Last week, Annette Schavan, Germany’s education and science minister (and confidante of Chancellor Angela Merkel) resigned and was stripped of her Ph.D, after the discovery that her dissertation was plagiarized.
At the start of February, some 70 Harvard students were forced to leave the university after an investigation revealed that they had cheated on a take-home final exam given last May in a government class.
In July, best-selling “pop-neuroscience” writer Jonah Lehrer resigned from his position as a staff writer for The New Yorker after reports that some of his blog posts for that publication had been recycled from pieces he had written for other sites including the Wall Street Journal, Wired and the Guardian. Afterwards, an article in Tablet Magazine revealed that Lehrer had fabricated quotes he had attributed to Bob Dylan in his 2012 book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”
People in high-profile positions and with plenty of advantages are cheating, but they’re also getting caught and the very thing that makes cheating too easy — computers and the internet — is also making it easier to catch them in the act and publicize what they’ve done.
We’ve All Become Ministers of Cut-and-Paste
It’s not news that college students cheat. The Harvard scandal has received widespread attention due to the number of students involved and the university’s prestige and selectivity.
Lehrer’s self-plagiarizing of his own writing suggests one reason that students at a place like Harvard cheated en masse. Computers have made it possible for all of us to be “Baron zu Googleberg,” the name given to Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany’s former defense minister, after he was stripped of his Ph.D. and resigned form his post when he was found to have, like Schavan, plagiarized his dissertation. Why write something entirely new when you can copy, paste, and move a few words and phrases around?
The investigation of the Harvard students indeed found that they had actually submitted work with “identical answers, down to, in some cases, typographical errors,” says the New York Times. More than a few of the students must have simply just copied from each other. Everybody cheats not just because it’s just too easy. We cut and paste because we’ve got the technology to do so. Courtesy of Wikipedia and the Internet, there’s a seemingly endless amount of material to draw on and so much that it’s easy to think, “how will someone every find that I’ve taken words that were not my own from this obscure site?”
They Cheat Because They Can, But…
The Harvard case has some parallels with cases of plagiarism discovered among students taking MOOCs (massive open online courses) from sites such as Coursera. The Harvard students are accused of cheating on a take-home exam. Like students taking MOOCs, they did the work away from the classroom, without anyone overseeing what they were doing.
Some have suggested that Germans’ obsession with acquiring doctorates — one professor calls this “title arousal” — as the reason for plagiarism. These people just didn’t want to do, or weren’t able to, do the work to acquire an academic degree. By this reasoning, Lehrer was just too lazy to write original work for The New Yorker and really thought he could get away with making up quotes from Bob Dylan.
Nobody likes a cheater and there are watchdogs out there. Schavan, zu Guttenberg and another high-ranking German politician, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, were all exposed as plagiarists thanks to the efforts of online activists via websites including VroniPlag Wiki, which allows people to analyze academic texts for originality or the lack thereof. It wasn’t too hard for readers to discover that Lehrer had plagiarized his own writing by checking the web.
The push to develop MOOCs and the fact that students can take more MOOC courses for college credit mean that the plagiarism problem is not going to go away. Purveyors of online courses need to keep in mind that, if people can cheat their way through an online course (and even get college credit for it) without actually learning the material, the value of MOOCs and other online educational sites is severely limited. Educators (especially of online course sites) need to acknowledge that, yes, it is going to happen. The consequences need to be clearly spelled out and the limitations of honor codes and pledges acknowledged. Cheaters need to know that people are reading and checking and aren’t shy about reporting what they found on the likes of Twitter.
Technology and the internet have made it far easier to cheat, but they’ve also made it easier to get caught. The German politicians and Lehrer have learned this the hard way. Earlier this week, in his first public comments since he was accused of plagiarism (and at an event at which he was paid generously to speak), Lehrer said that he plans to ”structure his own life to prevent future ethical failings in the writing field, committing anything he writes in the future to strict footnoting and full fact checks, whether it’s a blog post, speech or book.”
Then he ended his talk with a Bob Dylan quote that he said was real — and journalists instantly fact-checked it.
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