December 15, 2001
1:17 AM   Subscribe

All sorts of delicious ethical issues here: Slate's guide to buying a term paper online. One of Slate's recommendations: "a smart but horribly lazy student could choose to put his effort into editing instead of researching and writing: Buy a mediocre paper that's done the legwork, then whip it into shape by improving the writing and adding some carefully chosen details." (Perhaps most revealing and disturbing aspect of the article is how the judges explain how they grade horrible papers -- an "utterly meaningless" essay earns a C- and another paper which deserves an F would earn the phrase "please come see me" because they don't dispense Fs at Columbia.)
posted by palegirl (34 comments total)
Hmm, an article on MSN which makes light of stealing other people's ideas...
posted by ceiriog at 1:54 AM on December 15, 2001

posted by dagny at 2:03 AM on December 15, 2001

Well ceiriog, this isn't exactly MSN. It's Slate, a militantly liberal culture/politics webzine. I'm not surprised at all that they are posting this. Now back to editing (err... writing) my paper.
posted by statusquo at 4:45 AM on December 15, 2001


Sorry. How about "taking credit for other people's ideas." Does that work?

I'm just jealous. Currently writing a n essay on Amores perros, in Welsh. Not much user-friendly plagiarism out there for our lot.
posted by ceiriog at 6:43 AM on December 15, 2001

More discussion of this issue (buying papers online, not the Slate piece) took place not long ago here.
posted by BT at 7:40 AM on December 15, 2001

No F's at Columbia? Are you kidding? Grade inflation exists, but it's not as bad as Harvard's: F's do exist, though I've yet to see one on my work, thankfully.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:16 AM on December 15, 2001

just this semester i had to report someone in my online class who was copying and pasting every single one of her discussion comments from various websites. all it took was to run a google search with one of her sentences and the original essay or movie review (this was a sci-fi class) would pop up. i was especially offended because this woman was a 4th grade teacher herself and claimed that her verbosity was due to an interest in literature. she got an F for the class and now has to go before a board to stay in the masters program.

posted by cheesebot at 8:51 AM on December 15, 2001

During a geology test, a 50ish man leaned over to me and asked if he could copy my answers after the proctor left to get something to drink. I was shocked. Teenagers, sure, but ostensibly this person was going back to school because he wanted to. At least, that's usually my assumption when I see older students (like myself, closer to 30 than 20). My reply? "Sorry, I simply cannot do that."

A couple weeks later I finished a lab early and went out to have a smoke. I returned to discover the man going through my binder looking for my lab paper. I didn't say anything to the teacher, but I was pissed off by this point. I hated that class and worked my ass off to get my A, and this older guy was literally trying to steal my work.

I think the Slate article was snide enough to deliver a message: using paper stores to cheat is academically dangerous and of questionable monetary value.
posted by xyzzy at 9:25 AM on December 15, 2001

With any luck, my students won't read Slate. Then again, I'm sure that they'll find these sites just as well on their own.

The problem for faculty is that if the student has paid for a paper, we're up a creek: no professor in his or her right mind is going to spend $50, say, to buy the paper in order to make a plagiarism charge stick. (Although I suppose it would be a nice tax write-off.) Our department is currently mulling over the possibility of setting up a fund to deal with just this sort of thing, however...

Of course, if two students in your class accidentally buy the same paper, your life does get easier.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:28 AM on December 15, 2001

The thing about "plagiarism radar," or "pladar," was interesting. Reminded me of my own college days, when I was in a class that assigned only one paper. I'd done badly on the one test in the class, so the professor, a prominent legal scholar, decided that I'd plagiarized the fairly decent paper I handed in. She gave me a C in the class, not having any actual evidence that would allow her to fail me or have me expelled.

When I talked to the department head, he tried to convince me that I may have just plagiarized a little bit, that maybe I really didn't know that you were supposed to put quotations in quotes.

After six months of stonewalling, my parents insisted on writing to the university president. I wasn't crazy about this idea, but it worked - within two weeks, my grade was changed.

So whenever I read about whiny students who want to be treated like always-right customers, I have to be a little skeptical. And whenever I hear about a plagiarism epidemic, professors whose common sense and experience allows them just to know that their students are cheating, I have to wonder how many of these kids are just smart slackers who had one good paper in them.
posted by transona5 at 9:52 AM on December 15, 2001

Thomas J: Check out the Plagiarism Resource Center at UVA. A professor there wrote software to help detect plagiarism. It takes some work: students have to submit in disk form, or you have to scan papers in. You would have to keep a database of previously submitted papers, etc. But it's a good example of how professors are trying to fight back against these paper stores.
posted by xyzzy at 9:58 AM on December 15, 2001

Wow. That is seriously cool, xyzzy. I'm glad that the internet was still a novelty when I was in college. I would have been WAY too tempted by all of this. (Although I would have been clever enough to edit substantially and basically rewrite the piece my own writing style.)

This also brings up a larger question: With the increasing ubiquity of the internet, is there going to come a time when we don't have to remember anything other than how to find information? I mean, why memorize the 50 states if I can call that up instantly on the computer on my arm? Kind of scary, but I've noticed a lot of people relying on the internet for more and more basic information, and they usually forget it as soon as they look away from the screen. That's no good.
posted by UrbanFigaro at 10:54 AM on December 15, 2001

When i was in High School, someone pulled one of my early print outs from a report, and turned it in in the same class... The teacher called us over to the desk to determine which had cheated... the thing is, my writing style at the time was rather different from anyone elses and stuck out like a sore thumb. The paper had my High school trademark of long sentences at the type and then Hemmingway short sentences at the bottom (when I was running against deadline)...

I wonder how many people turn in these fake papers?

Our department is currently mulling over the possibility of setting up a fund to deal with just this sort of thing, however...

It would probably be hard for one department to do this, but what if several universities worked together to provide a source where professors could search to see if works were being taken from these "buy your paper online sites?"
posted by drezdn at 11:20 AM on December 15, 2001

Militantly liberal? According to what people on what planet? I kinda like Slate, but c'mon.
posted by raysmj at 11:37 AM on December 15, 2001

Knocking a student's grade down because you "think" they've plagiarized is a serious no-no, and a professor who does that deserves a good rap on the knuckles (after s/he changes the student's grade back, thanks). Luckily, or unluckily as the case may be, most students seem to be plagiarizing directly off the net, which reduces the amount of time the instructor has to spend looking for proof.

Instructors usually are suspicious of essays that are too polished. Most brilliant "A" essays are, strictly speaking, failures, in the sense that the student tried something incredibly ambitious but didn't quite have the analytical or historical chops to do it perfectly. (I've given "A"s and "B"s to papers that were, in fact, completely wrong, but there was no way the student had sufficient literary or historical awareness to know that.) If the paper reads like it originally had eighty-two footnotes, then there's a problem somewhere...

Thanks for the UVA site link, xyzzy: I'll pass that on to my chair.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:13 PM on December 15, 2001

Confession time: I TA at a school where the student paper advertizes paper-buying web sites and no one bats an eye.

This year, many programs at UCSD started requiring students turn papers in via, which checks papers from one class against one another, and keeps a database of past years' papers. It purports to also have a database of online buyable papers. So there's more than one way to cash in on undergrad unscroupulousness.

It works by simple string matching. The longer the string and the more numerous the matches, the higher the score. I found it mostly picked up long block quotes from online Cliff Notes like summaries. I had no cheaters, but I found about 25% of my students' papers used source material, properly cited and/or quoted, from online overviews of major topics and issues of our subject.

I was surprised how easy it would be for them to never visit the library. Next quarter, I'm really going to ban the internet entirely. I could go on and on with students on why the internet inhibits learning. Not because they aren't memorizing encyclopedias, but because it encourages them to summarize, not criticize and explore alternatives. 90% of educational material on the Internent consists of watered down summaries, slanted in way or another. (E.g. Cliff Notes of the Bible written by campus ministries.) It must be hard when you grow up in a broadband AOL/TW/TiVo world, which makes reading and learning some things so convenient, and then you get to college and you try to apply your high school strategies to qualitatively different questions. I think students sincerely believe that a good Net search produces better information than sloughing through musty old books. Paper-buying is one shade off this. I really want to get through to the students on this.

Look underneath the hood of an undergrad term paper, and you won't always like what you see.

Later I Googled some suspicious blue book answers -- busted!
posted by rschram at 12:59 PM on December 15, 2001

rschram: Um, jstor is seriously beneficial, something one doesn't have to visit a library to browse, and authentically academic besides. Why on earth would any teacher ban the use of it, or think it a bad thing?
posted by raysmj at 1:24 PM on December 15, 2001

Yeah, jstor rocks my world... If only they had more history journals then my life would be complete.

As a history student in London we just don't have this. There's no industry, no issue. I'm sure people copy things. I know people copy things, but not in this eerie strange way. It just seems so, tacky.

Hey, I get a serious number of hits for my history essays that I put online as PDF’s. Lots of them come from .edu’s or’s, that’s cool, that’s what I want. It’s hard enough to find decent historical information, our library has had its budget cut by 54% in the last two years. That’s an awful lot. There just aren’t enough books out there. We need as many jstor’s as we can get.
posted by nedrichards at 3:45 PM on December 15, 2001

Um, jstor is seriously beneficial Yes, it is. That benefit comes at the expense of going to the library. That's why I would rule it out. Even if you could argue that since JSTOR provides convenient Internet access to certifiably "academic" materials (by the way, that's what I want students to use, not intellectual shortcuts, which dominate the Internet.), I should differnentiate between it and the Cliff Notes pages. But how carefully word such a rule, without further confusing things?

It is not the case that I think the Internet is a bad thing. Rather, I want to impress upon my students the differences between forms of information on the Net. If it's worth using, its also in a paper version in a library.

There are two ways for a student (or, anyone) to think about "ease" or "covenience" 1) Less work or 2) More results for less work. Even JSTOR can be criticized in this light. Not all of the literature on a subject is available in JSTOR. Take my field, anthropology, for an example. JSTOR has 6 anthro journals - one in particular Man/JRAI extends for over a century. But I'm not ever really going to be up on Oceanic sibling terms if I draw my readings from JSTOR. I've even been accused of being JSTOR-dependant, and thus missing out on relevant literature.

I guess you could say I'm adopting a philosophy that to use the Internet properly, you have to learn to appreciate what it makes easier -- and thus, I would hope, learn to appreciate the differences between good and bad information.
posted by rschram at 4:02 PM on December 15, 2001

My sister was once given an F on a paper by a history professor who told her that she had obviously stolen her paper, since no freshman can write that well. "By the end of this term," my sister told me, "you will change my grade on that paper and you will apologize to me."

She got her grade change and her apology. And hopefully the prof learned to encourage, not accuse, talented students. But probably not.
posted by kindall at 4:09 PM on December 15, 2001

Sounds like my professor (lecturer, really.) She circled words like "decry" and wrote, "Is this your own word?" Um, yes, and it's not a very hard word. Or, really, a very good word, but I was an undergrad.

Here's an interesting piece about the effectiveness of one online plagiarism-testing service - maybe they've gotten better since then, though.
posted by transona5 at 4:30 PM on December 15, 2001

"If it's worth using, its also in a paper version in a library."

Oh, come on. This is blatantly false. As just one example, consider this archive and analysis of Civil War material -- a digital history project out of the University of Virginia. This could not usefully be translated to paper and stored in a library.

Never mind that the Library of Congress is seeking to understand how to manage vast quantities of 'born digital' material. See the National Academies report LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress.

Not everything worthwhile is readily available in paper format anymore -- it probably never was.
posted by Medley at 4:32 PM on December 15, 2001

Next quarter, I'm really going to ban the internet entirely.

posted by normy at 6:28 PM on December 15, 2001

Our school newspaper had an article on getting papers from websites. It was all talking about what a problem this was, but then it gave URL's as examples. Yeah, way to publicize them, guys.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:56 PM on December 15, 2001

normy: Exactly. What rschram didn't mention, nor did I, is that JSTOR articles - like the ones from the excellent EBSCO-Online, with a more extensive international collection - are exact copies of academic journal articles. They are archived in Adobe Acrobat, and include the same page numbers, etc., as a journal article you'd find the library. There is no way to tell if it came from online or offline. EBSCO-Host, by contrast, does not include page numbers for online archives. But you'd be punishing students for using the accepted paragraph number citation, just because they were not savvy or informed enough to get the article off the other two services. So being against online services totally is, these days, sort of like being against dirt. They're just there.

Probably no university library in America is going to have all the journals that both the above services have combined, regardless. Most, mabye, but not all. If one does have all the journals, though, it is probably a safe bet that pages are missing from some articles, or that a grad student or faculty member has the journal checked out.
posted by raysmj at 7:08 PM on December 15, 2001

Can't I get any sympathy? Would it help if I mentioned that my primary experience has been as a TA teaching freshman writing? Now, certainly someone must agree that if you're going to teach students how to use a library, it helps to force them to go there, yes?
posted by rschram at 10:38 PM on December 15, 2001

I have sympathy, yes. But maybe if you allowed somebody to run a site past you and then explained the pros/cons of it. On the other hand that is seriously time consuming. Oh well. I'm all in favour of libraries, and even using them, people just seemed a bit annoyed about 'information snobbery', personally I don't have a problem with that, obviously some information is going to be better than others, obviously most of it is going to be in a library, that's their job.

And I assume the way to 'ban' the internet is to prevent anybody from crediting its usage in a footnote or Bibiography entry and then doing them, for plagarizm if a phrase turns up on google? Seems pretty effective to me. I think people got a bit riled by the word 'ban', given the 'current situation', maybe they'd prefer somthing nicer, like 'restrict'.
posted by nedrichards at 2:33 AM on December 16, 2001

rschram wrote: If it's worth using, its also in a paper version in a library.

That really depends on what your subject is. I teach digital culture. How many articles or books have you seen on blogging as a cultural phenomenon in libraries? Libraries are great for some things, the net is great for other things. Teaching students how to use both critically must surely be the solution.
posted by jill at 11:22 AM on December 16, 2001

if you're going to teach students how to use a library, it helps to force them to go there, yes?

Sure. I just don't understand why you need to teach college students how to use a library. It's not exactly rocket science, which is why they usually teach the skill in, like, the sixth grade. Surely you can assume it as a given that college students already know how to look things up in the catalog and find them on the shelves, since they've already been doing it for six years by the time youu meet them.
posted by kindall at 11:43 AM on December 16, 2001

...since they've already been doing it for six years by the time you meet them. I wish it were so, but that is an unwarranted assumption, in my case. Even in cases in which you can safely assume that familiarity, you have to recognize the many differences between a major university library and a public library. Many people will have only had access to very small libraries. Moreover, and getting back to my original point, the Internet search has largely replaced library experience in high school.

I'm heartened that so many current and former students have responded with incredulity to paper-buying and other forms of undergrad laziness. I was really lazy when I was a freshman too, although I had the advantage of surface familiarity with college libraries. So in a sense, I have to teach students to not be like me.

The problem is that paper-buying is only one egregious example of plaigarism. It is equally bad, from my point of view, for a student to copy a thesis or argument from a website that apparently specializes in doling out prebuilt arguments with bibliography (see also 1, 2)
posted by rschram at 1:13 PM on December 16, 2001

In the face of all this talk about how easy it is to plagiarize term papers, I wonder why no one ever questions the term paper as a way of assessing student learning. Students find them nightmarish because they ask for the students to pretend to a level of expertise they don't really have. It's a totally fake assignment: you know that you will never know as much about this subject as your instructor, and will rarely have anything truly original to contirbute, and the instructor really won't care what you write, so it becomes this meaningless performance--like a pantomime of scholarship.

In the real world", if you ever have to write up extensive research papers, it's a whole different story. People read what you write because you know more than them--you're the expert by virtue of your research--and they really want to know what you come up with. It becomes immensely easier and more satisfying to write when your writing has a purpose, beyond showing how well you can feign knowledge.

I don't mean to sound dogmatic about this, but I'm not just talking through my ass either--I talk with students about this all the time. In my experience, assignments that are more personal, or more particularized to a situation, are far more likely to get students engaged than the nonspecific "write a ten-page paper on X" that they typically get--and they're far harder to cheat on. I teach in an engineering school, and I have the luxury of having students who are actively involved in projects, writing about their project work, so it's easier for me than in some liberal arts disciplines. But I think most instructors should at least do some active questioning of why they give the assignments they give.
posted by rodii at 1:14 PM on December 16, 2001

Surely you can assume it as a given that college students already know how to look things up in the catalog and find them on the shelves, since they've already been doing it for six years by the time you meet them.

Kindall: if only. Studnets are often more poorly prepared for this than you would believe. And anyway, often having the students look up books is something you want to actively avoid. In a good-sized university, books are usually out-of-date and, not being peer-reviewed, are of questionable quality. You want students to use journal articles if you care about reasonably up-to-date scholarship, and that's often quite a bit more complex.

But all types of sources are potentially biased, tendentious, sloppy or out of touch with scholarship. I can't tell me how many students have come to me with the definitive answer--and it turns out they mean they found something in some Croatian journal from the 1970s that happens to say something that they wanted/needed to believe is true. "Dilithium-crystal fuel cells are just around the corner!" And then you have to explain to them how they have to weigh all the evidence and critically evaluate the opitons. "Teaching students to use libraries" is a lot more than teaching them how the catalog works. In a way, it's shorthand for teaching critical literacy--without at least the rudiments of that, libraries can be almost as bad as the web.
posted by rodii at 1:24 PM on December 16, 2001

By the way, Rebecca Moore Howard has long been an articulate critic of the academy's obsession with plagiarism. Alas, her most interesting material isn't online or is behind logins. Here's a short piece from Four-C's and an interesting (though horribly formatted) timeline of ideas about authorship.
posted by rodii at 2:12 PM on December 16, 2001

An intersecting issue is grade-inflation: this NPR TOTN edition featured some comments of interest.

I think there is a "fear factor" that might lead a student to buy a paper, or lean on web site crutches for opinions and sources, instead of reading on their own. But a student's fear is usually borne of misunderstanding the assignment. In a world of experts and new research on the news, students think that an invitation to form their own interpretation is a challenge to act like an expert and use words to push aside confusion to communicate absolute reality. If that were the case, then students would have a right to be scared. But it never is. I don't know where it comes from, but students think that they don't have opinions, or than anything they could come up with is insignificant. So they go searching for some authority's take on some obscure topic. In point of fact, students do have opinions! Papers are for teaching students to practice arguing for them. They lack self-esteem.

Is it any wonder that students think of paper-writing as an empty performance? We (We Americans, that is!) live in a culture that alternatively despises and cherises intellectualism, but always makes it seem so exotic.
posted by rschram at 2:18 PM on December 16, 2001

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