Saturday, September 16, 2006

Your Cheatin' Heart

My coworkers and I had a little discussion yesterday on academic cheating, plagiarism, and dishonesty. I didn't really think much about it then, as we were just relating stories of students we've had in our classes who tried to pass off essays that were not their own or who copied homework or exam answers from other students.

But this morning, as I searched for Aristotle's definition of tragedy, I found a link to a "free essay" on this very topic. So I hopped over to this site called that collects essays from a student community for "collaboration" purposes. In its FAQ, the site asks "Isn't the point of this site to help students cheat?" Its answer, of course, is "No." It's there to provide a "reference for students writing papers." Okay, I say to myself, then why call your site "eCheat"? Why not "eCollaborate"?

Then another FAQ, "If I turn in one of these essays as my own will I get caught?" The apparently honest answer to this question reveals a lot about how students view the academic enterprise:
"Most likely not. Most teachers are not very perceptive. However if you are caught the penalties may be severe. If you copy other people's work often you will impair your ability to do complex assignments and will end up hurting yourself. Don't allow the school system get in the way of your education."
This can almost be read as an open invitation to plagiarize. It shows a disrespect for teachers' ability (and/or desire) to ferret out cheating students. It downplays the consequences of cheating by saying only that they "may be severe" and not describing exactly what can happen--failing grade and dismissal from a university. And then, right after making a good point about how students only hurt themselves when they cheat, it offers a loaded statement disparaging the school system as an impediment to an education.

WHAT? I thought the school system was there to help you learn. The books we read and discuss and the writing assignments on those books are there to help you learn. Why does this site feel that making this comment will most effectively persuade those students who would be most tempted to plagiarize not to plagiarize? Why do those cheating students believe that the school system is holding them back? Are the assignments that teachers are handing out so odious and inconsequential to students today that this statement can pass as a generally accepted truth? Do students today value intellectual honesty less today because the school system has victimized them?

And don't let eCheat fool you, it's not all about sharing and collaborating. There's some money to be made. If you click the "Custom and Original Pre-written Papers Available" link, you can pay for their custom writing services to write a paper on any topic tailored to your exact specifications for just $19.95/page, Of course, if you just want an essay they already have in their giant database, you pay only $9.95/page.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised about how some unscrupulous folks are using the internet to exploit this economic niche. Students have always been under a great deal of pressure to produce quality work, and now they are willing to pay for that work when they are feeling lazy or need a shortcut to success. But if they don't want to pay for papers, many students do not seem to have any scruples about simply stealing content right off the web and using it as their own. Why? Because what used to be difficult, is now easy.

I'm just glad I'm no longer in academia, trying to police plagiarism. It does appear that there are tools out there, such as Turnitin and iThenticate, used to fight plagiarism; but clearly, the internet has created a new moral dilemma for the online community about what constitutes intellectual property and how to handle copyright and fair use when information is so easy to reproduce and share. The truth is that plagiarism upsets me because I hated having to confront students who were trying to pull a fast one on that gullible teacher. And I hated hearing the excuses that either blamed me and the system for making the work too hard, or simply amounted to an appeal to moral relativism. And I still believe that intellectual honesty is a virtue and not something that should be set aside at your convenience, when it helps you get what you want.

Political Comment Alert! Unfortunately, we see a betrayal of this virtue all the time in the realm of politics. Politicians will say anything to get into power and to stay in power. The Bush administration has become the champion of hypocrisy by claiming to adhere to strict moral standards, including intellectual honesty, when, in fact, acting in a dishonest way that undermines those very principles. Examples?
  • Manipulating pre-war intelligence to convince Americans that Iraq had WMDs, the intent to use them, and connections with Al-Qaeda terrorists.
  • Undermining environmental scientists who provide evidence that human beings are indeed contributing to global warming.
  • Supporting "intelligent design," as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution.
  • Convincing themselves that the neo-conservative strategy for changing the Middle East is still working.
  • Rationalizing torture and illegal wire tapping as the only way to protect us from terrorists.
Unfortunately, I could go on and on. But now, I gotta get back to Aristotle.


At 9:59 AM, Blogger IvyMike said...

Don't forget the most recent (and blatant) case of plagiarism in politics: Senator Allen steals an ammendment from Durbin.

At 12:47 AM, Blogger IvyMike said...

Slashdot just posted an article covering the rise of plagiarism, with focus on the role of the internets.

Cheating Via the Internet at College

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Berzinator said...

I just clicked on the Student of Fortune link in the Slashdot article. It does appear that this site covers cheating for all those other academic disciplines that don't involve a heavy dose of essay writing. Why would a student even want to do any work? The internets are here to save them!

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Berzinator said...

And don't get me started on Allen. I'm glad he at least noted the difference between "will" and "shall". Oh, that sure made all the difference. "I used the word less travelled by."


Post a Comment

<< Home