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
It was tempting to believe that this was an aberrationone 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
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.