Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The internet and the decline of academic honesty

For any of this to make sense, I should preface this with a couple details:
I'm a tenured professor at a large, accredited university, though for (fairly obvious) reasons I won't be naming any names. But this subject is something that has been, in my opinion, worryingly overlooked by the media and most academic institutions, so I feel it's important to talk about my experiences.

I believe that the internet is fundamentally changing the academic landscape and, generally, professors and universities are ill-equipped to deal with it. As institutions, we've always dealt with a fair share of "academic dishonesty" - outright plagiarism, "group work" taken to extremes, falsification of data and everything in between. All professors know the stories (perhaps having experienced them personally) of students buying papers outright from upperclassmen. None of this is new to academic life and, of course, the internet merely increases the frequency of this sort of behavior. None of this would be worth writing about were it not for the fact that last year, about half of our graduating class was implicated or caught in some variety of cheating. While it would be unrealistic to assume that all of these students were actually guilty of whatever they were suspected of, I would not hesitate to say that 25-30% of our graduating seniors should never have been allowed to walk. Of course, most (if not all) of the incidents were overlooked because the administration believed it was unacceptable to keep that many students behind. A mere decade ago, this number was in the single digits. How can something like this change so rapidly? And how can it go unreported and unnoticed? Simple: Our students are now, more than ever, cheating in ways that leaves our older generations in the dust. There have been a number of articles written about the increasing quantity of cheating and general academic dishonesty in American institutions. But what hasn't been mentioned in the other, potentially more concerning factor: The entirely new type of cheating that has been ushered in by the Internet itself.

The internet, with its huge number of resources (some of which are actually bear research utility), offers students an incredible incentive to cheat. More and more, our professors are being given papers where students have simply copy & pasted segments from various webpages together (frequently from sites like Wikipedia), creating some sort of almagamated hyper-plagiarism which becomes harder and harder to catch. While these chimera-esque papers can, most of the time, be easily spotted through the mixing of language styles, clever students can pass these off throughout their academic careers with little worry. Some institutions have started employing services like Turn It In and iThenticate whose primary purpose is to catch this sort of peicemeal cheating. These services work fairly well and have lead to, in my institution, the indictment of several papers which would have otherwise gone undetected. There's a fair question regarding the success of these sort of services when students make any half-hearted attempt to alter the exact text of a quote, but I can't speak to that as I have no way of testing that question. The use of these services also places a nontrivial financial burden on the institution, but really, what alternative do we have?

The more concerning and potentially insidious academic threat comes from a new type of service which was brought to my attention by one of my students. The website Student of Fortune is built around a system which seems to, by its very nature, defeat the methods powering Turn It In and iThenticate. By creating a monetary transaction through the request/fulfillment of knowledge, it seems as though it will become substantially more difficult for professors to even have the resources to determine if a paper has been plagiarised or not. The additional prospect of papers being written or problems being solved on-demand by other users creates an added burden on professors. Perhaps an overwhelming burden. With sites like Wikipedia, it's easy to spot the phrases in papers that have been lifted from the site, but with Student of Fortune and its ilk, such things are nigh-impossible.

If collaboration and the open-source methodology are truly the future of the web, how can professors and universities deal with this? While the media and popular culture have spent countless hours extolling the virtues (and there are many) of these sorts of communities, I can't help but wonder: How can we, the teachers and professors of the "interent generation" weed out the cheaters and liars from the honest students? How can we compete with the expectation for guiltless and effortless cheating the internet has instilled on our country's children? I, for one, am running out of ideas.