Me Against My Students

Adam L. Penenberg
Slate, 10.3.05

Like any journalism professor, the last thing I want is for one of my students to end up on Romenesko for all the wrong reasons. I don’t know whether there are more plagiarists and fabricators today than in years past, but I have no doubt more are getting caught.

The reason: technology. And I’m not talking about high-tech, cutting-edge, predator plagiarism drones that circle the sky and are programmed to fire missiles at the ethically challenged (although that might not be such a bad idea). No, I’m simply referring to Google and Lexis-Nexis.

Before this great digital interconnectedness, in which you can find just about any article from any news source by plugging keywords into a search engine, publications functioned as separate fiefdoms. Since content wasn’t instantly searchable, reporters and students could reprint words from a publication on the opposite coast with little chance of getting busted.

In the graduate journalism courses I teach at New York University, I’m always on the lookout for the subtle plagiarist who lifts quotes, facts, and well-turned phrases and descriptions, and the student who stitches together someone else’s ideas without offering credit. More rare, although it does happen, is the student who copies and pastes an entire article he finds online into a Microsoft Word document and slaps his byline at the top.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. In my experience, plagiarism and other ethical lapses are not all that common at NYU, especially for such a large university. (The journalism program alone has about 700 undergraduates and 130 graduates.) But there is a cheating epidemic in colleges around the country, and NYU is not unaffected.

So, at the start of each semester I lecture my classes on journalism ethics, warning them about what happens to plagiarists and fabulists in the real world of journalism (they get fired) and what would happen to a student who tried it (he would probably be expelled and his career would be over before it started). It’s not that I assume all students are liars, cheats, and word frauds. I just want to spare NYU the type of public humiliation the University of Pennsylvania suffered because of Stephen Glass and the University of Maryland endured on account of Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley.

What some students forget is that if they can find an article to steal from, I can probably find it, too. When I edit assignments, I plug random quotes, clauses, and full sentences into search engines to check for similar word patterns. I look closely at poetic turns of phrase or quotes that seem too good to be true and verify the names of all sources and affiliations. If I can’t confirm the existence of a source used in a story — say, she isn’t on Google, Lexis-Nexis, 411.com, or Zabasearch — I tell the student to provide contact information, and I then call or e-mail that person.

There are, of course, certain transgressions that search engines, article archives, and Web-based directories simply can’t prevent. It is very difficult to stamp out idea theft — the kind of plagiarism that occurs when someone keeps another writer’s syntax and ideas but changes the words — or to stop anonymous source abusers, who concoct quotes and people out of whole cloth. It is also hard to unmask students who pay hired guns to write their papers. And I suppose it would be possible for a dishonest student to crib notes from a dusty old library book or academic journal that hasn’t been scanned into any digital archives.

By insisting on proper attribution, I make it difficult for students to pass off someone else’s ideas as their own and handle the anonymous source problem by simply refusing to accept them. As for unauthorized ghost writers, by the end of the semester I get to know my students’ work better than they know it themselves. If I spot a change in style or a much-improved command of the English language from one week to the next, I call the student in for a meeting.

More than anything, I trust my instincts. Whatever his level, each student writer has a style. I’m bound to parse a phrase that sticks out because it doesn’t flow like the rest of the passage (or because it’s the best-written part). And there are some common signs that something is probably amiss: dry descriptions of products or services gleaned from company press releases; highly technical language that’s used to explain how something works; quotes from someone who works for a company that has never before been cited in a news article; and fascinating facts that the writer neglects to attribute and anecdotes that sound too good to be true.

Naturally, all this fact checking is time-consuming and only a small portion of the feedback I offer. I still have to provide extensive line edits, suggestions to improve the lede and solidify the nut graf, and structural tips. As a result, I tend to pull back over the course of the semester, once I’m satisfied the student understands, and subscribes to, high ethical standards. Even then, I spot-check whenever possible.

Professors take it personally when a student tries to put one over them. Which may explain the popularity of Turnitin, an automated plagiarism-detection service the company claims has been licensed by 2,500 institutions, including Georgetown, West Point, and “all colleges and universities in the United Kingdom.” Professors send in their students’ papers, which are then compared to the 4.5 billion pages in the company’s archives. When Central Michigan University tried out Turnitin last year, the program caught two students plagiarizing. (They claimed they were just making sure the software worked properly. Uh huh.)

At NYU, we have considered deploying an automated plagiarism prevention system like Turnitin but wonder if it is too blunt an instrument that could result in false positives. In the meantime, professors like me will continue efforts to combat word fraud with our own ad hoc techniques. They may not be cutting edge, but they do seem to work.

Copyright 2005 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)