Thursday, 27 February 2014

An Idle Thought on Fighting Plagiarism

This afternoon CBC interviewed a professor about the steps he'd taken to curtail cheating among his students, particularly with respect to multiple choice exams. The solution he described was simple and elegant, and wildly effective: each exam is printed with the questions in a different order, so that copying your neighbour's answer sheet is of no benefit; her question #1 might be your question #9.

This wouldn't have been economical back in the days before computers became widespread. Exams were all the same because that's how photocopiers work. Now, of course, it's a relatively simple matter to set up a program to churn out large numbers of unique exams for a class.

That works fine for multiple choice exams, but what do we do about term papers and essay questions? There are commercial programs available which compare submitted papers against a huge database of older documents, to identify portions that may have been copied from elsewhere. However, these programs are expensive, in large part because they need to maintain large databases of papers, and that's slowed their implementation in many universities. Many instructors instead rely on occasionally googling for a sentence or turn of phrase that catches their eye as suspicious. (I've done so myself.)

Which just got me to thinking: why not just have students publish every paper they submit on the internet as a part of the submission process? What if every student, upon enrolling, were set up with a web page on the university server, specifically for posting completed essays, not just for the instructor to grade but for anyone with web access anywhere to peruse? Classmates, other professors, parents, future employers, political rivals -- everyone.

Under the traditional approach, dating from the days when papers were all hand-written or typed, there was usually only one copy of the text. The teacher gets it for a while, and then returns with a grade marked on it, keeping her own record of the grade but usually not the essay itself. It's always been a reasonably safe assumption that if you submit a paper, the only other person who will ever see it is the person who grades it; fool the instructor, and you're home free once you get the paper back to destroy the evidence.

But with published papers, you don't have such a narrow window. Probably no one else will bother to read your paper, any more than they'll read your blog, but it'll be there for years getting the occasional search engine hit. And maybe, when you apply for a job or run for office, someone will want to dig up some dirt on you, like maybe you plagiarized a paper in college.

My first thought here was that maybe this would violate a right to privacy, but is this reasonable expectation of privacy in fact warranted? Does the student have a legitimate privacy right in the content of an assignment? I would argue no, not if the paper is being written as part of an attempt to earn a degree or other academic credential that the student will rely upon later. All of society relies upon the trustworthiness of that credential, and so all of society has a right to some transparency here. 

To be sure, people change, and there are lots of essays I wrote 20 years ago that I'd really not want to be judged on today. At the same time, however, that's something that should be understood by anyone about anything anyone writes, and old papers written by callow youths only say so much about the mature candidate decades later. Although I'm not particularly proud of some of my younger writings, I'd be prepared to discuss them and how my opinions have changed, what I've learned since then, and be judged on that basis. 

I do think there's a place for privacy. But a lot of the time, there's something to be said for transparency.

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