Plagiarism, Cheating, and Craigslist

Craigslist adBefore reading this post, take a moment to read this genuine, recent ad from Craigslist (click picture for full size). It is from a student in New York and the assignment(s) are due today, one of which is an early American history paper.

As I wrote last week, I am currently finishing up my coursework and in the fall will begin my first teaching assistantship. Because teaching has been on my mind anyway, the ad above struck me a bit harder than I imagine it would have done before. I’ve heard stories of cheating and plagiarism from my professors and my peers in my own program now in their teaching years, but the ad above really “takes the cake” for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not so naive as to be unaware of the underground academic sub-industry of paper mills. But privately seeking out a service like that is one thing; putting up an ad on one of the internet’s most trafficked sites is quite another. Perhaps part of what struck me was the sheer brashness of it.

Plagiarism or cheating of this sort used to be the gravest academic sin one could commit. But in recent years that notion seems to be changing. It is changing for students (only 29% of whom think copying from the web is “serious cheating” with 40% admitting to having copied entire sentences for their assignments). It is also changing for cultural apologists who argue that the digital culture (and its issues regarding intellectual property) in which younger generations have grown up often renders students unable to fully comprehend or appreciate the concept of plagiarism. That is, despite the fact that almost every syllabus I ever got as an undergrad included a paragraph about the university’s plagiarism policy, which were also often accompanied by the professor discussing it on the first day.

Indeed one could also place blame on the corporatization of academia, one consequence of which is the commodification of higher education. I wonder how many of our readers that are university professors or instructors have had an undergraduate tell them, “I pay your salary.” Are we to be surprised when students act as if obtaining a degree is merely a financial transaction, when administrations treat it as such? The ad above seems to be an even further extension of such an attitude. Notice how Student X writes, “I am ‘cheating'” with the word “cheating” in scare quotes. Student X realizes that the faculty regard what he/she is doing as cheating, but apparently the fact that they are “comfortable and experienced” with this type of cheating suggests Student X does not share their perspective. It’s not like Student X is stealing the work, after all, he/she is paying good money for it.

I’m afraid I don’t have some grand sociological or psychological insights into plagiarism and cheating to end the piece. Rather, I’m hoping that our readers can share their experiences and thoughts on the subject. For the faculty members among our readership, how do you react to this kind of thing? Do you think this generation of students is incapable of grasping the concept of plagiarism? If so, is it because of the digital culture in which they’ve grown? Do you find your students approaching their education as a commodity rather than an intellectual endeavor?

The Junto thanks Angharad Rebholz, an undergraduate at Yale, for finding and sharing the Craigslist ad.

22 responses

  1. Here in the CUNY system we have a large number of recent immigrants – another concern you might voice here is how cultural differences (not just generational ones) influence scholarship. Many of our students are taught that copying is a sign of appreciation, and that the “best” answer is one that compiles the work of the “best” thinkers in the most well-organized way. Obviously this is not what is going on in the Craigslist post above, but it’s an additional factor in our classrooms nonetheless, and one that I have had a remarkably tough time overcoming despite clear instructions otherwise.

    • I’ve run into that myself at CCNY, including one student who pleaded in extenuation that English is not her first language, and that when she finds some writing that says what she wants to say better than she can say it, she follows it exactly. (I sighed and told her that that was a recipe for suicide.)

      I’ve done my best in all my classes to pound home that plagiarism is the ultimate academic crime, and that it dishonors the work being plagiarized, the students who do honest work, the professor expecting honest work to be turned in, and the student doing the plagiarism.

  2. As a faculty member, this really chaps my hide. I find plagiarizing not only dishonest, but also degrading to student and professor. I also find this ad especially galling for allegedly being posted by a graduate-level student. I can see the ruthless logic of cheating to get a B.A. and therefore a certain kind of job. But cheating to get an M.A. in History? Why would anyone ever do that? Unlike in Europe, getting a graduate degree in the humanities or social sciences in the U.S. is extremely unlikely to boost your career in politics or business. (Some high-profile politicians were caught plagiarizing their dissertations in the past couple of years in Germany and Hungary.) The only profession in which an M.A. in History might help you get a higher salary is, ironically, in high school teaching, right? One would think a high school teacher would not be fond of cheating.

  3. While I agree with the sentiments expressed in this post, I question the legitimacy of the post. Looking closely at the requirements, they don’t appear in line with the expectations of a masters level history class. First, each paper asks for APA citation when Chicago/Turabian is the standard. Second, why would a 15 page biographical research paper only require 5 scholarly sources? Could this be a hoax of some kind? Regardless of the truthfulness of the post, that papers-for-hire is a concerning development that requires thought about how to frame assignments going forward.

      • That was my reaction too. What kind of professor in a history program asks for APA? And a masters level course that goes from pre-contact to the Civil War? Seems fishy to me. Plus how does a masters student have $600? A reasonable price for the essays, but it would make a lot more economic sense to just write the papers.

        • After having given this a lot of thought, I think the ad is probably legitimate but that the student is likely an undergrad lying about being an MA student (for whatever reason – perhaps they did that to get MA-level work for their papers).

          • I think that it is legitimate, because I have found an increasing number of my students usuing APA in preference to Turabian. Here’s Purdue University’s comment on APA: “APA (American Psychological Association) style is most commonly used to cite sources within the social sciences.”

            I too suspect, however, that this is more likely an undergraduate than a graduate student.

  4. One can teach a section of up to sixty students of the survey course as an adjunct for $2,000, or one can bang out a few papers in a week for $600. Too bad this ad is quite probably a hoax. 😉

  5. Even though this ad seems like a hoax, I think the problem is a real one. I often have the students write part of their essays in class- like a starter paragraph. They also do peer-reviews in class, and have to turn in their drafts with their (hand-written) notes on them. And they often have to talk to me about their papers in the process (or do a presentation on them). These kinds of activities really make it much harder to buy papers wholesale- and seriously, any student who’s still buying papers after all that, probably has bigger problems than worrying about cheating.

    • I like this approach as well. I had two undergraduate history professors who broke their final papers up into smaller tasks each with their own due date and 1/2 of a class session devoted to them. I imagine that when I’m teaching my own course, I’ll do the same thing. This not only cuts down on the ability to cheat, it also cuts down on procrastination and last-minute writing of final papers.

  6. Whether or not the ad is legitimate, I have some thoughts on plagiarism. I have served as a teaching assistant for a few courses now at my fairly large state institution (I’m ABD). I have had overwhelmingly good experiences with these students. That said, I have seen students commit “academic dishonesty” (and I have dealt with these cases accordingly). Even though professors here tend to assign writing projects that are unique enough that students cannot get suitable papers easily from the internets, I have noticed that some still lift sentences from web sites to help pad out the assignment. So, even if you think you have designed a plagiarism-proof assignment, keep in mind that that does not prevent students from cheating on portions of the assignment.
    And that brings me to my next point, which is *why* students do this in the first place — I’m sure there are many reasons, and I am sure they vary depending on the student. At least in my experience, it seems to me–and I don’t think I’m stating anything too mind-blowing—that many of these students come to college unprepared to write papers with a thesis, transitions, topic sentences, etc. That leaves us in a spot – we need to fit “how to write a paper” into our survey courses. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it raises the question as to where and when the basic paper-writing skills should have been acquired in the first place. (When I as handing back papers one day, a student told me that he hadn’t written a paper since he was a junior in high school). Finally, I suspect that laziness plays a role here too…and the fact that surveys here contain a lot of non-majors. Despite all this, my TA experience has prepared me for what to expect when I do teach my own course within the next few years. I’m looking forward to using things like plagiarism as inspiration to be a better teacher (or at least one hip to the other stuff that is competing with history for students’ attention). I suspect we need to get more creative to keep the subject matter (not to mention the assignments) fresh and interesting, and we need to anticipate having to “teach” writing. I could go on, but I’ll stop here! I look forward to reading more comments.

    • And I’d like to clarify one point – I have seen very little plagiarism. It seems that the issue is more about whether students have learned to write a basic essay in the first place.

    • It is all too facile to blame plagiarism on undergrads being unprepared, etc. Plagiarism exists within the many castes of academia. It’s easy to point fingers and assign blame upon the lowest. How do we explain the Stephen Ambroses, the Doris Kearns Goodwins, the lesser known scholars such as Ann Little, or Don Heinrich Tolzmann. What about Martin Luther King? Joe Biden and his appropriation of Neil Kinnock’s words.

      People lie and cheat because it is beneficial for them.

      • Great point, Brian. I am certain there are many reasons why students cheat, and I always take the time to discuss what plagiarism/academic dishonesty constitutes, why its wrong, how to avoid it, what the consequences are, etc. I show no mercy when cheating comes across my desk. Certainly being unprepared and plagiarizing are linked in some cases, but I don’t mean to suggest that this is *only* about students being unprepared. To make plagiarism a more concrete offense, maybe we should discuss plagiarism by public figures and established historians with undergrads and not just with grad students (in my case, at least, I didn’t learn about these high profile plagiarism offenses until I was sitting in a grad-level historiography seminar…and of course I never thought about plagiarizing in my own case, but it was eye-opening to read about how widespread the practice is).

      • Ann Little? I am familiar with the other cases, but this one was new to me. Do you have a citation?

        Cheating on masters and doctorates may be more widespread than we think, cf. this classic from CHE. My guess is that high achievers who plagiarize have always cut corners. It just takes longer for some to get caught.

  7. In my experience, the motivation for plagiarism is very simple: these are students who are desperate to succeed (or just “get by”), but who have little to no idea what is going on. I don’t see any evidence of an epistemological shift in the ethics of intellectual property. I will entertain the notion that the internet has made it easier to plagiarise, but it has also made plagiarism much easier to catch.

    The students I have had who have plagiarized have not been sly. If anything, I am often bowled over by their inability to grasp the most fundamental principles of the assignment. My favorite was the student who copied and pasted text from the Colonial Williamsburg website. This was easy to catch, because the piece ended with visiting hours and a phone number. I have remained vigilant, anticipating the clever student who will turn in an A-level paper that is not his or her own work, but I have yet to see any such paper. Plagiarism is not generally the tactic of a mastermind; it is the last resort of the overwhelmed, and that is usually all too obvious.

    The haplessness of most plagiarizing students is why I don’t buy the thesis of a generational shift. The students who commit plagiarism usually lack the awareness and sophistication to be “harbingers” of any cultural shift. These are not canaries in a coal mine; they are jays flying into a window.

  8. As one of the (probably) few undergrads that frequents this site, I may be able to provide a somewhat unique perspective on this issue. I agree with Michael that this is probably an undergrad posing as an M.A. student, but regardless of the ad’s legitimacy, plagiarism is a serious problem. Even at my university where we have a strict “honor code” I still observe it occurring regularly. That means that even with the risk of being expelled from college, students still take the risk.

    What is the cause? I can’t say for sure, but I know that I’ve never seen anyone plagiarize a paper they were passionate about. That said, oftentimes there’s little a professor can do to engage a non-major who’s unfortunately forced to take a survey class. Perhaps plagiarism is more a symptom of the curricular norms imposed by most liberal arts programs than an intrinsic “laziness.”

    Then again, (as mentioned above) at the undergrad level, you also have to confront the motivational problems (i.e. what brings a student to the university). For those that are there for the prestige of a degree rather than the knowledge they can potentially gain by working hard in their classes, plagiarism will seem like a good option.

  9. Two things. (1) To some extent, we contribute to the problem by assigning “research” papers that are easily copied or purchased. Explicating a hard-to-get original source, on the other hand, tells me more about what a student has learned and what he or she can do. (2) Many of our students, even at the MA level, don’t know how to handle a “research” paper because they have never read one, or anything like one. Actually, reading thoughtfully — sifting arguments and evidence — is so far outside their realm of experience that they are completely lost and frequently resort to using someone else’s work. Can you blame them? No, but we have to punish them anyway, which is pretty messed up, imho.

  10. My reaction is to wonder why so many students seem to have lost the intellectual curiosity that inspires original work?

    I never even thought about cheating on a research paper because I was so exited to discover my topics.

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