125 Harvard students accused of cheating on a final exam last spring face disciplinary action including possible one-year suspensions or, for those who have graduated, the revocation of their diplomas. A note sent to the students says they could be charged with “academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism.”
But this case is about more than students at one of the most high-powered universities in the world cheating. In a digital age, when vast stores of information — more than the ancient scholars at the fabled library of Alexandria ever dreamed of — can be instantly found, and when we can communicate via text or Facebook chat or Skype no matter where we are at all hours of the day, the Internet has blurred the lines around plagiarism to the extent that we do not always realize when we are guilty of it.
Technically, Harvard Students Cheated
The Harvard students did not look over another student’s shoulder or copy answers scribbled on their arm. Their exam for the course Introduction to Congress was a take-home exam, which they had several days to complete and which was graded not by the faculty member, Matthew B. Platt but by graduate student teaching fellows (TFs).
In a New York Times article, students described a disconnect between the professor’s lectures and the instructions on four take-home tests and of inconsistencies in the TFs’ grading rubrics and answers about class requirements. As a result, students regularly shared notes and discussed test questions among themselves even though the final exam stated that “students may not discuss the exam with others.” As one accused sophomore says, sharing information was “widespread and accepted.”
But the exam was also ”completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc..” As the the New York Times asks, is there “a fundamental contradiction” going on here, directing students to use online resources but not talk about a take-home exam with each other?
In the Age of the Internet, Plagiarism Is Just Too Easy
In The Harvard Crimson, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris says that the extent of plagiarism and/or inappropriate collaboration is “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory.” Harris appeared to single out the internet, saying in the New York Times that “The enabling role of technology is a big part of this picture. It’s the ease of sharing. With that has come, I believe, a certain cavalier attitude.”
The argument has been made that, in an age of mashups and mix tapes, those who have grown up with laptops in their laps have a different conception of what’s allowed and what’s not.
Plagiarism has become too easy — but students today do not always realize they are plagiarizing.
BuzzFeed, Listicles and the Ever-Present Danger of Plagiarism
Earlier this summer in Gawker, Adrian Chen described plagiarism on a far larger scale on the internet. In Slate, Farhad Manjoo had explained how the high-traffic site BuzzFeed seems to base quite a few of its very popular stories on topics and images from other sites.
Photo of the Widener Library at Harvard displaying its motto, "Veritas" (truth) by ilamont.com
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