The ill effects of plagiarism from the Internet

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Of course, the supposed culprit is the Internet. The ease with which students can access written materials in all forms on all topics from all epochs and all cultures and all languages leads academics, I suppose, to believe that students are simply "cutting and pasting" more than they used to back in the good old days before libraries burned their books and installed PCs in their research departments.

As I recall, downright cheating goes through perennial popularity, or at least predictable cycles of attention. Such cycles usually have something to do with the differences perceived when a "new generation" hits universities. Personally, I'm underwhelmed by the whole dialogue.

It's funny that there is actually little constructively said about plagiarism. From my own Internet searches, I've found plenty of nearly identical policies from various universities. Frankly, they don't do much better than the dictionary definition, which basically boils down to "literary theft" (and yes, I stole the phrase; you can find the source yourself if you are so inclined). The idea of plagiarism, of course, is that someone has taken another's idea, or actual words, and passed it off as his or her own. Like most things, of course, with the exception of lifting entire passages verbatim from a source, plagiarism is a little sticky to define—but maybe that's just my lawyer's training kicking in.

But let's get back to the first case. Good old-fashioned stealing of entire passages or entire poems or entire chapters of books from someone else (that aren't in the public domain) and claiming they are your own is a copyright violation under U.S. law. There are remedies for that, of course. The problem as academics see it is that students won't be actually exercising their minds sufficiently by engaging in the process and that it erodes morale or academic ethics or some such thing. I will be gracious and completely bypass the multiple other questionable ethics that academics only sporadically condemn, but I'll accept that the practice is tacky at the least and ought not to be engaged in.

But I do take issue with the ballyhoo. In my opinion, cheating is actually not easier than before! I can't believe no one has pointed this out, but it actually takes lots more effort and creativity to find the information you want in the appropriate form and on point than it does to ferret out cheating these days.

For one thing, any professor can simply cut and paste any passage from any student's essay and "Google" it—if the phrase has been lifted, it will come up. This is to say nothing of the legion new online services that will actually run algorithms on entire papers and return percentages of originality. These also take no effort to use and are often free.

So what precisely do we perceive the problem to be? It seems to be that things must be trickier for the plagiarizer than ever before. Frankly, everyone is watching!

In all ages and all times, there are those who have either the predilection to break rules or the laziness or twisted ambition or lack of self-esteem to attempt to use something written by another as their own. I frankly don't see this as a terribly remarkable phenomenon. Further, given the relative ease with which secondary research can now be conducted (at least superficially), what skills do we really need to teach students?

In a sense, the ubiquity of the Internet versus old-style paper research and all that implies in terms of the ease of gathering legion new perspectives is reminiscent of the old "slide-rule-versus-calculator" debate. (If you aren't old enough to remember this, I really don't have the patience to talk to you). Eventually, everyone realized that we could advance a lot faster in society by allowing students to use calculators, even during exams. The upshot is that students are now tasked with far more complex calculations far earlier in their academic careers, largely because the laborious time involved in making calculations by hand has been taken away.

I think the implication is that universities everywhere may have to actually ramp up what they are asking of their students. The easy fix for "off-line" cheating is, of course, to have all work done in the classroom under test conditions. Further, the "social technology" employed by academics may lead them to create new types of projects and require new types of analysis. If we keep advancing the ball ahead of students, cheating becomes a less and less viable option.

In reality, the relative prevalence of cheating is a factor of social norms, of course, but it has a direct bearing upon the ability of educators to inspire their students. What we are looking for, I suppose, is students who not only are able to research ideas and facts but also have that insatiable desire to create that leads them to prefer their own work to merely using the work of others. That is a challenge that has never changed.

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