Pervasive student plagiarism used to be the dirty little secret in higher education, but plagiarism by professors is the dirtier secret now being told. They condemn student plagiarism but are now being found guilty of the same crime.
Campus politics and hierarchies, economics, and fear of litigation all conspire against confronting the problem. Some professors industriously steal others' phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and research to trade for credibility, reputation, tenure, and textbook royalties.
Technology has made pilfering prose easy, but it can also hinder those actions. Still, its use has been mainly for student work. Kennedy-Western University, an online university offering bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees through distance learning since 1984, is working to change that. We have worked proactively, using technology, to ensure originality of faculty work.
Plagiarism is reportedly more prevalent than ever before in academia, thanks to word-processing software and online searches. Professors brazenly present as their own the work of colleagues, authors, and even their own students--all to advance their careers in a "publish-or-perish" culture. In a 2004 survey by two University of Alabama economists, 40 percent of 1,200 professors polled believed their work had been pilfered at least once.
Stealing another's statements is a serious charge than can damage the core of a professor's credibility. But with professors who think nothing of plagiarizing, what is the academic community to do?
Look to student anti-plagiarism efforts, such as text analysis solutions from companies such as Glatt Plagiarism Services, iParadigms, MyDropBox, and CFL Software Development. In December 2001, to prevent student plagiarism, KWU was an early adopter of iParadigms' web-based anti-plagiarism service, Turnitin, which scans documents for signs of plagiarism and missing/improper citations. Every phrase is rated for likelihood of originality. When plagiarism is found, the original document is cited for verification.
The service itself works well, but its mere presence is a strong deterrent. Currently, an average of only 2 percent of KWU student work is flagged as suspicious. Not surprisingly, when the system was new, that average was higher. Since 2001, only eight KWU students have been expelled, each after two confirmed plagiarism incidents and an academic review.
The system works for faculty plagiarism, too. While there were no suspicions of incidents, Turnitin has been used to review all faculty-written work (including course descriptions, outlines, lectures, and other course materials) at KWU since late 2004.
From the start, the intent has been to merely ensure proper citations. The faculty knows their work is routinely passed through the plagiarism service. To date, there have been no findings of plagiarism, and the system has been received well.
Typically, plagiarism is only found by happenstance; in a few cases, it's suspected. This undoubtedly means many cases are missed. When the few are found, it could be months or years after the suspect work is completed.
In contrast, anti-plagiarism technology offers: consistency without reliance on human memory; objective, apolitical scans requiring no human involvement; quick results; and the ability to routinely scan all work.
Systemic use of this technology, without a few whistle-blowers charged with exposing plagiarism, prevents lawsuits and career vendettas. When a perpetrator is challenged, the accuser's career path often suffers, even if a court ruling agrees with the accusation.
Anti-plagiarism technology validates academic rigor and high standards of originality of faculty work. It also allays faculty concerns and shows a respect for intellectual property.
It's a bit surprising that so many institutions have yet to adopt this technology to identify either student or faculty plagiarism.
Traditional and online postsecondary educational institutions are at a crossroads, and we bear collective responsibility to head toward restoring and maintaining instructional credibility. The proper use of established, reliable technology can fulfill this responsibility.
Susan Ishii is director of Student Services at Kennedy-Western University.