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Plagiarism Scandal Tests UVa Code

April 19, 2002

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) _ At the University of Virginia, there’s a saying that students commit to memory: ``On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/exam.″

Students write that on every test during their college career, pledging as their predecessors have since 1842 never to lie, cheat or steal. They say the tradition has made the school that Thomas Jefferson founded a richer academic environment.

But even here, where honor is so well defined and policed by an elite student Honor Committee, plagiarism has become a problem. Since last spring, 157 students have been investigated by their peers in the school’s largest cheating scandal in memory.

So far, 93 students have been exonerated. Forty-one of the accused have either dropped out or been expelled, and one guilty student who already graduated had his degree revoked by the general faculty.

``It’s not like we’re saying we hate you. It’s just that we have standards here,″ said 22-year-old Cara Coolbaugh, a senior from Culpeper, Va., who supervised all of the investigations for the Honor Committee this year before stepping down April 1.

The scandal began in a popular introductory physics class designed for non-majors. The course, which explores pragmatic topics such as why the sky is blue and how light bulbs work, usually attracts 300 to 500 students per semester _ too many to watch closely, said instructor Lou Bloomfield.

Bloomfield said he started to worry after a student confided that some of her friends had copied papers from a file at their sorority. So he programmed a computer to spot repeated phrases and fed in computer files of 1,500 term papers from four semesters of classes, and matches started popping up.

The program found that a few of his students had simply copied from earlier work. Others had lifted at least a third of their papers from someone else.

University President John T. Casteen III said what’s surprising is not the number of cheaters, but that such a scandal didn’t surface earlier.

``The technology makes a difference,″ said Casteen, a former English professor and Virginia education secretary. ``Computers make it relatively simple to get to the text you’re trying to copy ... it’s not hard to cut and paste. And then there this relatively simple tool (Bloomfield’s program) for faculty who want to check their students.″

Still, Casteen said he doesn’t think there are more University of Virginia students trying to plagiarize their work now than when he was an undergraduate in the 1960s.

``Every year, we’d have a dozen or so students found guilty of honor code violations,″ Casteen said. ``I think the proportion of the population that’s going to cheat has been the same throughout.″

But recent studies suggest that cheating is not done by just a few.

Rutgers University professor Don McCabe found in a study that 70 percent of 4,500 high school seniors reported ``seriously cheating″ at least once on school work. A similar study by Princeton University found that 74 percent of high school students plagiarized during the prior year.

University faculty fight back with computer programs like the one Bloomfield devised. Some Internet sites charge a fee to highlight sections of papers that were taken from the Internet. The new vigilance has been enough to discourage many from cheating, Bloomfield said.

``The fact that students know the papers are being examined has made a difference,″ he said.

Still, many said some students will always cheat.

``This is a competitive place,″ said Mark Waller, a 19-year-old biochemistry major from Fredericksburg, Va. ``I can see a lot of people with extracurricular stuff going on and they can’t study for everything.″

But a majority of the student body still supports the 160-year-old honor system. Students voted down a proposal earlier this year that would have allowed honor code violators to return to school after a brief suspension.

And only two of the 157 investigated students have disagreed with the system enough to file a lawsuit to challenge the committee’s authority.

``We have faith in our honor system,″ said freshman Mythili Rao, 18, one of the new committee members who will be taking over this year.

``When the news broke some saw it as an indication that the system wasn’t working. For me, all of this is fascinating. It’s all part of the process.″


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