An Education in the Dangers of Online Research

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2008

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 debate is partly generational: those who grew up with the Internet vs. those who didn't. Many of Gruntz's and Routman's classmates were outraged by the punishment. They made "Save Mark" T-shirts, filmed Routman sobbing, signed a petition and wrote letters urging the dean to reconsider. Many argued that Routman and Gruntz hadn't done anything wrong. Others thought the penalty was far too punitive.

But the honor code at the university is absolute, and so was the verdict.

"When you graduate from U-Va., it means a little more because of the honor system, and I would argue that's the same for someone taking classes," said Jess Huang, a senior who heads the honor committee. She was not involved in the Summer at Sea case but spoke in general terms. "The honor system is defined by the philosophy and the spirit of integrity that we want to uphold here at the University of Virginia."

Instant Resources

For two months this summer, about 600 students from across the country have been taking classes and studying various cultures on the Semester at Sea boat, which travels from port to port.

It used to be known as a booze cruise, Gruntz said, but for two years, the University of Virginia, with its traditions and rigorous standards, has been the academic sponsor.

The student-run honor code at the University of Virginia is as much a part of the school's identity as its Jeffersonian history. Every so often, a debate arises over whether the single sanction, expulsion for a guilty verdict, is too drastic.

Every time, students have voted to keep it.

"If you violate our community of trust," Huang said, "you should no longer be a member of it."

Professors and librarians talk about plagiarism and other issues of academic integrity a lot more than they used to, said Barbie Selby, a university librarian, because research is so much easier to do now. It takes just a couple of clicks to copy and paste a passage from an online source into a paper, rather than going to the library, finding the right books and copying something by hand. Even unintentional mistakes are easier.

Online research is by far the most common practice now, Selby said, and it can be confusing. "We want to be as clear as possible about what is and isn't acceptable," she said. With digital sources, things wind up in notes without credit, and people are left unsure what came from where.

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