easy way out of their assignments is certainly dismaying. Critical thinking is not developed by cutting and pasting from Websites. Nor does building an academic record on dishonesty bode well for an honest future
But the students are not the only ones at fault. Too many professors leave themselves wide open for this kind of cheating when they, too, take the easy was out, assigning the same papers on the same subjects year in and year out. And when those same topics are also assigned by similarly lazy faculty at other colleges and universities, it doesn't take long before an informal national archive of, say, Herman Melville's greatest hits or what every collegian needs to know about Will Shakespeare, accumulates in hyperspace.
We say lazy faculty because there are certainly ways around the Internet term paper file, just as there were ways around the sorority and fraternity files of old -- and not so old.
However, they do take work -- not the work of catching plagiarism after it has happened, but by first creating assignments that students will have difficulty finding online and then using strategies that inhibit the propensity to cheat.
Most students won't want to work backward from a finished online paper if they are required to present their work in progress. A student asked to discuss his or her early drafts of an assignment with the professor and then incorporate the professor's recommendations into subsequent drafts will be challenged to do so with a "canned" paper.
Comparison: Then too, professors who see the evolution of a student's work are far less likely to be fooled by a finished product that bears little resemblance to earlier work or writing style.
Faculty can also ask to see a student's research notes or demand that bibliographies include the name of the library where each book or journal was found -- surely a deterrent for students whose plagiarized paper includes otherwise inaccessible resources.
Nearly all colleges and universities have explicit policies against passing off the work of another as a student's own. And on most campuses, the penalties are severe.. Still some students -- and even the occasional professor or dean -- will claim they didn't understand what plagiarism is or that what they did wasn't cheating.
From where we sit, any adult smart enough to get into college should have no trouble understanding the rules and should be dealt with accordingly.