Where did the plague of plagiarism come from?

Plagiarism app “Paper Helper”

The Jonah Lehrer plagiarism scandal is just the latest of many to come to light since historian Stephen Ambrose was called out in 2002.  Each individual story has its own slipperly slope, from quotes scribbled down without enough attribution that grows into full-blown fabrication or copying.  Pundits and readers wring their hands, saying “But he had so much talent – he didn’t have to do this.”  Others point to the stiff competition and relatively low pay in much of the writing world and call it “survival.”

Attractive nuisance

College professors can testify that the wealth of information on the internet fits the definition of an attractive nuisance – “a hazardous object or condition … that is likely to attract children who are unable to appreciate the risk posed by the object or condition.” No matter the topic, surely someone has already written something about it!  What begins as an honest search for information may quickly descend into the copy-paste-altar sequence that passes for writing.

One 19-year old first-year student turned in a very well-written essay applying sociological theories – even obscure ones we had not studied – to the structure of his family.  He didn’t notice, when he pasted it into an MS-Word document with his name at the top, that the later parts of the essay referred to the authors grown children from a previous marriage.  In the face of the evidence, he would only admit, “well maybe I didn’t write that part, but I deserve credit for the other good parts.”

Plagiarism apps

Want to create a paper by copying and pasting bits and pieces of existing articles without attributing them? Now there’s an app for that too!  I was astonished to see the following description for an iPad app:

PaperHelper – Easiest Essay Writer ($1.99 → Free, 18.4 MB): Search the web for material and transfer it right to your document with this nifty education app. It splits the screen in two, providing you with a browser and document creator at the same time, which helps you make quick work of transferring information. The app also includes search, spell check, the ability to track sources, full screen modes, AirPrint support, and a handful of fonts, text formats, and colors to choose from.

I’m glad it includes the ability to track sources, but it sure doesn’t promote critical thinking or synthesis on the part of the student – or lead to good writing.  It makes me wonder if the findings in  Academically Adrift – that many students do not make any gains in basic skills like writing – points to an emphasis on getting through or getting by rather than getting an education.

I would have ended this post by saying “the next thing you know, the app will take your class” – but I’ve already seen the web site for WeTakeYourClass.com.  Sigh.

About Sister Edith

Benedictine sister of St. Scholastica Monastery, Duluth, Minnesota
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