For the past ten years I have spent more time checking papers for plagiarism than ever before. It’s tedious and disheartening – and always fruitful, because I don’t think there has been a single batch of student papers that has not include several examples of different kinds of plagiarism. I see everything, from deliberate and brazen passages cut-and-pasted directly from Internet pages to more subtle forms of intellectual property theft, such as “borrowing” interpretations and theories.
I occasionally catch myself wondering why students who commit these academic crimes are even enrolled in college, but then I remember that I already know the answer: they just want the degree, not the learning that is supposed to come along with higher education. For many of them, that is the only goal they know, because they have been cheated out of the experience of learning to both learn effectively and to love learning along the way toward their goals.
That’s why the latest report in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the “We Take Your Class” company was both infuriating and distressing. This company was the latest variation of those for-profit businesses that help students cheat by providing papers for a fee. The big difference was that this company doesn’t just provide papers – it offered to actually complete a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for a paying customer.
According to Inside Higher Ed, their expose of the company forced it to shut down:
“Inside Higher Ed received a call Tuesday from someone claiming to be the site’s owner. The caller, Kevin, who declined to give his last name, said the site was not all that lucrative and with the added attention garnered last week, he decided to take it down. He added that he does not think sites like We Take Your Class are a problem; the problem, he believes, is that education is structured in a way that makes it easy to cheat.”
I didn’t think it was possible to find anything more absurd than the actual service the company offered-until I read that statement by its founder. It’s like saying there’s nothing wrong with robbing a bank; the real problem is how easy banks make it to steal from them. There’s no recognition of the basic moral and ethical principles on which our society should be governed.
That absence of an internalized and common understanding of the importance of independent ethical standards also seems to be a problem plaguing many of our students today, if the rise in cheating is any indication.
How Much Cheating is there in College?
To answer the above question: a lot. There is a lot of cheating in college these days. Last month, The New York Times reported that “Studies of student behavior and attitudes show that a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree, and that high achievers are just as likely to do it as others. Moreover, there is evidence that the problem has worsened over the last few decades.” The report indicates a few main reasons for the rise in cheating frequency:
- Tolerance of unethical academic behavior: “Both schools and parents have failed to give students strong, repetitive messages about what is allowed and what is prohibited.”
- New technology abets cheating: “Internet access has made cheating easier, enabling students to connect instantly with answers, friends to consult and works to plagiarize. And generations of research has shown that a major factor in unethical behavior is simply how easy or hard it is.”
- Lack of knowledge about what academic behaviors constitute plagiarism and cheating.
- Insecurity about their futures and stress about increased competition in the job market makes students feel that they must excel in order to secure employment-even if they have to cheat to get the grades.
I concur with Laurie L. Hazard, the director of the Academic Center for Excellence at Bryant University, who blames factors beyond individual student motivation for the higher rates of cheating today. Schools, she argues, are themselves part of the problem. She told The New York Times, “Institutions do a poor job of making those boundaries clear and consistent, of educating students about them, of enforcing them, and of giving teachers a clear process to follow through on them.”
This is spot-on, in my experience. While in my experience at public universities and community colleges, I was always supported by the administration when I assigned a well-deserved failing grade to a plagiarist or cheater, I know other faculty members who have been forced by the school’s administration to accept corrupt academic work. I definitely can vouch for the existence of high tolerance and low standards at private and for-profit colleges, as I was forced on many occasions to allow certain students to pass courses for which they turned in work that I had proved was plagiarized. It was maddening, demoralizing, and made me feel that not only were the students who behaved ethically were being treated unfairly, but also that my own work was meaningless.
The Impact of Cheating
Cheating, and tolerance of such behavior, completely devalues the worth of a college degree. If all you need to do to get a college degree is pay someone to take your online course, or buy a paper written by someone else, then the degree you hold is essentially meaningless. It doesn’t represent a mastery of anything, except perhaps sleazy behavior. Schools that tolerate such practices will quickly gain bad reputations that will hurt the future employability of their graduates.
So why do institutions tolerate cheating? There are many reasons, all of which are hollow at their core and do students, faculty and the school itself a massive disservice. One argument that I find faulty is the idea that it’s not fair to penalize students who “don’t know any better.” I don’t buy that the majority of students are that naïve or clueless. While I know from experience that many students are confused about just exactly how to cite material properly, they have a pretty good idea that they’re supposed to do their own work. That would negate the argument that there’s nothing wrong with having someone else do their work for them or copying from a website.
I’ve also heard faculty and administrators argue that students work very hard balancing family and jobs along with school, and we should therefore cut them a break now and then. This is another false argument, because it makes two dangerous assumptions: 1) some students should be treated differently based on their life circumstances; 2) there are no absolute ethical standards that can’t be compromised by special considerations. While I recognize that some situations require special handling because of outside factors, I think those cases should be the exception rather than the rule. In general we should cut students a break by providing the appropriate consequences before they enter the job force, before they can lose their job if they commit unethical behavior.
Finally, tolerance of cheating, whether through plagiarism or by not checking to guarantee that the student enrolled in an online course is the person completing the work is dangerous. It’s more than an ethical problem-it means that students are graduating without the skills they need and will be ineffective and even possibly dangerous employees. Imagine a student with a nursing degree who starts an internship without having mastered the knowledge necessary to care for patients. The potential to make mistakes is enormous.
What to Do about Cheating
Instructors and administrators need to set firm parameters, and back them up with real consequences. Faculty can check out these solutions or preventing plagiarism, and administrators should work with faculty to support their efforts. It might also be worth looking into the possibility of taking legal action against companies like We Take Your Class, for fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.
In other words, we need to be as creative in finding ways to prevent academic fraud as students are at committing it.