Tuesday, July 14, 2009

When is a Paper not a Paper?

Note: I'd been holding this post to publish later in the summer, closer to when school will begin, but Matt at KanKanChadash http://kankanchadash.blogspot.com/ just put up a posting on cheating and I felt that this posting might be cogent to the discussion of his posting.

I belong to a few online professional forums for college professors. The Internet is a real blessing in this area. It allows for discussion among faculty members who might otherwise never meet. But it is precisely the Internet that has been giving some of us conniption fits lately.

Once upon a time when a student wanted to plagiarize a paper he had to find a student who had written a paper that would fit what he/she was looking for or had to find someone who could write the paper for a price. Finding that student paper was not all that easy. Mostly you were limited to students on your own campus. In a town with more than one college you might be able to locate that paper at one of the other campuses. But it took real effort to find that paper. Yes--unfortunately--cheating is not a new phenomenon. Enter the Internet.

The world is now a student's oyster, so to speak. No longer are students limited to papers they can find on their own campus, and which might result in their being caught easier. Now they can go on a fishing expedition for that paper all over the world, and certainly all over the US. After all, there are really a limited number of topics that can be assigned on any given work. And because topics are finite, somewhere out there a paper exists that will solve a student's problem. The Internet has become a repository for many of those papers that students write. Some are on free paper sites: others can be purchased from the paper mills.

Slowly but surely colleges and universities are fighting back. There is now more than one program available that can do an online search when a student's paper is scanned into a computer. That search highlights any and all material that comes from another source. It shows whether the source has been cited correctly. And it can find papers that are available on the paper mills.

In addition, some colleges and universities are now requiring that all papers written for courses be submitted electronically, copies of which are stored in a special school databank. All submitted papers are automatically scanned to check for plagiarism. Even where this is not the case schoolwide, many individual professors are doing this for the classes they teach.

Some schools/professors have the policy that work written in class counts more than that written outside of class. The rationale is that what a student gives you within the classroom is truly his/hers and what comes from outside may have been doctored by someone else. At a minimum, in class written work gives professors a baseline to compare out of class work to.

Those of us on the forums have shared our methodologies for cutting down cheating. Some of the suggestions have been very helpful, and I've adapted a few to my own classes. But what bothers all of us is that we are being forced to play the policeman to begin with. We've heard all the reasons for cheating, starting with the most popular one--"There is too much homework and too many assignments and it's impossible to pass a course/graduate without borrowing work!" A whole lot of us got our degrees at a time when cheating and plagiarism were harder to accomplish, before computers and the Internet. Yes, it existed even then, but to a far smaller degree. One thing we agree on: there wasn't less work during the time we were in college: there was more. Research required a lot of physical running around and a lot of time spent in the library's stacks. Writing a paper was done on a typewriter, and finding an error on a page required retyping the whole page. Most colleges in the "olden" days required 128 to 132 credits for a BA/BS degree: today that is 120 credits. There were far more required courses in the olden days as well. So what has changed that could cause the type of attitude that not only condones cheating but glorifies it?

From our perspective democratic egalitarianism is a major culprit. American society not only decided that college should be available for everyone, but that everyone should be going on to college. Commerce and industry jumped on this bandwagon by making a college degree the working degree in many fields where it previously was not. Having a college degree is no longer "something special" when virtually anyone can get one from somewhere. You think not? The proof is in the number of diploma mills that proliferate today. Their key selling point is not the education and knowledge that they offer but the quickness in getting the piece of paper that says "I have a degree." They compete with each other in how quickly someone can earn a degree from them, and in how easily that degree can be earned. One such diploma mill proudly advertises that students who register with them will have to do no papers and take no tests and can complete a degree in the comfort of their home in under a year. Say what?!!!

Unfortunately, students who attend a regular college have been bitten by the same bug that infests the diploma mills. They reason that they are paying for college, so it's like any other consumer item: you pay, they give you, no questions (or papers or tests) asked. No one asks you to prove that you deserve that car or dining room set that you purchase, so why should a college do so? The result is cheating on a larger level with no accompanying angst in case someone is caught.

Just a fair word of warning to those who believe that they can cheat their way through college with impunity: instructors are fighting back, and expect some carnage. We believe that the old commercial was right, and we've adapted it to our use. We expect students to say: "I got my college degree the old fashioned way: I earned it." Or maybe our rationale comes from a different commercial. A whole lot of us believe that college should be done the straight way because "We answer to a Higher Authority."


also a teacher said...

If teachers didn't have to spend so much time figuring just how and when their students were going to cheat, and trying to devise ways to keep them from doing it, they might be able to spend more time with subject matter.

You'd think that yeshiva students would be better about the cheating, in not doing it, but mostly they aren't.

When I caught two students cheating from each other during a test I failed them both. You should have heard the uproar from the students and from the parents. And what was the reason used most to excuse these two students? "Everyone else is doing it so why are you singling out our kids?!!!"

Glatt kosher? Glatt yosher! said...

Any 'frum' people who cheat should get severely punished and let them know that they have to do teshuvoh as well.

The saying of Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer z"l comes to mind - Glatt kosher? Glatt yosher!

Ari said...

Cheaters are usually just cheating themselves. They won't be able to compete when the playing field is level. When society lowers standards -- even when it's well meant, such as with home ownership -- there will be consequences to pay. A college degree -- and, yes, a house -- is an earned privilege, not an automatic right, not a box to check.

JS said...

Good post. I welcome these technological advances that will help catch these students. It's especially disturbing when yeshiva kids are involved in this.

Another theory for college classes: many times kids have tons of requirements completely unrelated to their major - for example, they're a finance major and have to take a Shakespeare class. I think those types of students are the most likely to cheat as they don't like the subject, feel it has no bearing on their future career or knowledge of finance, don't care about being "well-rounded" and just see it as a distraction from their "real" classes.

tnspr569 said...

It's appalling that people actually EXPECT me to help them cheat, and then scold me for refusing to do so!

Students have found ways to get around the online submission forms. Nothing is perfect.

Shmendrik said...

Cheating is reprehensible. Going on (and on) about the "good old days" and "kids nowadays" is merely annoying, and has been fashionable since classical times or earlier.

jb said...

there have always been an abundance of cheaters, just more are getting caught nowadays thanks to the aforementioned technologies.

Lion of Zion said...


i think people who cheat, do so across the board. not just in their non-major classes.

Dave said...

A number of Universities have an Honor Code, with very strict penalties for breaches.

I recall, when I was living in Charlottesville, the University of Virginia revoked the degrees of a group of recent graduates (including some who had gone on to graduate school) because they had cheated.

Anonymous said...

Not related to cheating, but related to your impression fo college. How many people were able to get a job right out of college when you went to college? how many people are able to do that now? this brings up food for thought about whether the curriculim in our colleges need to be changed. Brad

ProfK said...


I can't think of anyone who I know who went to college back when I did who could not get employed if they wanted to be employed. Obviously, today it may be harder to find a job, in a depressed job market. Certain job sectors were hit harder than others during this recession. I wouldn't place the blame on the curriculum followed by colleges, however.

Back when I was in college, CUNY was completely free (except for a registration fee each term) but you had to compete to get in. CUNY then required SAT scores above a certain number and B averages or better coming out of high school. You needed to keep your grade point up if you expected to remain in school. Sure, lots of people went to CUNY, but nowhere near the number in attendance today. And because open admissions became the norm in 1972, frankly the caliber of student went down, along with the preparation a student brought with them to college.

If there were 50 bio majors graduating in 1971 from CUNY you could guarantee an employer that these students did well in high school and did well in college. Today you may have ten times as many bio majors and you can't make the same claim about knowledge and scholarship. Not all of them are as employable as others are.

There are many other colleges and universities who are facing the by products of virtually admitting anyone and everyone: more graduates and some of them not as accomplished as others.

Dumbing down college curriculi is not the answer, nor is shaving off thick portions of what is required to be studied. The answer is to let the high schools know that college--all colleges--are going to get competitive again. If you want a college degree--and the employment assurances that degree is supposed to bring--you had better be prepared to work for it, and work hard.

Knitter of shiny things said...

I think the lack of ability to get a job straight out of college is due in large part to the fact that such a huge portion of the population is now going on to college. It's not just a matter of some schools lowering their standards. Graduates of even the more selective universities are struggling. And of course the economy is no help. It's a sad state when people with multiple degrees from Ivy League universities are unemployed. Or, to be a bit self-centered, it's a sad state when this person with multiple degrees from Ivy League schools is unemployed. And I definitely worked in all of my classes with no cheating. Why bother paying $40,000 a year if you're not going to learn anything?

Alas, you can't swing a cat in Cambridge without hitting someone with a Harvard degree. So even if you have a degree from a great school, it might not mean anything anymore.