Plagiarism, Publicity, and the Human Flesh Search Engine

Doesn't anyone care about honesty anymore?

In an article "University fires teacher for blog post," the Daily Texan reports that Texas A&M University fired a professor for publishing the names of students accused of plagiarism.

In his syllabus, professor Loye Young wrote that he would "promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating or stealing."  After he discovered six students had plagiarized on an essay, Young posted their names on his blog, resulting in his firing last week.

Plagiarism has become so common that high-school and college teachers routinely use software which detects plagiarism by comparing the student's paper with writings found on the Internet.  An acquaintance who teaches in a public high school reports that parents complained so vehemently when their kids were flunked for plagiarism that the school set up a special "plagiarism board."  A student caught cheating is warned; if the student is caught again, an "F" is awarded in the course where the second offense occurred.  In this case, Prof. Young published the plagiarizers' names on his blog rather than merely failing them.

Young, a former adjunct professor of management information systems, said he believes he made the right move.  He said trials are public for a reason, and plagiarism should be treated the same way.  He added that exposing cheaters is an effective deterrent.

We've written about the "All Seeing Eye" which is depicted on the dollar bill.  The image suggests that God is always watching you and that He cares whether you follow the rules or not, even if nobody else ever finds out you broke them.

Most people recognize that it's in society's interest for people to follow rules of their own volition.  It's simply too expensive to hire enough policemen to ensure that everyone follows all the laws all the time if they don't want to, and you have the problem of corrupt police.  The optimum outcome for society at large is for citizens to internalize good behavior rather than expecting parents, teachers, bosses, and/or cops to force good behavior; that was the purpose of talking about the All-Seeing Eye.

Making it necessary for teachers to run every student's paper through a plagiarism detector creates unproductive work for teachers.  If plagiarism is in fact wrong, it would be preferable for students not to plagiarize because they understand that it's wrong rather than for them not to plagiarize only because they know the teacher might "out" them.

Prof. Young felt that a mere F wasn't enough of a deterrent; he stated up front that he'd post the names of anyone he caught cheating.  He hoped that the threat of humiliation would deter plagiarism.

"I think we went wrong when we, leaders, decided better self-esteem meant better learning," he said.  "But in fact, it's the opposite."

This issue is intimately bound up with the question of what we consider to be the purpose of education.  There was a day early in our nation's history when students studied for the sheer pleasure of learning and for the benefit of possessing knowledge.  In that day, relatively few people went to college; the majority had just enough education to read and perform simple maths.  If you didn't really want to learn, you went into a trade and stopped wasting time in the classroom.

In the 1960's, it was recognized that people with college degrees earned significantly more money than people with only a high school education.  Since many potential students could not afford college, the government offered "Pell Grants" to help people pay for college.

Assuming that people who benefit from Pell grants earn more money and pay more income tax unless they attain sufficiently powerful political connections, this may be a reasonable government investment.

The commercial view of education raises the issue of ethics in teaching, however.  If the purpose of a college education is to impart knowledge, a student who cheats only harms himself because he doesn't learn as much as he would have learned had he done the work.

If the purpose is make the graduate more valuable to an employer, on the other hand, there is an implied contract between the college and the employer that an official college diploma means that the student has actually done the work listed in the college graduation standards, and that the student understands the material sufficiently well to make use of it in serving the employer's needs.

With so many graduates famously unable to read their own diplomas, an American high school diploma is almost meaningless.  As a result, many jobs that once required only a high school education now demand a college degree even though the actual knowledge needed to do the job has not changed.

The Game of Degrees

The devaluation of high school credentials has led to the appearance of many two-year "community colleges" which take up the slack by granting degrees that take the place of now-worthless high school diplomas.  Many of these colleges are government-supported; their teachers demand the same salaries and pensions as other government employees.

This illustrates the perverse incentives which we taxpayers have given the educational establishment.  Because they've managed to get away with not teaching high-schoolers anything much, the educrats get to start taxpayer-funded "colleges" which teach what the high school system should have taught.  The worse job our unionized government teachers do, the more money they get and the more unionized teachers we're forced to fund.

Getting Prof. Young fired wasn't enough to satisfy his plagiarizing students.  They asked the college to rescind the F's he gave them.

In asking the college to cover up their plagiarism, the students were asking the college to enter into a conspiracy to defraud their future employers - their grade reports would indicate that they'd done the work for Prof. Young's course when in fact they had not.

It's not as if it's hard to avoid getting caught for plagiarism; students can use the same plagiarism filters teachers use and modify their papers enough to pass.  How hard is that?  These students were too lazy even to use that elementary precaution against detection; yet they still expected to pay no price for their theft.

Is Plagiarism a Special Case?

The issue of plagiarism was thoroughly muddied by Boston University, which awarded a Ph.D. to Martin Luther King Jr.  The famous urban legend research website Snopes reports:

During the 1980s, archivists associated with The Martin Luther King Papers Project uncovered evidence that the dissertation King prepared for his Ph.D. in theology from Boston University, "A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman," was plagiarized, and the story broke in the national media in 1990.  King included in his dissertation a good deal of material taken verbatim from a variety of other sources without proper attribution (or any attribution at all), an act which constitutes plagiarism by any reasonable academic standard.

In 1991 a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation but did not recommend the revocation of his degree.

In treating Mr. King's obvious plagiarism according to the color of his skin rather than according to the amply-demonstrated content of his academic character, Boston University continued a deceptive practice by which colleges issue two types of certification: a) legitimate degrees where students actually do the work and b) spurious degrees where students get a pass for political reasons.

Everyone associated with academia in any way knows this, of course.  Faculty, students, and prospective employers take political factors into account when evaluating credentials, so much so that Michelle Obama famously wrote while at Princeton that she was always "black first, student second."

We don't know whether Prof. Young's students were aware of the checkered history of plagiarism within academia, but they're certainly aware that academic standards are "adjusted" for political reasons.  Given that getting a college degree is a political game, they might reason, why not play the game so as to get the degree without doing the work?  The fact that their cheating devalues the degrees of students who do the work probably doesn't enter into their calculations.

The question remains whether Prof. Young's "outing" the plagiarizers was a legitimate response to their cheating.  The university felt it wasn't - they fired him and claimed that revealing details of students' academic performance without permission violated Federal privacy laws.

The accusation that Prof. Young violated federal privacy law is a red herring.  He had clearly warned his students what he planned to do if they cheated, both in the course prospectus and in his opening lecture.

If the students believed that his promised actions would be improper, they were free not to take his course.  His syllabus was like a software license - by signing up for his class, the students in effect checked the "I Agree" box.  This gave Prof. Young permission to release details of their academic performance; the feds have no legitimate complaint against Prof. Young, and in fact they don't appear even to be investigating.

Firing the teacher who ratted out his cheating students doesn't necessarily reveal the college's attitude towards plagiarism, but it shows plainly that management was more concerned with keeping paying customers happy than with maintaining academic standards.

Is Publicity a Legitimate Punishment?

Publicity has a powerful effect on behavior.  Opponents of the Californian Proposition 8 which outlawed homosexual marriage have published the names and addresses of people who donated money to support the proposition; some of those who were "outed" in this way have lost their jobs.

The risk of being criticized for supporting a political position will popularize Mr. Obama's supporters' practice of bending, if not violating, campaign finance laws by purchasing credit cards for cash and making anonymous Internet donations.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, particularly in politics.

China lacks independent media which criticize the government, a situation similar to the way American media have chosen to behave regarding President Obama and other prominent DemocratsUSA Today reports that Chinese Internet users are filling the information gap brought about by their overly-compliant news media:

Vigilant Internet users spotted news photos of a housing official and posted heated online discussions about his $15,000 Swiss watch and $22-a-pack cigarettes.

Two weeks later, Zhou Juigeng in Nanjing was fired.

Public shaming has become common enough to need a name:

The phenomenon, in a country that heavily censors the Internet, has an unusual name - "human flesh search engine" - a Chinese phrase describing how individuals are hunted down and exposed on the Web.

As our media continue to abandon their Constitutional task of holding politicians accountable, the Internet offers some hope of deterring wrongdoing.  As colleges drift further away from rigorous academic standards, is the Internet the only means of holding academic wrongdoers accountable?

On the other hand, accountability may be an obsolete concept.  When he was charged with wrongdoing, Pres. Clinton famously said, in effect, that what he did was illegal only if you got caught.

Cheating on income taxes no longer disqualifies you from being a cabinet officer or Congressman.  Our treasury secretary didn't pay his income taxes; our leaders set examples for us all.

It's possible that in firing Prof. Young for trying to enforce academic standards, the college is properly fulfilling its mission of preparing students for the realities modern American "adult" life.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
There's another factor to consider. These are kids, many of whom - as you pointed out - are being challenged for the very first time since public education has failed so badly.

To publically shame grown adults, writers, politicians, campaign contributors is NOT the same thing as outing teenagers. What would have been the harm in immediately expelling them from the university and leaving it at that?

Punishment as a deterrent only works if those that are watching the punishment are mature enough to GET the lesson. Adults, politicians, pundits learn from each other's mistakes. Kids most of the time do not. Do we give life sentences to juvenile delinquents so that other kids will learn from their mistakes?

The college years are the transition time for most kids to climb the maturity ladder to adulthood. If they stumble on a rung, should we burn the entire ladder?
February 20, 2009 9:28 AM
See, there's the problem. College is not SUPPOSED to be the time you transition into being an adult; that's what high school is for. By the time you set foot within the ivied walls, you are supposed to already BE an adult.

Actually, these days all too many college graduates aren't any more mature than your average 15-year-old of the 1950s - "adolescence" seems to extend all the way through the 20s now.
February 20, 2009 12:02 PM

Ideally, yes. But as the author noted, the education department has royally screwed young adults. They can barely read, let alone make good decisions about their future and learn from other people's mistakes.

Yesterday's 10 year olds are today's 20 year olds.

Either way, I still don't agree that plagiarism alone is enough to completely destroy a teenager's future.
February 20, 2009 12:45 PM
I would argue that the plagiarism conviction isn't going to destroy anyone's future. It is merely a reflection of the fact that they themselves, through their laziness and lack of morals, have pretty much already destroyed their future. With some help, to be sure - but they must bear some responsibility, whether they were trained to do so or not.
February 20, 2009 12:54 PM

Every college application I've seen specifically asks if the student has ever been reprimanded for plagiarism. A public record makes lying on the application impossible.

As this article correctly notes, for most people, college is the only path they have to any kind of success in life.

Societies understand that "laziness and lack of morals" is pretty common plan with children. Being expelled from a class or college definitely constitutes bearing responsibility. Punishment doesn't have to be all or nothing.
February 20, 2009 1:09 PM
But being expelled from a class or college would require them to answer "Yes I plagiarized" on any college application thereafter anyway.

Unless you're encouraging them to lie?
February 20, 2009 2:16 PM

Of course, I'm encouraging them to lie. Lying gives them a second chance. Lying let's them start over.

Everyone lies, or at least exaggerates, on college/job applications.

No one wants the entire, ugly, naked truth about themselves in plain view, and most civil people don't want to SEE the entire, ugly, naked truth about other people. The internet has created a brand of voyeurs who love exposing, persisting and promoting these faults as a product. I believe we will live to see the day when society regrets this. Public punishments, public exposure, public mocking is dragging our society into a black hole that never should have been opened. We do ourselves a great disservice.

Second chances are one of the great hallmarks of a civil democracy. Certainly there are heinous acts that can never be repaid, but plagiarism by a college student HARDLY meets that level.
February 20, 2009 2:32 PM
Discretion is always appropriate when it comes to punishment. With college-age adults, punishment should be harsh but not permanent. Give the kid a strong blow, of course, but don't ruin his chances for succeeding. There are no great men in American history who did not do some disgraceful act some time in their life.

February 20, 2009 2:35 PM
About half way through a cold war class the prof walked in looking happier than normal (and he was usually a pretty happy guy) and spent the first ten minutes telling us the consequences of cheating in his class.

A student of his (no names were given) had handed in a paper six years earlier. My prof had believed the paper to be plagiarized but couldn't find the paper that the kid had stolen the work from. For six years my prof kept his eyes open for that paper and finally he found it. He immediately contacted the proper people in the university to have the kids diploma revoked.

Most people I've told that story to believe my prof to be crazy and to have gone way too far to find proof of his students plagiarism. I on the other had believe what he did to be right and proper.

Children will behave as children regardless of age until and unless they are treated as adults. Colleges and universities to the children enrolled there a disservice by not holding them up to the highest of academic standards. I would say that it is illegal to disclose any academic information about a student. So I would have to agree with the colleges decision to terminate the prof, however those f's should certainly stay on their transcript.

My high school and college education were both jokes, easy enough to be trivial. I coasted through both, never bothered studying only occasionally did home work or assigned reading. Several senior level history classes I took didn't even require research papers.

I already referenced one of the "On the uses of a liberal education" in response to a different article, so I might as well mention the other, "As lite entertainment for the bored college student". (Do a google search to find it). In it the author, Mark Edmundson, talks about, in his view, what has caused the virtual death of intellectual interest in both high school and college students. In his view, the baby boomers killed it, by demanding that teachers always give their children praise, no matter what. Never speak to harshly of or to them, lest their self-esteem be lowered. Those same parents demand that their children get A's. A very good article on the problems of modern education in America.
February 20, 2009 4:38 PM
A question for jonyfries - we posited that in stating his intention to out cheaters before the class began, Profl Young effectively had the student's permission to do that. They could have dropped out of his class if they didn't agree. The federal law says you can't discuss a student's grades WITHOUT PERMISSION. Do you think that Prof Young didn't have permission? Suppose he had gotten written permission from each student s a condition of taking the class. Would it have been OK then?
February 20, 2009 5:05 PM
I'm not at all opposed to second chances.

But that being the case, the real problem would be a blanket ban on accepting students who checked the "Yes I plagiarized" box.

It is morally wrong to lie; and it's morally wrong to force people into a situation where you can be almost 100% certain that they will lie, since everything depends on their answer and there's no good way for you to independently verify.

A more reasonable approach would be to make it known that if you checked Yes, you'd have to give an explanation and some sort of contrite confession - but that you would not be blacklisted.

However, I don't think that should apply to postgraduate education. Allow plagiarists to earn their bachelor's, fine - but they shouldn't be doing doctoral work, as they have proven themselves academically dishonest.
February 20, 2009 5:23 PM
The plagiarist of yesterday is the university professor/administrator of today. Why should a student today be punished for acts the "grownups" committed themselves as youth?

It's a very subtle and gradual change over generations. Each generation gains a little more permissiveness and loses a bit more integrity than the previous, and I fear the inmates are now running the educational asylum.

If I had to live my life over, I'd home-school myself.
February 20, 2009 8:35 PM
@Will Offensicht

You said "The federal law says you can't discuss a student's grades WITHOUT PERMISSION"

I don't believe that's the case. As I understand it, registrars offices can only give out three static pieces of information:

1) Say that a person attended the school
2) Confirm that, in addition to attending the school, a person graduated
3) Say what degree a person got, if they attended the school.

Any other academic details can only be sent with the permission of the student.

By the way, I agree with jonyfries's other point - leaving aside the professor's obvious lack of discretion, he violated privacy rules on disseminating student information (see above) and should have been fired for that. So his bad taste is really irrelevant.
February 21, 2009 8:14 AM
Angus, you are making my point. You said:

"Any other academic details can only be sent with the permission of the student."

As I see it, Prof young SAID that was what he was going to do; the students joined his class. In effect, that give him permission to release the details of their academic performance as it pertained to his class. It's like clicking the "I Agree" box in a software license.
February 21, 2009 8:21 AM
Good point. But he probably had no written confirmation that they agreed. The student could simply say "I didn't hear him say that". He'd need them to ACTUALLY check the box.
February 21, 2009 8:25 AM
The student would also have to say, "I didn't read the syllabus." Ignorance begets ignorance.

Since our economic prosperity is based on our workers being more knowledgeable than workers elsewhere, specifically, knowledgeable enough to operate high-tech production equipment, we're gonna go down if this level of ignorance persists.

Since professors who try to fight it get fired, it probably will persist and flourish.
February 21, 2009 8:30 AM
What drives me nuts is that some people are calling COLLEGE STUDENTS (ages 18-22, in general) KIDS. These students should be transitioning to adulthood at anywhere from 11-15. They should know right from wrong well before then, and then choose to do the right thing. It's nice to blame the government schools for this, and they have played a part. But let's cut to the quick and assign the lion's share of the blame to where it belongs: THE PARENTS. Parents are too busy trying to be their son's/daughter's friend, they are too busy trying to act like teenagers, they are too busy committing adultery and getting divorced, they are too busy being selfish and accumulating plasma TVs, snowmachines, SUVs, and other toys. Yes, there are good parents out there, but this generation sees the largest clump of loser parents in US history. Lying is NEVER right, neither is cheating. Sadly, it is the PARENTS that enable this and the next generation of crooked bankers, lawyers, investment managers, and politicians.
February 21, 2009 8:57 AM
you must understand, Mr. Quarry, that our current dysfunctional educational methods were put in place more than a generation ago. Today's parents were taught by the same school system the current generation of kids are being destroyed in.

Public schools re required by law, they're free to the customer, and they're losing market share. As more and more decent parents realize the appalling mess in the public schools, they're pulling their kids out. Instead of trying to find out why their customers are leaving, the educrats try to pas laws to force them back into a system they loathe.

We're heading for a train wreck, but many children will be destroyed in the process.
February 21, 2009 9:31 AM
Locking up those who petition for redress of grievances is one way to make things look good....
March 9, 2009 3:32 PM
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