Wednesday, July 14, 2010

See Dick and Jane cheat

Remember when academic research was a difficult task? You actually had to go in person to a repository of knowledge, search the card catalog or journal indices for relevant sources, find and sift through reams of material, and integrate carefully attributed portions of what you found into your paper. I even live where I do partly because of the mechanics of this process: after my firstborn was provisionally diagnosed with a serious condition on which I could find no information, I swore I would never again live more than 15 miles from a good university library. How quaint that seems now.

In the age of the Internet and broadband access, the process is orders-of-magnitude easier today. You can find information on nearly anything in the comfort of your home, at any time of day or night. And you can also pass the work of others off as your own with amazing ease. That is why plagiarism detection services such as are a growth industry.

A relative of mine teaches in a university MBA program and, much more often than he’d like, serves on appeals boards in plagiarism cases. His university takes this issue seriously: such cheaters get F’s for both the paper and the course, are dismissed from the program, lose tuition reimbursement (if applicable) from their employers, and may even lose their jobs. They continue to do it anyway. These are completely adult, gainfully employed students, from whom one would naturally expect better. They are also part of the sector which, in recent years, nearly brought down the entire United States economy (with the rest of the world, no doubt, likely to follow). The clearly immoral, short-sighted, greed-motivated cheating by so many on Wall Street reinforces the necessity for stronger ethics in business, but one could argue that rampant cheating is undermining our entire society.

Children raised in an environment where the theft of music files, via Napster and its successors, is both commonplace and seemingly acceptable, have a hard time seeing anything wrong with what we geezers call “cheating.” After all, everyone seems to do it. Trip Gabriel reported in the New York Times this month that “in surveys of 14,000 undergraduates over the last four years, an average of 61 percent admitted to cheating on assignments and exams,” which is why a similar percentage of colleges use anti-plagiarism services, as do an increasing number of high schools. Students find creative new ways to cheat, on papers, exams, and even homework. Some universities have intensified the tech war by using overhead cameras and strict rules about what can be brought into exam rooms, in addition to the software filters for text.

This is much more than a question of ethics. The Times’ Brent Staples quoted MIT professor David Pritchard: “The big sleeping dog here is not the moral issue. The problem is that kids don’t learn if they don’t do the work.” And that lack of learning has real-world consequences. Would you want your neurosurgeon to be a cheater, or someone who actually learned what he needs to know?

We assume a certain level of competence, especially among professionals for whose services we pay good money — doctors, accountants, teachers, financial advisers, attorneys, design engineers, nuclear power plant operators, etc. What if they’re all faking it?

Staples phrases this better than I could: “We can see that [young people] have a different relationship to the printed word than did the generations before them. When [they] think of writing, they don’t think of fashioning original sentences into a sustained thought. They think of making something like a collage of found passages and ideas from the Internet. They become like rap musicians who construct what they describe as new works by ‘sampling.’ … This is not just a matter of personal style or generational expression. It’s a question of whether we can preserve the methods through which education at its best teaches people to think critically and originally.”

It’s not all about the grade; it’s about the learning. How could our children have missed that? [Irony intended.]


  1. I submit that having a world of knowledge available to me on my phone is a good thing. I can immediately look up a new word I encounter. For example, a look at my search history shows my latest "research" was to find out what a Lascar is.
    Although we can all agree cheating is bad, I'm not convinced that most kids are cheating when they look stuff up on the web. Why should I memorize stuff I can look up if/when I need it? The real problem here isn't cheating; it's not learning how to properly attribute the source of what you quote.
    Double check your heart of hearts to see if you're not just a bit disgruntled because research today is so much easier for students than it was for us.

  2. I’m no fan of rote memorization, although automating certain processes is what makes more difficult ones possible. (Knowing arithmetic facts by heart speeds up the solving of equations, for example.) What frightens me is the faking of skills. I want a civil engineer to really have the math skills to predict loads and stresses so the bridge doesn’t fail! How many of us have worked with people who got “certified” in some field by copying someone else’s work and are now in jobs that they cannot really do? Grades and exams are supposed to indicate competence; when they no longer do, we are all at risk, every day, in myriad ways.