Sunday, August 22, 2004


Online cheating

I've been very pleased with the new Blogger NavBar that appears at the top of this page, in lieu of Google Ads. Before Blogger made the switch, I was becoming increasingly dismayed by the number of times that online cheating services were turning up in my Ads box. Because of the prevalence of the word "dissertation" on my blog, the Google spider calculated that visitors to this site would be interested in links to "Custom Dissertations" and the like. Thanks to the NavBar, I no longer feel like I am giving countenance to such services, even unintentionally.

Today I find that there is an article in the New York Times Sunday book review on online plagiarism: "Dear Plagiarists: You Get What You Pay For." Early on, the piece includes some astonishing statistics:
Each site appeals to a different type of student. There's the sleek and cocky; the modest and amiable; and the outsider, to name a few. While 10 percent of college students admitted to Internet plagiarism in 1999, that number rose to around 40 percent in 2003, Donald L. McCabe, the founder of the Center for Academic Integrity (C.A.I.) at Duke University, said in a telephone interview. Many students simply crib what Google dredges up free, but McCabe estimates that 2 percent of students purchase papers online. That's how many admit it, anyway.

The sheer ubiquity of the sites, and what is now almost a lifetime of habitual Internet accessibility, might explain why the majority of college students tell McCabe they don't think copying a sentence or two from the Web is a big deal. Students are fuzzy on what's cheating and what's not. ''A lot of students will tell us, 'It's out there, it's on the Internet,' '' Diane M. Waryold, the executive director of C.A.I., said in a telephone interview. ''They say, 'Isn't it for public consumption?' ''
I'm probably not the only reader who was surprised by the "40 percent" figure for 2003. But I hope I am also not alone in finding the explanations given in the second paragraph slightly unsatisfying.

The "ubiquity of the sites" and "habitual Internet accessibility" do not a cheater make. The Internet may facilitate cheating for students who already have a proclivity towards dishonesty, but I doubt that the Internet creates that proclivity. I also doubt that students who patronize a site called "Cheat House" are "fuzzy" about what they are doing, or that they cannot tell the difference between "copying a sentence or two from the Web" and ordering a custom written essay for $18 to $20 a page. I believe many students are unclear about what plagiarism is, but even the confused are surely not dazed enough to believe that it is okay to buy an assignment and submit it for a grade. Cheaters knew that was cheating before there was ever such a thing as the Internet.

It's important to distinguish clearly between those students who are genuinely uninformed about the proper conventions for using sources, and those students who are knowingly cheating. Why? Because if those two groups are conflated, as I think they sometimes are, teachers might unwisely succumb to the temptation to prohibit the Internet as a source, or to spread the sky-is-falling fear that online sources are inherently unreliable.

A natural reaction to articles like the one in the Times is to rage against the machine--to rail against Google for the deterioration of academic standards. (The article's association of verbs like "crib" and "dredges" with Google might unwittingly encourage this impulse.) But that natural reaction must be resisted. Google is here to stay, and students are going to use it for research. Any solution to the scourge of plagiarism has to start by accepting that as the new reality.

(And it's not a bad new reality. Google may make it easier for students to find information to plagiarize, but it also makes it easier for teachers to hold cheaters accountable. My wife's a high school teacher, and whenever she detects a whiff of cheating in a student's work, she can usually sniff it out by typing the first sentence into Google and--voila! True, Google can't help teachers find custom written papers, but this leaves them no less powerless than they always are to students determined to have someone else do their work for them.)

Solutions to plagiarism will also have to go beyond the paradigmatic language of crime and detection. Talking about the Internet only as a tool for cheating, or a tool for stopping it, diverts teachers from talking to their students about how to use the Internet as a legitimate tool for research. The Internet is for "public consumption," and the right strategy is not to give students the idea that it isn't. All published material (literally, by definition) is for public consumption, whether online or off. The key is to teach students how to be efficient and ethical consumers of that information. It may be obvious, but it needs to be reiterated, that being a consumer of online information is not equivalent to being a customer of Showing students how to be the former does not encourage them to be the latter. On the contrary, the more proactive teachers can be in educating students about online research, the less likely they will be to plagiarize.

Collective Improvisation:
Excellent considerations, all around. I was thinking of writing a post about cheating myself--but now I'll just add a link to yours tomorrow instead. That's not cheating, is it?

Seriously, I'm disgusted by how many people come to my site through search engine hits for "essay on X," "dissertation about Y," or similar. If my search engine hits were any guide, the two chief uses of the internet are pornography and plagiarism.

Posted by Blogger Jason Kuznicki on 8/23/2004 10:10:00 PM : Permalink  

I wrote about the prevalence of plagiarism in my school, awhile back ... the goings on make me sad.

Posted by Blogger JM on 8/24/2004 09:47:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks to both of you!

I like your post, Julie, and I think you were on to something when you noticed a correlation between bad teaching and plagiarism. While I don't think that professors are morally culpable for their students' cheating--as Jason points out, cheating is an inescapably personal vice and the cheater must face his or her punishment alone--I do think that good teaching can help prevent cheating.

I'd like to believe, anyway, that the majority of the 40 percent of plagiarizers are not all calculating liars. Probably many of them plagiarize as much out of boredom as anything else, and cheating is often a banal evil, in that sense. If a teacher is good at what he or she does, then a student will hopefully be engaged enough by the subject to do the work willingly.

I want to be very clear that this doesn't mean that cheating is a teacher's fault. But it does mean that the best thing a teacher to prevent plagiarism is to be a good teacher.

To borrow from a book I read by Parker J. Palmer, "Our assumption that students are brain-dead leads to pedagogies that deaden their brains." Likewise, if we assume that students are natural born cheaters, our suspicions will probably become self-fulfilling prophecies. On the other hand, if I respect every student's potential to learn about and be interested by my subject, then I'd like to believe students will respect me enough not to cheat.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 8/24/2004 04:13:00 PM : Permalink  

Here's an article i read on about this stuff. What do we do??

Posted by Blogger Unknown on 1/17/2008 10:41:00 PM : Permalink  

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