Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Casey Newton Column

T alk about a paper chase.

Two teaching assistants turned cyber-sleuth at the end of Spring Quarter, scouring the Internet’s seamy underbelly to find out whether students had plagiarized parts of their final papers for Prof. Axel Mueller’s Introduction to Philosophy class.

The result: According to teaching assistant Jason Leddington, up to 12 students may have inserted lengthy sections of stolen scholarship on Plato, Aristotle and friends into their own prose, hoping no one would notice.

Whoops. Leddington and fellow TA Sebastian Rand did notice, and turned the students in to Mueller. Weinberg Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Robert Coen is now investigating the charges.

If the allegations are true, the students should be ashamed. For their dishonesty, sure, but also for being so lazy. Inserting the learned opinions of professional scholars into your bored, bleary-eyed, this-is-due-in-three-hours papers is a little like putting a stolen Ferrari in your dorm room and hoping no one notices.

And when you turn to the World Wide Web for help in cheating, you’re asking for trouble. After all, any site worth its salt makes a point of being easy to find. Webmasters everywhere have a philosophy of their own – I link, therefore I am.

Meaning that your professor – and anyone else who can spell ‘Google’ – is always just a click away from discovering your crime.

As soon as word of the allegations hit campus, some administrators lamented that the Internet, for all its usefulness, makes plagiarizing easier than it’s ever been. So I decided to test that theory with Jeeves, the creepy, omniscient butler over at www.AskJeeves.com.

“Hey Jeeves, should I plagiarize my philosophy paper?” I asked, hoping he might dissuade me with a sternly worded message.

No dice – Jeeves refused to moralize. In fact, he even refused to make sense, instead answering my query with nonsensical links to Windows95 tips and something called the Beer Info Source.

I adjusted my strategy.

“Hey Jeeves, where can I find free term papers that I can plagiarize? (I’m a Northwestern student.)”

Jackpot.

Jeeves coughed up a variety of sites that enable student plagiarism, from School Sucks – “The Site They Warned You About” – to Cyber Essays, your “one-stop source for free, high-quality term papers.” (Apparently the days of two- and three-stop sources for free, high-quality term papers are at an end.)

But just because those sites are easy to find doesn’t mean it’s any easier to cheat successfully. The truth is that Internet plagiarism is one of the few forms of academic dishonesty in which students hold no advantage over their instructors.

Professors won’t catch every stolen glance at a neighbor’s paper, nor can they be sure a student hasn’t stored the answers in her calculator or written them on his hand. But if students are lazy enough to plagiarize easily accessible documents from the Web, their professors will be smart enough to discover them.

The Internet hasn’t made it any easier to cheat successfully – as the TAs’ sleuthing shows, it makes it much harder. Which means that online plagiarism is one research method students would be wise not to copy.

Casey Newton is a Medill senior. E-mail him at [email protected]

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Casey Newton Column