Undergraduates are getting another free pass, ethically, and blame is being shifted to educators because apparently confusion about what constitutes plagiarism,  not malicious intent, is the leading cause of plagiarism at the graduate school level, according to George M. Bodner, a chemistry professor at Purdue University who serves on the Ethics Committee of the ACS, at their meeting in Salt Lake City. His presentation was part of an ACS initiative to educate the larger scientific community about ethics in chemistry.

Confusion about what constitutes plagiarism may be rooted in undergraduate education, Bodner said. "There is something happening at the undergraduate level. We don't require enough writing and we do not do careful editing of what students write and, therefore, within the context of their own education, students are not properly educated and are more likely to fall into traps."

Titled "Plagiarism: What is it? What Can We Do About It?," the symposium featured 8 speakers. In his talk, Bodner described one effort to address the problem of plagiarism called LANGURE for Land Grant University Research Ethics.

Bodner worked with the project, a national collaboration of eight land grant and historically black universities, a private corporation, a national consortium for education in responsible conduct of research, and an open source software group. LANGURE involves more than 130 faculty and graduate students dedicated to developing a model curriculum in research ethics for doctoral candidates in science, engineering, and other fields. It provides graduate students across America with access to a credit course in ethics. Bodner is adapting a technique he uses in his classes to an online format to be incorporated as part of the LANGURE curriculum. It uses contextual examples to better explain the characteristics of plagiarism to his students. 

Thomas Holme, Ph.D., another speaker at the symposium, has simple advice for his students on how to avoid plagiarism. Said Holme, a professor at Iowa State University: "I usually tell students if it's more than four words you better be quoting them."

Bodner cited the lack of metrics to measure plagiarism cases. As a result, it is nearly impossible to tell how widespread the problem is and whether it really is on the increase. On the one hand, the Internet gives students access to vast amounts of text and other material that could be plagiarized. On the other, search engines enable professors and instructors to detect the unauthorized use of another person's writing or speech. 

The problem of unauthorized use of written material goes beyond students and plagiarism, Holme said in his report at the symposium. Holme, who directs the ACS Exams Institute, said that teachers sometimes unknowingly cross the line with unauthorized use of copyrighted standardized test questions, including those from ACS's widely used standardized tests in chemistry. 

"When someone puts a copyrighted test up on the Internet or incorporates questions from a copyrighted test into one of their own exams, that's a violation of copyright law and a serious matter," Holme explained.