An Education in the Dangers of Online Research

From The Washington Post:

It hit Mark Gruntz all at once, while he was sitting flat-broke in an airport in Greece: He had lost credit for three summer courses, wasted $11,474 in student loans and gotten kicked off a boat. All because he hadn’t cited Wikipedia enough in a paper about a movie.

Last week, he and another college student, Allison Routman, were expelled from the Semester at Sea program for violating the University of Virginia’s honor code. The expulsions raised questions for some students about whether the school’s more than 150-year-old tradition is too harsh — and for others, whether students have a different understanding of plagiarism and research now that online resources make it easy to find information.

The headline is misleading. The problem here isn’t that the students didn’t cite Wikipedia enough… they included direct quotations from their sources without using quotation marks or paraphrasing. This has little to do with online sources, other than the simple notion that because so many facts are available in a few mouse clicks, a new generation of students devalues the work that goes into attaining (and verifying, and documenting) those facts.

An Associated Press article repeats the three sentence fragments that student Allison Routman says she included in her paper without citation.  They’re not deep, meaning-laden passages, but they’re all from the same source, and as I see it the paper was intended to be a reflection paper — students were supposed to watch a movie and then relate the movie to their experience during their travels. Not an intellectually heavy task, but Routman says nobody had ever defined “paraphrasing” for her before (which, even if true, suggests she was too helpless to find the definition on her own), and Gruntz, in an interview from the airport in Greece, told the Washington Post “I got in trouble for not citing it enough, I guess” and “I think I was supposed to put quotations around it” and “I don’t really think I did anything wrong” (and this is after the students have spent at least a full year at their home college, before signing up for Semetser at Sea; and after a librarian on the ship gave a presentation on proper academic research methods, and after the guilty students sat through a meeting with a panel of five faculty members that picked his paper apart… somewhere along the line, I’m sure all the students were told exactly what’s expected in an academic essay).

Yes, the University of Virginia’s single-sanction honor code is strict, but it’s supposed to have bite. I remember having to write an essay about the honor code when I applied to U.Va., and I remember every year some students would start a motion to lighten up the honor code by instituting a wrist-slapping punishment, but if it ever made to a student body vote, the students would always vote to keep the honor code as-is.

If U.Va. is sponsoring Semester at Sea, and students from other schools who sign up for the program have to agree to abide by the U.Va. honor code, which is clearly explained in the Semester at Sea handbook (PDF).