Lessons sought for plagiarists as cases rise

Tim Terpstra doesn’t want students to think of him as the “grim reaper” for academic dishonesty.

Instead, the director of the Office of Academic Integrity is searching for new ways to spin the rising number of plagiarism cases in recent years into learning opportunities.

The office has seen 38 cases of plagiarism so far this academic year, on pace with the 62 total incidents last year. About 15 percent of cases arise in the required first-year University Writing courses or Writing in the Discipline courses.

Without a formal means to educate convicted students, his office has left the task of remedying plagiarism with individual professors.

Talks are now underway between Terpstra and the University Writing Center, which offers free tutoring on writing, to expand his office’s role – moving from just policing and adjudicating cases of academic dishonesty to assume more duties educating students about proper citation and academic honesty.

But the office has received pushback from officials at the Writing Center, Terpstra said, after he proposed sending students convicted of plagiarism there to work with peer tutors and participate in seminars on academic dishonesty.

“They don’t want to be the jail for these people,” Terpstra said. “We think sending them to the Writing Center for tutoring on proper citation and how to paraphrase properly [is] a positive aspect, a learning aspect of their sanction. It shouldn’t be viewed as a penalty.”

Christy Zink, the University Writing Center’s director, said the center was “in the investigative stages” about ways in which it could work with the Office of Academic Integrity after meeting with Terpstra two weeks ago.

“That meeting served for us to start thinking about places his office’s work and our center’s mission might cross over,” Zink said. “It also raised many questions. How would such workshops serve students? Under whose auspices would they be run? How might they help make students better writers?”

Zink and Terpstra have yet to forge a compromise, but are considering the potential partnership’s details, Zink said.

Cases of academic dishonesty, which includes plagiarism and cheating, have risen steadily in the last several years. Terpstra said in October that his office’s case load has increased by 10 percent since 2005.

The Academic Integrity Council, made up of professors and students, regularly hears cases of academic dishonesty. A student convicted of plagiarizing a paper typically fails the paper or the class.

Terpstra added that cases of academic dishonesty have increased about 5 percent in the past 18 months, a sign that professors are bringing more cases to the council and that more education about cheating and plagiarism is needed.

Students are sometimes caught plagiarizing by professors who use programs like SafeAssign, software offered through Blackboard that can detect unoriginal content in student papers, but most professors do not activate the program, Terpstra said. Professors also enter phrases that seem plagiarized into search engines.

In writing-heavy classes like University Writing and Writing in the Discipline courses, he said small class sizes allow professors to look closely at potential plagiarism cases, both better preventing them and catching them sooner.

Sandra Friedman, deputy director for the First-Year Writing Program, said professors have always discouraged plagiarism by requiring step-by-step drafts of papers. She said curbing plagiarism starts with students reaching out to professors.

“It saddens me to see students who plagiarize or cheat in other ways because they are in over their heads,” she said. “Professors are willing to help, but students are often afraid to ask.”

Terpstra said while the first-year writing courses work well with students, his office can do more like to teach good habits early like talking to them at Colonial Inauguration.

“I did that for a few years and they stopped inviting me,” Terpstra said. “I ask them why, and they say it’s sort of a downer to bring me out when we’re trying to get all the freshmen excited about coming to GW.”

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