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Live Chat: Admissions Essay Plagiarism

After catching dozens of applicants who were plagiarizing admissions essays last year, Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business (Smeal Full-Time MBA Profile decided to take action. The school has now pumped up the screening process for application essays and set higher expectations for applicants.

Carrie Marcinkevage (screen name: CarrieAtSmeal), Smeal's admissions director, says the school is looking for principled leaders who have demonstrated integrity long before applying to business school. She discussed the school's new initiatives to combat plagiarism in admissions and fielded questions from Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Francesca Di Meglio (screen name: FrancescaBW) and the public at a recent chat event. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

FrancescaBW: What led to Penn State Smeal taking a stand against plagiarism in admissions?

CarrieAtSmeal: We had a significant incident with plagiarism last year, one that really concerned us. We had 29 cases of plagiarism in our admissions essays out of a pending 360 applications. While we were proud of how we handled it last year, we believe it's critical to educate [applicants and staff about it] and prevent it in the future. When we focus on "Principled Leadership" and creating the next generation of business leaders, it's critical that the growth process start on the way in, not after someone arrives.

FrancescaBW: How are you catching plagiarists?

CarrieAtSmeal: We realize that human effort is insufficient to address the issue consistently. So we are using a first-screening process through a software program (Turnitin for Admissions), where we identify text matches to an entire bank of online sources, basically the entire Internet, past and present. We have two staff reviews to clear and then further review [questionable] essays. No decision is made until after the second review.

We have a great suggestion [from a chat participant] of having someone write a sample essay while on site, rather than requiring it prior. I do love that idea. We, however, use the essays to decide whether or not to interview a candidate later.

tgoral: After having discovered the plagiarized essays, did you go back and review previously admitted student essays? I'm wondering whether you were able to discover other incidents of plagiarism.

CarrieAtSmeal: Indeed. We dropped everything else and immediately went back through all essays of those applicants who had been admitted, invited to interview, or were awaiting decisions. We did discover several who'd been invited to interview—those candidates were notified and not admitted. And we unfortunately found one who'd been admitted. That decision was rescinded.

BFW: What percentage of applications do you check for plagiarism?

CarrieAtSmeal: Starting this year, we review 100 percent of our applications. This gives us an accurate baseline of trends.

tgoral: How are your admission screeners trained to spot suspicious content?

CarrieAtSmeal: You've hit on exactly the concern we had. We didn't want our admissions team to approach the applications with suspicion, looking for plagiarism. We wanted them to be able to focus on finding great candidates. So the software screening allows that very consistent and completely objective first review. Any concerns are then reviewed solely based on the matching-content concerns. Only after that are they reviewed for overall admissions fit.

BFW: Are you using any particular software?

CarrieAtSmeal: Yes. We sought out the first solution available in this space, and it was created by Turnitin, which is already used by Penn State for student plagiarism reviews.

BFW: Are you the pilot program for doing this at Penn State, or is this something happening across the board in graduate and undergrad admissions?

CarrieAtSmeal: We are the pilot program at Penn State. I am reviewing everything and reporting to our Instruction and Technology Services director as well as communicating with other departments on findings.

We focus on "Principled Leadership"—ironically, the essay in which last year's concerns arose—and we have a strong and student-led Honor Code at Smeal. Everyone, from our dean to our students, believe that this effort is aligned with and supporting our focus on building integrity in our future leaders.

jlorton: Do you think plagiarism and other problems in admissions essays are a new problem? If not, is it becoming a bigger problem?

CarrieAtSmeal: I fear it has always been a concern, just with few consistent ways of addressing it. However, there have been many articles about how this concern is growing. The issues are generational, international, cultural, and the list goes on. It's critical to address it as consistently and equitably as we can—first by educating and preventing it.

Here's a very interesting article from The New York Times [and posted on CNBC's website] in August 2010, "Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age."

tgoral: Can you explain a little bit about how the software works? Does it search a database of online sources?

CarrieAtSmeal: We import the essays into the SaaS model application, and it automatically screens all the text, creating "similarity reports." We then review each report to see what text in the essay matches what online content. We look at the essay text, the online text, and any additional searches we feel would be helpful in the review. The software is really decision agnostic; it gives us the data, and we decide what to make of it.

BFW: Are there guidelines you can give to students so they know when a statement has crossed the line?

CarrieAtSmeal: My biggest suggestion is that if you hit Ctrl-C, your Ctrl-P had better include a source. That's not always the case, but that's a great way to think of it as a personal checkpoint. Here's a great handout on checking yourself for plagiarism.

And here are other plagiarism resources.

BFW: But it does appear from your earlier statement to me that Penn State is using Turnitin and is doing at least some plagiarism reviews, right?

CarrieAtSmeal: Yes, that's right, we are using Turnitin for Admissions to check all this year's applications. The reports are then screened for concerns, and concerns are brought for a final review and determination on plagiarism.

tgoral: Once plagiarized content is discovered, what do you do next? Is the student confronted?

CarrieAtSmeal: Because the candidate signs the Honor Code in addition to the standard application authenticity statement in the application, we treat this as an additional part of the standard review process. If deemed plagiarism, we do not specifically confront the candidate, and he or she is denied admission.

tgoral: Since your story made the news, have you been contacted by other institutions for advice or guidance in dealing with their own problems?

CarrieAtSmeal: I truly wish that more institutions were talking about this at the admissions level. I am trying to get that conversation started. It's discussed with student papers and issues, but it has not been fully appreciated at the admissions level. I have talked to several schools, and I am continuing those conversations. I have to be cautious—not selling Turnitin for Admissions necessarily, though it's been crucial to the process, but rather getting others to consider integrity in the admissions process overall.

FrancescaBW: What other advice do you have for those in admissions who are trying to grasp plagiarism in admissions?

CarrieAtSmeal: It's funny. I never wanted to become an expert nor advocate for integrity in admissions. But I'm passionate about this issue and truly believe that learning and leading with integrity begins long before admissions, and we need to continue that process throughout our educational process.

Here's a summary of my advice:

1. As ethical as we want to believe our candidates are, there is a gap in our collective understanding of intellectual property. This is an issue. We need to address it.

2. Consider ways to look for concerns but also to keep the team positively focused.

3. Ensure that the process is consistent and equitable for all candidates.

4. Educate. Prevent. Talk. Let's develop the conversation and common understanding. Let's not make this about "catching and punishing plagiarists." Let's make it about preventing it in the first place.

jlorton: What have you learned in the past year since discovering the problems in your essays?

CarrieAtSmeal: Since last year we have learned that we do need to stay positive to focus on finding great people. As mentioned, we also learned that education and prevention are critical. Finally, we've learned that there are many elements that go into the broad context of plagiarism, and we must be very diligent in understanding and learning about how to evaluate each case.

FrancescaBW: Why do you think plagiarism in admissions is becoming such a problem now?

CarrieAtSmeal: Here's a great quote from the New York Times article that sums this up. Notice that I am specifically quoting it. "It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright, and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information. … The Internet may also be redefining how students—who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia, and Web-linking—understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image."

FrancescaBW: Obviously, the Internet has something to do with this. But what about the pressure to get into competitive MBA programs? How has that contributed to the problem?

CarrieAtSmeal: It seems that technology—Internet, social media, etc.—have made "intellectual property" less valued earlier in life. So these concepts may just be coming to light as students come to college or the workforce. There are also wide-ranging concepts of knowledge as a shared rather than owned resource among varied international cultures. There have been myriad cases of students not just plagiarizing, but buying papers or hiring writers. When the grade or the admission is the prize, the learning process along the way doesn't matter. I don't think we can reduce competitive pressure. But perhaps we can speak to the results of competing without integrity. Our students would suggest that the past few years' economy is a result of just such competitive pressures.

FrancescaBW: What's the plan for your school in the future?

CarrieAtSmeal: We're learning every day about how to encourage applicants to apply with integrity. We're also encouraging schools nationally to talk about an "integrity relationship" with applicants. We, the schools, should be transparent and equitable in our processes. Our applicants should act with integrity in their applications—from plagiarism to consultants to goals. If we can strengthen that relationship and have clear expectations, perhaps then we'll be developing truly principled leaders.

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