Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wikipedia and perceived plagiarism: serious controversy at U-Va summer program

Two students were expelled from the University of Virginia’s summer “Semester at Sea”, forfeiting their tuition and left to return home at their own expense, for alleged plagiarism in term papers. The offense seems to be that they overused Wikipedia summaries without citing the Wkipedia articles. The university had discouraged the use of the online encyclopedia, but permitted it in some circumstances. It wasn’t immediately clear if they were expelled from UVa altogether.

Couple this fact pattern with the fact that the University of Virginia’s Honor Code is one of the nation’s most absolute. I had considered attending UVA when I was a senior in high school but I didn’t look forward to the idea of mandatory coat and tie then. I won a chemistry scholarship and William and Mary and therefore went to William and Mary in the fall of 1961, leading to the events I discuss elsewhere on these blogs.

I’ll quote a passage from my own first book, “Do Ask Do Tell”, in Chapter 1, as to the William and Mary honor code in 1961: “Officials at William and Mary handed out a booklet explaining the Honor Code, which defined Honor in terms of the following four specific violations: “lying, stealing, cheating, and failure to report and infraction of which one has first hand knowledge.” “Failure-to-report” an incident of mendacity directly contradicted playground or “recess” honor, that one not tattletale or snitch! The booklet offered this rather awkward explanation of the honor concept: “there must exist two forms of social control: one is inner morality of the student resulting from religion, education, and public opinion, and the other is an outer law. For the vast majority of students, the Honor Code takes the first form, that of a set of personal ideals or code of conduct.” I don’t know if anything has changed today. UVa’s would have been similarly stated.

In the reported case this summer, the students were asked to watch a film (which apparently was fiction or drama based on WWII) and the correlate the film to what they had covered in a course in European history during World War II. The problem is, Wikipedia (as would any encyclopedia or reference, including the standard references in print in libraries) provides a convenient list of facts. It’s hard to tell what the student got from the movie, from the class materials, and from Wikipedia or any encyclopedia. What would have been critical and expected, would be for the student to be able to state some original conclusions in a paper, showing a connection between items in a film and in a class but not simultaneously present in both.

Wikipedia offers many detailed film (and novel) plot summaries, and often these summaries are more detailed than corresponding items on imdb. When someone writes a paper about film, it can be hard to tell what came from the summary, unless the writer adds a lot of original observations and conclusions. Perhaps a bit of “gonzo” writing is called for here.

I remember sometimes quoting encyclopedias in high school and college term papers in the 50s and 60s, and this practice was not objected to if not excessively used. Another issue that was just starting to appear then was the use of “Cliff Notes” and other similar summaries, especially in literature classes to circumvent reading assignments. This has become a big deal online today.

The Washington Post story (by Susan Kinzie) appears today Aug. 10 in the Metro section, p. B1, “An education in the pitfalls of online research: Expelled student ran afoul of U-Va. Honor System by inadequately citing sources in their papers,” link here.

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