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Plagiarism, Publicity, and the Human Flesh Search Engine

Doesn't anyone care about honesty anymore?

By Will Offensicht  |  February 20, 2009

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.