Those of you with any contact to academia have probably already seen this fascinating first-person exposé of professional plagiarism, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Ed Dante” (whose name is as genuine as “Sungold”) makes a little over $60K annually churning out faux dissertations, term papers, and plain old essays. His story is a fascinating portrait of a guy who makes about 50% more than I do (and my Ph.D. is real!) just by having no scruples.
I’m enough of a dilettante to understand the appeal of conducting research all over the map. I’ve translated texts ranging from marketing blather to the inner workings of a Porsche. I’ve taught a religion class (though my training is in German history and gender studies) and I wrote a dissertation that immersed me in old German medical journals without a lick of formal medical training. So I grok the fun of roaming among every discipline except for math and animal husbandry (Dante’s two no-goes). What I don’t get is how Dante sleeps at night. Then again, with all-nighters right in the job description, I guess the sleep of the just is bound to elude him anyway.
On top of his amorality, Dante tries to shift blame to professors, who he alleges are too checked-out to catch obvious cheaters. This is complete and utter bullcrap. Let’s peer more closely at Dante’s tripartite clientele: spoiled rich kids, unprepared ESL speakers, and native speakers whose education has abjectly failed them. The rich kids are usually capable of the work but too lazy and too moneyed to bother. Dante says that we profs ought to be busting the latter two groups, however, because the disparities between their formal written work and other verbal expression are so glaring.
In rare cases, professors are negligent. My own university had a celebrated plagiarism case a few years back where a certain engineering prof overlooked multiple cases of plagiarism in the theses he supervised. It was celebrated precisely because it was an anomaly – and because the rest of the faculty were furious! The vast majority of my colleagues are adept at spotting plagiarized work and willing to call our students out on it.
So why aren’t we busting Dante’s clients? The reason is not laziness or laxity. It’s the impossibility of proving our case. Students with poor writing skills can avail themselves of tutoring services – and indeed they should, because they can’t expect remedial instruction in their regular classes. But tutoring services muddy the waters. Even the most diligent teacher can’t prove that a student hired a ghostwriter rather than consulting a tutor.
When it comes to garden-variety cut-n-paste Internet-based cheating, though, making the case is a snap. It’s remarkably easy to spot the paper that’s cobbled together from various websites and a student’s own prose. I caught three students cheating this fall. It’s not a pleasure – in fact, I’m always quite upset when I discover plagiarism – but it’s also far from rocket science. You just need to google a suspicious phrase that jars with the student’s own style, and the source usually pops right up. Sometimes you need to slice and dice the phrase a bit to compensate for slight paraphrasing by the plagiarist.
What does this mean for our students’ educational experience? At Big Think, Pareg and Ayesha Khanna suggest that the easy availability of scholarly and semi-scholarly material online may spell the death of academic integrity as we know it. They fear students will cobble bits of the Web into a serviceable or even honors-level paper.
I think not. Cut-n-paste plagiarizing is easily minimized through three main strategies. You start by including a clear policy on academic integrity in each syllabus, which lays out a definition of the delict and the range of penalties. You then create assignments that resist simple cutting and pasting. I no longer assign a novel in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, for instance, because SparkNotes sadly proved too tempting. The
second third (ooops!) strategy is to read carefully for style. The paper plagiarized through Internet bricolage reads like the patchwork that it is. It veers from Wikipedia-style prose to ad-speak, then devolves into jibberish (that would be the hapless student’s original contribution), only to soar to the loftiest heights of poststructuralist theory. Oh, and if your U.S.-American student writes of “colour” or “kerbs,” your next stop better be the Google.
Of course, a few students will still be rich or desperate enough to resort to the Dantes of the world. Their number is declining, I suspect. Most students would rather spend disposable income on fun (often, drink). Most students are not organized enough to engage Dante’s service in a timely way. Instead, they seek refuge in Wikipedia at 3 a.m., not realizing that their profs can read Wikipedia, too. Much as I’d love to see students make use of actual books in the library, at least their over-dependence on Wikipedia is likely to hurt Dante’s business.
At the end of the day, I wonder why anyone bothers to copy from the Web. The results are typically incoherent. Sometimes they’re unintentionally hilarious. My recent favorite? Definitely the paper that tried to explain patriarchy and ancient Roman sexuality with stuff swiped from Conservapedia on pagans, a neo-Pagan site called Nova Roma, and interview material from Starhawk – all unattributed, of course. Hey, I’d love to see Starhawk hobnob with Conservapedia’s founder, Andy Schlafly (spawn of Phyllis!). Thanks to my unfortunate student, I got to experience the next closest thing.
(The title goes back to a post on plagiarism allegations against Barack Obama in 2008. I couldn’t resist recycling it.)