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. Chen investigated a few articles by BuzzFeed senior editor Matt Stopera and found that he had not only “cribbed” information from unattributed sources, but sometimes just used the original source’s text with very minimal changes.
The real problem goes beyond copying, or almost-copying, others’ work and ideas, says Chen:
…the practice does reflect something that’s bugged me for a while about BuzzFeed and the Reddit-Tumblr-4chan matrix from which its list-compiling side springs: The explosion of people happily sharing images and text completely void of context [author's emphasis]. There’s a stupid disinterest in the story behind whatever shiny internet thing has gone viral now, as if knowing more would ruin the mysterious viralness of the thing. BuzzFeed has, either knowingly or accidentally, capitalized on this by obscuring the origins of its lists—both facts taken from old-school journalistic sources, and ideas found among newfangled meme-creators. Certainly, a clean list free of links and credits heightens the impact, makes it more of a black box.
Chen’s point about this viral “explosion” of lifting content and not saying where you took it from sums up what’s so insidious about plagiarism, at BuzzFeed or at Harvard.
As Chen explains, one of the photos on a Buzz Feed list of “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity” is described as a “picture of Chicago Christians who showed up at a gay pride parade to apologize for homophobia in the Church.” But, Chen points out, the Christians in the photo belong to The Marin Foundation, whose leader, Andrew Marin “refuses to say homosexuality is not a sin, and critics argue he’s disingenuously using the LGBT angle to boost his own profile.”
On a more mundane note: I post photos of my 15-year-old autistic son Charlie frequently on my blog such as this one of him sitting in the front seat of our car with his dad. Seen by itself, you might think it’s just another sappy family photo taken by a doting mother. I admit it is, but in the context of my blog We Go With Him, it’s a portrait of unparalleled success. On We Go With Him, I chronicle the challenges and joys of raising an autistic child who has self-injurious behaviors, who can read a handful of words and who once, in a fit of anxiety, tried to grab the steering wheel of our (moving) car while thrashing and biting. The photo thus represents a moment of triumph about how far Charlie has come.
But what if someone plucked my photo and put it in a list of “10 Retards”?
That might sound ridiculous. But I wouldn’t put it pass some individual with too much time on his or her hands to do such a thing. It’s why many parents, whether or not their children have disabilities, refuse to post photos publicly of their children.
Inappropriate “borrowing” of a photo and plagiarizing answers on a final exam may seem like completely different issues. But they’re alike in that both are instances of how the internet has made it so very easy for anybody to access all sorts of information and use it as they choose and the original source could never know. In the case of the BuzzFeed posts that Chen and Manjoo discuss, someone could make themselves look incredibly and informed when they’re actually playing the copycat.
Preventing Plagiarism, Or Trying To
With all this in mind, when I grade student papers, I routinely find myself putting parts of sentences into Google search. To try to avoid students being tempted to plagiarize written work, I try to craft original assignments that aren’t the standard for courses in classical civilization. I’ve found myself emphasizing in-class assignments more, such as oral presentations and in-class exams that are written by hand with me watching. In the digital age, I’ve gone back in time and, more and more, evaluate students in ways that might not have been unfamiliar to those scholars in ancient Alexandria. Ironically, the digital age has made pens and paper more relevant than ever — and, perhaps, made take-home exams submitted electronically a thing of the past.
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Photo of the Widener Library at Harvard displaying its motto, "Veritas" (truth) by ilamont.com