SAN DIEGO—Fred Robinson suspected there was plagiarism afoot.

The English professor at the University of San Diego was recently helping a junior faculty member track down the evidence to prove that a student had used someone else's writing in his paper.

“The diction was very clotted, academic diction,” Robinson recalled. “It just had the allusions … that the student would not know about.” But if the student wouldn't admit to it and the original paper couldn't be found, it would have to be graded as though it were the student's own work, he told the teacher.

“She was angry because the student was stonewalling her,” Robinson said. “She looked all over the library and couldn't find it. We [finally] figured it had come off the Internet.” After conducting an online search on his office computer, they sat stunned. They viewed listings for 75 essays on The Great Gatsby, the subject of the research paper.

“We sat there just looking at the screen,” Robinson said. “It's appalling.”

It's also a sign of the times. Plagiarism has long been a problem on college campuses, but now with Internet, a new tool threatens to increase the unethical practice of students turning in other people's research papers, book reports and essays as their own.

Indeed, a minute's search on the Internet yields dozens of Web sites advertising thousands of academic papers for a price; other essays, generally of low quality, are offered for free. Despite the clear intention to sell papers for busy or pressured students to turn in as their own, many of the sites carry disclaimers indicating the papers are for research only or are offered as examples, thus placing the burden of plagiarism on the student alone. Others, including one with the word “cheat” in the title, make no such pretense.

Professors at various Catholic universities indicate that plagiarism is a small but ongoing problem — in many places there are a few incidents a year — but that the potential for even greater abuse exists through cyberspace.

Easier Than ‘Paper Mills’

“The availability of commercially prepared research papers has surged, and downloading is now far easier than contracting with an old-fashioned ‘paper mill’or visiting a file in a fraternity or sorority,” wrote Patrick Drinan, dean of the University of San Diego's College of Arts and Sciences, in the Winter ‘99 issue of Liberal Education.

Drinan is the past president of the Center for Academic Integrity, headquartered at Duke University. The center's mission is to build a network of institutions of higher education which would deal with the various issues of academic integrity. One of Drinan's proposals to address cheating is being developed now at the University of San Diego, a Catholic institution. It would include a student honor code, such as at the military academies and now at secular campuses like Rice University and Stanford, which would encourage students to hold one another to a standard of honesty.

“It's a whole new generation of students; it really has to be a student-run system [to succeed],” said Drinan. But he added that an honor code would need to have the support of faculty as well. “Faculty have a tendency to be more Lone Rangers or Robinson Crusoes and not pay attention to the communal expectations on plagiarism and cheating,” he said.

Indeed, experienced Catholic professors tend not to dwell on bureaucratic solutions, but rather try to make their best defense a good offense. By crafting an assignment very specifically, a professor can make the lifting of a pre-written paper virtually impossible, according to Robert Jones, chairman of the history department at Fordham University.

“It's no great trick to tailor an assignment in such a way that the kids are going to find it hard to plagiarize,” he said. For example, rather than a broad-brushed assignment of “a biography on George Washington” — which opens the door for a “canned” paper — Jones recently asked students to write a paper on Washington and slavery, and gave them 20 documents from which to do their research. The only way for a student to avoid the work would be for him to pay someone to read the documents and write an original paper, said Jones.

It's also a sign of the times. Plagiarism has long been a problem on college campuses, but now with Internet, a new tool threatens to increase the unethical practice of students turning in other people's research papers, book reports and essays as their own.

At Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura, Calif., no cases of plagiarism have come up because the faculty do not ask for research papers as such, said Dean Glen Coughlin. They also strongly discourage the use of secondary sources, he said.

The undergraduate Catholic liberal arts college uses a Great Books curriculum. It requires students to read the original sources, come to class to “wrestle with the text” and write their own essays, Coughlin said. “And it's not likely that a prefabricated paper would match that.”

Furthermore, he said, “Our students do tend to be very honest. That doesn't mean we don't need to keep aware of [the possibility of cheating], with original sin being everywhere.”

Drinan of the University of San Diego said the trend is that students coming into college have not done a lot of writing. Furthermore, research shows that, “unfortunately, the patterns of cheating in high schools are huge.”

“About 20% of students in higher education cheat somewhat frequently, and probably 20% would never cheat even if you put a gun to their head or a priest at their elbow telling them to do it,” he said. “About 60% are in-between.” Professors agreed that the problem of college plagiarism is primarily an ethical one and not an issue of academic performance.

In the case of the Great Gatsby essay and another paper that a student actually confessed was plagiarized, both students were graduating and had high grade point averages, said San Diego's Robinson.

‘That's My Best Student’

The temptation for academically adept students to cheat is not new. As a graduate student 30 years ago, Robinson had the job of reading term papers for an American literature class. His roommate happened to be doing graduate studies in an area covered by one of the assignments, and he found from his roommate's research an obvious plagiarism in one of the papers he was grading.

“I had the source; it was completely plagiarized,” said Robinson. “When I told the professor, he turned gray and looked at me and said, ‘That's my best student.’”

So why do good students cheat? Professors theorize that it is out of fear, time pressure, arrogance and even the structure of the universities themselves.

“Students don't know how to pick topics, and it scares them,” said Robinson, adding that the fear does not diminish the students' responsibility to be honest. Other students, said Drinan, “are stressed. … They're working part-time and they end up cutting corners.”

Jones of Fordham said students who cheat may rationalize that they need to use their energy in some other area.

“[They think], ‘I'm going to law school. This [course] is not relevant to my life,’” he said. “They want the certificate, the union card, and that's all.”

Mark Lowery, professor of moral theology at the University of Dallas, said that Catholic universities themselves can send a clear message of right and wrong through a return to a core curriculum, formerly a staple of higher education.

“The abandonment of a core curriculum kind of tells the student, ‘We doan't know what's good for you. We don't know what's true. All standards are infinitely malleable,’” he said. “Any student would quickly pick up on that and say, ‘What's wrong with taking a paper off the Internet?’

“Not that we're going to define it neatly for you, but the goal of education is the pursuit of truth and virtue. There's a connection between the intellectual life and how you live.”

Plagiarism is primarily a sin against justice, said Lowery, and it has many effects beyond the student cheating himself out of a good education.

“You're taking the work of somebody else and saying it's your own,” which harms the other person as well, he said. If a paper is bought, “that's like prostitution [where] he's treating her wrong even if she's getting money.”

Additionally, through plagiarism, “the whole university is wronged, it's dishonest to parents who raised him to do what's right, it's an injustice against truth itself and it's an injustice against God,” Lowery said.

At the same time, the Dallas professor said he does not expect perfection, and “wouldn't be shocked” if he ran across a couple of cases of cheating.

Most Catholic campuses address plagiarism in their student handbooks, and they have written policies and procedures for how to handle cases of suspected cheating.

At San Diego, Robinson said he tells his faculty that if plagiarism is admitted or proven, the teacher has two choices: to fail the student's paper or to fail the student in the course outright. But there's one thing they absolutely should not do, he said: “Don't let them write it over. They haven't learned anything except to do it better.”

In the one recent case, the student who was scheduled to graduate will get to walk with the class but will not officially graduate until the end of the summer.

“[Graduation] seems even more a time to be hard [on the rules],” Robinson said. “They are going out into the world.”

Ellen Rossini writes from Dallas.