Kathy Witcher knew her student’s paper on “Huckleberry Finn” sounded too mature for an 11th-grader.
“The light was society,” the student wrote. “And Huck lived on the lampshade.”
The Plano, Texas, English teacher put her suspicions to the test and searched for the phrase on the Internet. The idea behind the metaphor popped up.
“When they write for us, it’s like a fingerprint,” said Witcher, who gave the Plano East Senior High School student a zero. “They don’t change from mediocre writers to great writers overnight.”
Score one for the teachers in an intensifying war on plagiarism.
Cheating is as old as homework, but educators say plagiarism appears to be more rampant than ever in high schools and at colleges and universities. They blame the Internet. Students among the first generation to grow up online are writing term papers with unlimited resources at their fingertips, rather than combing the shelves at the library.
But these young people, educators say, often don’t understand that surfing Web sites and lifting passages for their own assignments is stealing ideas, thoughts and words from others.
Educators are employing various tactics to fight the problem. Some schools sign on to the Internet themselves to catch cheaters. Others are writing honor codes packed with clear rules about plagiarism and a menu of penalties.
National student surveys run by the Center for Academic Integrity reveal the trend. In 1999, 10 percent of college students admitted anonymously to plagiarizing sources from the Internet, according to the center, which surveyed 50,000 undergraduates at 60 institutions. Last year, 40 percent admitted doing so.
In a nationwide survey of 18,000 high school students from 61 campuses, 60 percent admitted to some form of plagiarism, according to the center.
“Every year the kids are a little lazier than the kids before,” said Diane Hamilton, an English teacher at Martin High School in Arlington, Texas. “Is it all the Internet? No, but that’s part of it. Within 15 minutes, they get all they need, and their work ethic just isn’t that good anymore.”
Kimberly Harris, a college music professor, said she sees plagiarized work every year.
Some who plagiarize buy papers online, though more students copy and paste information into reports and pass it off as their own.
High schools and colleges have long had rules against cheating, but now some have written honor codes and convened committees of students and administrators who spread the word about consequences. Some institutions subscribe to Web sites designed to detect copied work, while others employ Internet search engines for the same purpose.