Expelled students debate charges of plagiarism
Individual definitions of plagiarism may vary, but on board University-sponsored program, Honor Committee’s definition stands
Ohio University student Allison Routman and California Baptist University student Mark Gruntz were expelled during the Summer 2008 Semester at Sea voyage for committing an academic honor offense — plagiarizing from Wikipedia. Both Routman and Gruntz, however, have since denied that they wrote the allegedly plagiarized portions of their papers with dishonest or deliberate intent, and both said they had “no idea” that what they did could be considered an honor violation. Honor and University officials, though, have maintained their definitions of plagiarism and said differing opinions on the matter have no bearing on the two students’ cases.
Routman said her understanding of plagiarism may have been different than what was expected of her, noting that she had been told throughout her academic career that rephrasing information in one’s own words was acceptable.
“When they asked me ... about how it looks very similar in structure [to the related Wikipedia article, which appears with excerpts of Routman’s paper, pictured left], I kind of told them, ‘How different can it be, if it’s a summary of a movie,’” Routman said. “But then they said, ‘You chose to talk about some of the same themes.’ And I said, ‘Well yeah, those are the important themes to what we are learning about.’ I can understand how people say it follows Wikipedia to a certain extent, but it never occurred to me that it was wrong. I didn’t take it word for word, and I wasn’t intentionally using the summary without watching the movie.”
Portions of Routman’s paper, which was about the film “Europa Europa,” and the Wikipedia article about the film share similarities. Three sentence fragments appear nearly word-for-word in both documents.
Routman’s paper contains the fragments “when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa,” “German-speaking minority outside Germany” and “who had just been released from a concentration camp,” while the Wikipedia article, as edited at the time of the incident, stated “when the Germans attack the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa,” “German-speaking minority outside Germany” and “who has just been released from a concentration camp.”
Routman defended the use of such sentence fragments, saying “how different can two summaries of a movie be?” Her father, Brent Routman, meanwhile, noted that because such word-for-word fragments were so small as to be potentially seen as trivial, a guilty verdict in an honor case and subsequent expulsion from the ship, as experienced by his daughter, might not have been an appropriate penalty.
“If you look at the three sentence fragments — there are only so many ways to say the same thing,” Mr. Routman said. “‘When Germany invaded...’ What are you going to say? ‘When some aggressive northern European country, without permission, crossed the border?’ I’m not sure what the answer is.”
Gruntz, meanwhile, said he cited the Wikipedia article for “Burnt by the Sun,” the other movie Global Studies students could choose to write about, twice in his paper, which was not made available to The Cavalier Daily.
“It wasn’t a great paper, but that doesn’t mean I plagiarized,” Gruntz said.
The allegedly plagiarized portion of his paper was lacking proper attribution, though, he said. Gruntz said Lynch accused him of intentionally leaving out the third Wikipedia citation.
In an e-mail, Lynch declined to comment on specific cases, citing honor trial confidentiality, but stated generally, “plagiarism is, simply, the use of the work of others, either by appropriating their language directly or paraphrasing it without attribution, so that it appears to be your own original work.”
Other University staff members who dealt closely with Routman’s and Gruntz’s cases similarly declined to speak with The Cavalier Daily about the two former students’ honor proceedings.
“I cited Wikipedia twice,” Gruntz said. “But [Lynch] said, ‘I believe you had the intention of not citing it a third time.’ What I want to know is how does he know my intentions? What evidence does he have?”
Both dismissed students added that they did not know what they did could be considered an academic honor offense. Routman said she “had absolutely no knowledge what I did would get me in trouble.”
Honor Committee Chair Jessica Huang, though, said several educational sessions about the University’s honor system, as well as proper research and citation methods, were offered on board the ship.
Similarly, Lynch stated in an e-mail that, “I will note as matters of general policy that we had an extensive and detailed set of briefings on the Honor Code on the ship before sailing and we offered seminars on correct citation, again before classes began.” Mary Johnston, Semester at Sea library coordinator at the University, verified Lynch’s statement, noting that Semester at Sea library officials gave “thorough” presentations on how to accurately cite scholarly articles.
Additionally, according to Huang and the revised summer 2008 Semester at Sea Voyager’s Handbook, effective June 15, ignorance of an honor violation is not a valid argument against the prosecution of it.
The Voyager’s Handbook states that “dishonest intent” is “established with respect to a particular Act if the actor knew, or should have known, that the act in question was or could be considered an Academic Honor Offense.”
The Voyager’s Handbook’s definition of dishonest intent, as well as the hearing panel’s determination that Routman and Gruntz committed honor offenses, though, does not sit well with Alan Briceland, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University history professor who helped start that institution’s honor system almost 40 years ago.
“Intent doesn’t mean ‘should have known,’” Briceland said.
Briceland noted that, in his opinion, plagiarism has become one of the most misunderstood of the potential honor offenses, not just at the University but at virtually every single higher education institution. He outlined three different possible types of plagiarism — “deliberate,” “inadvertent” and “ignorant” — but said only the deliberate variety should be considered an honor offense.
Deliberate plagiarism, Briceland said, occurs when a student makes a conscious and informed choice to circumvent the rules of academia. Because of this “choice” feature, deliberate plagiarism is a moral transgression, and is open to scrutiny by a university’s honor system, Briceland noted. The other types, he said, may lower the quality of a paper to abysmal levels, but they do not constitute an honor violation.
“What has happened is that the people in charge think the physical paper, the plagiarism, proves the moral,” Briceland said. “And it does not.”
However, Katie Povejsil, an expert on plagiarism and vice president of marketing at iParadigms, which provides the Turnitin.com plagiarism detection service, noted it is ultimately up to the institution and the human beings who run the adjudicating system to define plagiarism and to determine whether any intent was involved.
“It’s the institution’s choice,” she said.
Huang said the University’s honor system holds students to the standard of “should have known” because virtually all students attending the University either have been given multiple presentations on proper citation and plagiarism, and/or have had the opportunity to educate themselves on such matters. Moreover, she said, it is the Honor Committee’s definition of an academic honor offense that truly matters, because it is that definition to which students agreed prior to boarding the MV Explorer. As a condition of enrollment in the Semester at Sea program, she continued, participating students had to acknowledge the University honor system’s definition of dishonest intent as well as its definition of an academic honor offense. The dismissed students both said they did sign the “statement regarding the University of Virginia Honor System” before the voyage.
Stephen Satris, former interim director for the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, however, said it was possible that students signed off on Semester at Sea Honor-related forms without truly understanding the system or what constituted plagiarism.
“It could have been like when you are installing software on a computer,” Satris said. “And you have that long thing to read, but you don’t really read it, you just gloss through it and check the box, because that’s what you have to do to install the software.”