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. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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