Time Magazine described the new high-tech means students use to plagiarize essays for their assignments (e.g. affordabletermpapers.com) and the counter-measures that universities are using to suss out the cheaters (e.g. turnitin.com). Some students have objected to their own papers being added to turnitin.com's massive database of term papers that it uses to identify non-original work, claiming their intellectual property is being scooped up without their consent. Why, they ask, should some for-profit company make money off their work? Some professors, too, were skeptical about pursuing draconian measures to catch cheaters, fearing it might actually undermine the honor code spirit that insists and expects ethical behavior from its students.
Two questions arise from this debate: can high-tech anti-cheating measures be taken (is it technically and legally possible), and should they be taken (is it morally correct and realistically advisable to do so)? I hope the answer to both is obvious.
As far as the legal case goes . . . those students are dreaming if they think they can squeeze concessions from turnitin.com. No expectation of copyright control ever existed before in the schools, so it's useless to pretend it does now. Reading a text in order to identify possible plagiarism is going to be way, waaaay inside the bounds of "fair use" in copyright law, anyway. Any school that wants to cover its butt can simply make the non-expectation explicit: "When you turn in your papers, you give us the right to share it with whomever we please to verify it's originality." Case closed. If students still feel like they want to opt out of such a system, let them vote with their feet: transfer to a school that doesn't use the systems. Or, perhaps, let them come up with their own alternative for verifying the originality of their papers -- like, say, writing them in a controlled test room . . . and paying the fees of the proctors who administer them. I have a feeling all the high-minded objections from students would vanish if they were actually asked to pay to defend their precious term papers.
Should we try to catch the cheaters? This is a slam-dunk for reducto ad absurdum. If you think that rigorously pursuing cheaters will compromise a spirit of integrity, we might as well close down all the police stations, disban the SEC, and dismantel all the accounting firms' audit departments while we're at it. A presumption of individual innocence does not mean a presumption of collective innocence. We know that over half of students admit to cheating at some point in their college careers. Anyone who wants to defend the validity of their grades should be willing to accept a level of oversight . . . especially if it's as non-invasive as an automated plagiarism test. It's like the sleazy suspect on Law & Order who refuses to provide a DNA sample -- they claim all kinds of high-falutin' moral reasons for refusing an invasion of privacy . . . while the police, and the entire audience with them, says, "Uh-huh. Something to hide, huh?"
What I find even more sad is that people don't see how terribly important these ethical matters are. Academic misconduct is not a small matter. Look around at all the countries were free civil society has completely broken down: Iraq, third-world Africa, etc. The common denominator in all these places is corruption. Once corruption becomes commonplace and accepted as a part of life, you are condemned to world in which there is no trust at all . . . which is to say, a world in which all collective effort for collective good is utterly doomed. Is this what we want to school our children in? That success can be bought? That all that matters is what you can get away with? That personal success and fortune matters more than personal integrity and goodness? If corruption (and that's what we should call it -- not cheating, not misconduct, but corruption) prevails in the university, we will have planted the seeds of our society's destruction.
I also think, coincidentally, that this whole debate only exposes the arbitrary, unrealistic, totally bogus nature of most school assignments and tests. I heard of a Duke business school teacher who told his students: "In my classes, anyone who is asked for help, and refuses to give it, is a cheater." The dean of the school heard of this policy, rushed to his office and said, "We can't have this. What kind of a world do think this would be if everybody went around helping everyone else?" (Beat . . . .wait for laughter.) If, instead of working on individual essays that are canned and arbitrary, students worked collectively on real-life problems with real-world benefactors, the problem of cheating would not be so much of an issue.