The Cut-and-Paste Crowd

The New York Times ran a piece on Sunday, August 1, 2010 that highlighted, as it were, research on the tendency of students today to cut and paste information from the Internet without attribution.  The Times discovered a phenomenon with which those of use in the academic world are all too familiar.  To students today, “cut and paste” is the way to write papers!   Cuts way back on the nastiness of footnotes and sources.  About 40% of students admit to copying others’ work for assignments and only 29% believe that Web cut-and-paste is “serious cheating.” And the Times also discovered that, when discovered, students are not particularly remorseful about their “writing” strategies.  One student in the article, when confronted by a professor about his cut-and-paste paper,  thought the professor was concerned that the color of the ink was purple, fresh from its Internet origins, and offered to change it to black if the good prof would help him with that Word skill.  The Barometer has experienced something similar – a student on her cut-and-paste hot seat,  apologized, not for the lifting, but for still having the pink background in the text of the paper.  She was very willing to remove that formatting problem if I could just provide a tutorial on that skill.

Anthropologists have plenty of explanations, though the justification debates rage on.  One reason students are so comfortable with the cut-and-paste approach is that they are working from the computer, a tool they have used for years to download copyrighted music, mostly without paying. Other students feel that they are just getting through a course.  That is, they are not interested in setting the world on fire; they just want credit for the assignment.  Processing the work of others and then putting it into the context of their own analyses, insights, and observations is darn hard work.  Yet another reason is the cultural acceptance and tolerance.  Think back over the past few years and the writers who have simply said, “Oh, well,” and marched onward and upward in their careers:  Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Charles Ogletree, Laurence Tribe, and teen writer Helen Hegemann, who quite nearly got an award for her book. We adults are not doing a crackerjack job on enforcement.

The New York Times ethicist, Randy Cohen, wrote of a fascinating ethical issue on April 12, 2009.  A professor required his student to submit their papers to, a site that checks for plagiarism.  A mother of one of the students wrote to “The Ethicist” asking whether it was ethical for the professor to require this step without an advance announcement because the students should needed a chance to “clean up their work” before turning their papers in to  Funny how cleaning it up with sources is not a given when it comes to assignments!


Ms. Christine Pelton, a former high school science teacher in Piper, Kansas, had warned the students in her sophomore class not to use papers posted on the Internet for their projects.  When the projects were turned in, Ms. Pelton noticed that some of the students’ writing in portions of the paper was well above their usual quality and ability.  She found that 28 of her 118 students had taken substantial portions of their papers from the Internet.  She gave the students a “0” grade on their term paper projects.  The result was that many of the students were now going to fail the semester in the course.

The students’ parents protested and the school board ordered Ms. Pelton to raise the grades.  She resigned in protest. Can’t expect compliance if there is no enforcement! In fact, 90% of students believe that those who do cheat in school are never caught.

 So, we adults may have to work a little harder than just simply providing ways to remove the pink background or change the ink color to purple.  We may have to require students to undertake that difficult struggle of researching, reading, studying, thinking, and THEN writing a piece that provides their unique insight into a question or topic that they have taken the time to understand.  Therein lies the root cause for the cut-and-paste approach – research, analyses, and understanding are hard work.  And therein lies our concern about cut-and-paste:  The hard work of learning has not been done but both student and professor are passing off as if it has.  We thereby deceive those who buy into the imprimatur of completed courses and degrees.  Employers who hire our little cut-and-paste cherubs assume skill sets that may not actually be there.  Sounds a bit like the investment banks who assumed the folks writing the mortgages that they were then bundling had looked into things such as income verification, appraisals, and credit risk.  Oops – they just did a quick look-see and passed it all along to others who were harmed.  Oh, how little missteps hurt so many.

Helen Hegemann is a proponent of a new view of plagiarism, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” or it all depends on the meaning of the words “originality” and “authenticity.”  Oh, what a world this would be sans original thought.  Thank goodness there are those who continue the good fight to preserve it (and it was Paul who first coined the phrase, “Fight the good fight.” 2 Timothy 4:7)  Amen.  (various sources)

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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