The Plagiosphere Bites Back

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The Florida state university system is taking a page from the playbook of Las Vegas surveillance, according to this New York Times report:

The 228 computers that students use are recessed into desk tops so that anyone trying to photograph the screen -- using, say, a pen with a hidden camera, in order to help a friend who will take the test later -- is easy to spot.

Scratch paper is allowed -- but it is stamped with the date and must be turned in later.

When a proctor sees something suspicious, he records the student's real-time work at the computer and directs an overhead camera to zoom in, and both sets of images are burned onto a CD for evidence.

(If Florida deans think this medium will be more durable evidence than plain old files on their hard drives, they should consult the FAQ of the National Archives, according to which "CD/DVD experiential life expectancy is 2 to 5 years even though published life expectancies are often cited as 10 years, 25 years, or longer.")

Are more students really cheating now, or are they simply more shameless in acknowledging it? Actually concern about academic dishonesty has gone through waves ever since the 1890s, as I discovered when I was asked to give a lecture on Woodrow Wilson and Princeton's honor code. Students at the end of the 19th century often considered their peers selfishly ambitious if they did not share answers. Honor codes succeeded only with the support of influential students. With the rise of term papers in the 20th century, ghostwritten and second-hand essays started to outweigh exam cheating as a problem. The boldness of plagiarism as an industry recently came home to me. Another essay, on search engines and plagiarism, is now the partial subject of a paper for sale at a ghostwriting site, mightystudents.com, which also offers at least one paper on "Avoiding Plagiarism." That's reason enough for alarm. (It's also intriguing how often the Google algorithm gives a high rank to term papers for sale.) The most persuasive faculty comments on plagiarism articles come back again and again is the need for more thoughtful design of courses and assignments.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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