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Anastasia Rubis Headshot

'Tis the Season, for Student Plagiarizing

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Plagiarism during final exam period is rampant and sometimes funny: at a university which shall remain nameless, a student turned in her essay electronically to her professor with the receipt still attached -- she had purchased it from a cheating site.

Google "essay" and you will find a slew of websites where you can buy -- or get for free -- everything from term papers to dissertations. There is no shame involved. Visit SameDayEssay.com and find promo copy that even makes cheating not your fault:

"The problem is in the unbalanced curricula that harass the students worldwide. It seems that no one really cares about how much work you have to do in a week... Well, today we have the answer. Custom papers, written from scratch by professionals."

It can be funny -- plagiarism -- until it happens to you. When I taught freshman comp at a university recently, I was impressed with a particular student. She was quiet in class, but her papers made good points, and I put lots of checkmarks and "nice" comments in the margins. So I was sickened, when I ran her papers through Safe Assign, a plagiarism-detection software, to discover that she had been wildly cheating. Forty-five to 50 percent of one particular essay was plagiarized, according to the report, which directed me to the original Internet sources -- BestEssays.com, 123helpme.com et al. -- where she had lifted whole sentences and even paragraphs.

This is the artful way that plagiarism is done today, so that teachers don't catch on: students cut and paste from a multitude of sources, hoping that if they mix it up, it's tougher to get caught.

I emailed the student about the evidence of academic dishonesty in her essays and the consequences dictated by the English department: an F for the course and reporting to the dean, where her name would be entered on an academic dishonesty list.

A day went by and I heard nothing, which is eons in Blackberry time. When the student did respond, she sent a torrent of emails that mirrored the five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining -- though we never got to acceptance. Peppered with spelling and grammar errors, her emails even made it my fault (you're a teacher, you're supposed to help me, thanks a lot).

I was mystified. Why do students do it? Part of my job in teaching academic argument was to spend class time on what plagiarism is and how to avoid it: "cite your sources" was a mantra. What's more, I point-blank warned students that I would run essays through plagiarism detection software. "Don't do it," I said. "You will get caught."

Still, students plagiarized: on average one to two students per class of 19, in my experience. What does this mean?

It means that many students have been getting by for a long time by Googling, and cutting & pasting. It's a habit. Let me go further: it's an addiction. According to Merriam-Webster.com, an addiction is a "persistent, compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful." Students are addicted to a substance, Internet content, and compulsively appropriate it into their essays, even though they know it's a bad idea and they will get caught.

If Internet plagiarism is an addiction, then reporting a plagiarizer to the dean and flunking her is ineffective, because it doesn't address the dependency.

We need a rehab of sorts for plagiarizers, but is this another responsibility to load onto educators? Absolutely not. Still, my guess is that the plagiarism addiction will only increase in our wired culture, as will the addiction to the Internet per se. In fact, there are already diagnoses of "Internet addiction" out there, and mental health professionals have begun treating it.

According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, "Internet addiction is described as an impulse control disorder, which does not involve use of an intoxicating drug and is very similar to pathological gambling." And according to an editorial by Dr. Jerald J. Block, M.D., in the American Journal of Psychiatry (March 2008): "Internet addiction appears to be a common disorder that merits inclusion in DSM-V."

What's next? Students blame their Internet plagiarism addiction, and in lieu of consequences, they trot off to health services? If Anthony Weiner can claim a reckless-online-behavior addiction and take a leave of absence to seek treatment, why not?

Or there's another scenario, far simpler. If students want to circumvent their addiction, and avoid academic trouble, they can do what I've done in previous paragraphs. Use those funny little things called quotation marks and give credit where credit is due.