Thursday, August 12, 2010


Plagarism and cheating in general are surely big problems at universities these days. The fact that there is a cottage industry of essay-writing companies is also disconcerting.

Lawrence Hinmann, a philosopher, wrote a surprisingly good op-ed on the topic a few years ago.

I think he overemphasizes the importance of investing time in students and creating unique problems. In many fields it's hard to make up good problems because of complexity (math, engineering, etc.) and in others new topics are often just rehashed forms of old topics: philosophy students rarely have anything interesting to say, except when they rediscover an age-old argument.

By the same token he probably underemphasizes the good that technology can do, at least to fight plagiarism. If students were asked to a little bit more work, and had more and more of their writing digitized, perhaps starting in high school, then there would probably be enough data to identify each student's "writing signature." Essay-writing companies would try to adjust to that but I think it'd be difficult, and fear must cut down on their business in the short run.

The real solution is cultivating norms, as he notes in passing, though no one knows quite how. Fortunately, with so many colleges and departments, there is plenty of room for experimentation.

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