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By Julie Ryan

Academic integrity ain't what it used to be. A few years ago, there were just two types of students involved in plagiarism: those who didn't know how to write a paper and those looking for quick and easy solutions to an onerous assignment. But now all kinds of students are using other people's work and calling it their own, even those who are interested in learning and doing good work. The sea of information available to them seems to have affected how they approach and use information.

Last year, I challenged a student over a clearly plagiarized paper. He insisted that it was not plagiarized and offered to demonstrate how he had written it. He sat down at the computer and proceeded to show me how he researched and crafted the paper. He opened an Internet browser window and a word processing file. When he found something appropriate from the Internet, he would copy and paste it into his word processing file. After getting all the data he needed, he rearranged some sentence fragments, used the thesaurus to change a few words, and presented me with the finished work. The process only took a few minutes. When I pointed out to him that what he had demonstrated was plagiarism, he became incensed and argumentative, not understanding what I was telling him.

It was tempting to believe that this was an aberration—one student who didn't understand. But that hypothesis has been shot down as more and more cases of this two-step source laundering scheme (as I've come to call it) has come to my attention.

I have tried to understand the thought process used to justify such blatant theft. My first theory is based on the peer-to-peer file-swapping services used to exchange music files and other copyrighted material. The justifications for this kind of intellectual property theft are remarkably similar to the excuses I hear for plagiarism. “It's actually good for the music industry, since I get to hear music from artists that I normally wouldn't ever hear.” And, “It's only data, and I'm not hurting anyone by using it.” The analogous excuses for plagiarism are “I'm helping promulgate information that needs to be distributed for the common good,” and “The authors put it on the Internet so people could use it.”

My second theory is based on the velocity of money concept that economists use to describe wealth creation. But in this case it is a two-part wealth equation, with one inverse relationship. As more and more students attain their educational goals without ever having to experience a single original thought, the well of knowledge erodes further and further. And because those with academic credentials are rewarded with job opportunities and higher salaries, their wealth increases. This theory postulates that the student is a rational economic being maximizing output while minimizing input.

It would be interesting to determine if there is more than anecdotal evidence to support these models, but even if there were, it obscures the real issue. There appears to be a massive erosion of value placed on the time-intensive process of learning and thinking. There's a dangerous perception that all great thoughts have already been thought and all that's left is to learn how to find those thoughts. Is it necessary to know the capitals of nations when one can look it up online? A just-in-time theory of knowledge says that it's actually a waste of effort to learn things that can be easily referenced. And as time becomes a premium commodity in our society, this may be an attractive concept. Yet educators know that the life-changing effects of thinking require introspection and examination, neither of which can be achieved through just-in-time knowledge acquisition.

Julie Ryan is an associate professor in the department of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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