Making the grade in cyberspace

SUN JOURNAL

Plagiarism: The self-written term paper is no longer an ethical imperative for many students and teachers accustomed to viewing online information as communal property.

July 02, 1999|By Mark Fritz | Mark Fritz,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- Suppose you were rambling around the Internet and stumbled across a Web site devoted to the works of Euripides, the ancient Greek dramatist. Maybe you'd think this was the obscure hangout of professors exchanging ideas about things written on scrolls.

Well, you would be wrong. You would find typical yet tightly wound college students, burdened with homework, pressed for time, cheating their hearts out with ingenuous amorality. You'd find scholars such as Jeremy, whose last name is being withheld to spare him a scowl from his instructor, in deep research.

"SAVE MY LIFE!!!" he yowls across the yawning void of cyberspace, his pathetic plea posted on an electronic bulletin board like a message stuffed in a bottle. "Send me a 1,000 word essay on morality in Medea now!! I WILL DO ANYTHING FOR IT. I need it by Sunday."

And somebody responds. "Malika21" offers a report on "Medea" -- Euripides' most heavily assigned play -- that she assembled from the Internet a semester before. The students disappear into the privacy of e-mail, leaving onlookers to wonder what sort of transaction was taking place in the name of a passing grade.

This sort of exchange is standard dialogue in the Euripides Lecture Hall, which bills itself as a sort of literary cafe for intellectual discourse on the works of an ancient dead guy. Instead, it has become a veritable souk of suspect scholarship, swapped back and forth among students like a campus cold virus.

Using the Internet to conjure up the evening's homework isn't a novel thing to do anymore. To some students, it isn't even cheating. It has simply evolved into an institution, a pillar of education, a big study group and an endless archive of cut-and-paste essay components.

To a generation coming of age in the opening years of an untamed new era, the ability to easily scoop a little flotsam from the vast oceans of the Internet doesn't seem nearly as nefarious as pilfering a passage from a library book. Many students seem to almost reflexively embrace a philosophy rooted in the subculture of computer hackers: That all information is, or should be, free for the taking.

The flow of information is so rich and tempting that many instructors are pinching each other's syllabuses and lesson plans, says Donald L. McCabe, a Rutgers University professor who studies cheating.

"A lot of faculties don't even bother to try and stop it," he says.

McCabe has conducted studies indicating that nearly 70 percent of students cheated in college, with plagiarism the favored offense. Yet he failed to catch on to the Internet's impact, McCabe says, until he got dozens of 1995 questionnaires from students who had scrawled comments like: "You should ask about Internet. That's where the plagiarism is."

McCabe is rectifying that by embarking on another study at 12 universities under the auspices of the Center for Academic Integrity, an ethics consortium based at Duke University. As a prelude to composing questionnaires, he interviewed focus groups of college-bound high school seniors last summer.

"The scary thing was that cheating was no big deal," he says. "The Internet was just the new way to cheat."

Jeanne Wilson, director of student judicial affairs at the University of California at Davis, believes the Internet's vast trove of material has lulled some students into a sense that anything there is fair game, like the buffet table at somebody else's wedding.

"Whether it's high tech or low tech, it's still plagiarism if [the original authors] have not been given proper credit," she says. "It totally defeats the purpose of homework."

Which is, of course, the whole point.

Much of the ire of educators is aimed at Web-based commercial operations such as the Evil House of Cheat or Schoolsucks.com, which offer everything from custom-fit papers that cost hundreds of dollars to mediocre work that won't raise either eyebrows or GPAs, but perhaps will earn a passing grade.

"When I first got on the Net there were only three or four others. Now, I understand there are 180 term-paper sites. Quite a few free ones, too," says Michael von Plato, head of A-1 Termpapers in West Chester, Pa.

Von Plato says selling off-the-rack research is protected by the First Amendment. "We're not selling anything on how to poison the water supply or build an atomic bomb," he says. "We're selling papers about Hamlet's relationship with his mother."

The Euripides site is only a tiny part of a lavish virtual community known as the Jolly Roger, which was created by Elliott McGucken, a physics professor at Elon College in Burlington, N.C. An aspiring writer, he built a richly detailed maze of discussion boards and chat rooms devoted to the classic works of Western culture.

McGucken envisioned the site as a gathering place for literature lovers, not corner-cutting college kids, and he's been forced to create some password-protected parallel rooms for the true aficionados.

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