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Cut-and-Paste Is a Skill, Too

By Jason Johnson
Sunday, March 25, 2007

I have a confession to make: Today I plagiarized multiple documents at work. I took the writing of others and presented it to my supervisor as if it were my own. It was an open secret that my entire report, written "by Jason Johnson," had been composed by others and that I had been merely an editor. Instead of a reprimand, I was rewarded with a post-briefing latte.

But on some level, it still felt wrong. Before coming to work at my current company, I spent most of the past 15 years as an educator, advising students from second-graders to college seniors that taking the work of others and presenting it as your own is morally wrong and intellectually dishonest. I've fretted over proper citations and labored with students over the highly subjective art of paraphrasing.

Now I watch my former teaching colleagues grade papers not simply by marking a dangling participle here or an incomplete thought there, but by Googling phrases from their students' work, searching for the suspected source of yet another cut-and-paste job. I wonder if that's really what teachers should be doing. As kids today plagiarize more and more from the Internet, the old-fashioned term paper -- composed by sweating students on a typewriter as they sat elbow-deep in reference books -- has no useful heir in the digital age. It's time for schools and educators to recognize the truth: The term paper is dead.

Students' work today looks more like the slick work report I had "written" than any original academic achievement. The problem isn't due to a dramatic decline in young people's moral character, nor the rise of the Internet and its endless bounty. The problem is that schools have relied too long and too heavily on the paper as the most significant method of evaluating students. But that's going to have to change.

Internet plagiarism is growing at a rapid pace, according to recent studies and the anecdotal evidence I hear from my former colleagues in education -- and there's no end in sight.

Research papers -- of varying lengths, written without the instructor's direct supervision -- are an academic staple. They've been a successful way for teachers and professors to evaluate students because they allow the students to create something that tangibly displays their skills and knowledge without using any class time. But despite all its attractive qualities, the paper is an extremely weak link in academic assessment, largely for the same reasons that it has been successful -- the work is done outside the classroom.

Schools have responded by upping their use of academic integrity pledges and search engines such as TurnItIn.com, which checks student work against a large database of previously written material. But the rise of such measures hasn't reduced plagiarism at all; in fact, students and teachers are more likely to spar over plagiarism than ever before.

Young people today are simply too far ahead of anything schools might do to curb their recycling efforts. Beyond simply selling used term papers online, Web sites such as StudentofFortune.com allow students to post specific questions and pay for answers.

Enterprising young scholars can also upload their completed homework assignments, and the site will broker a sale to someone who is stumped while using the same textbook. For a fee of $1, for instance, user "brittanymarie" from "calloway country high school" can get the answer to this burning query: "During the process of transcription, DNA serves as the template for making what?" The people behind StudentofFortune, not so far removed from their school days themselves, say this isn't cheating -- it's just a chance for students to "ask their colleagues for help on difficult problems."

The proliferation of sites like these leaves teachers with an even more vexing problem: how to test what students really know. The time-honored paper now teaches students a very different skill set, one that appears to be unintentional and largely unrecognized -- but one that's much closer to what I do at work these days. One university professor, writing anonymously on his "concernedprofessor" blog, notes that students today create "hyper-plagiarism which becomes harder and harder to catch. While these chimera-esque papers can, most of the time, be easily spotted through the mixing of language styles, clever students can pass these off throughout their academic careers with little worry."

My transfer from education to the world of business has reminded me just how important it is to be able to synthesize content from multiple sources, put structure around it and edit it into a coherent, single-voiced whole. Students who are able to create convincing amalgamations have gained a valuable business skill. Unfortunately, most schools fail to recognize that any skills have been used at all, and an entire paper can be discarded because of a few lines repeated from another source without quotation marks.

The most obvious choice for teachers and schools is to simply change the way they assess students. Schools could turn to in-class assignments as a more reliable way of evaluating what students know and how well they can express it. The problem with this is that it takes up valuable teaching time, and in-school resources for such assignments, from libraries to technology, vary greatly.

Nevertheless, the educational system needs to acknowledge what the paper is today: more of a work product that tests very particular skills -- the ability to synthesize and properly cite the work of others -- and not students' knowledge, originality and overall ability.

I envision a time when TurnItIn.com's database contains millions of essays on Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre." At that point educators may finally understand that no high school student will be able to write another original word on the subject.

So let's declare "The paper is dead" before the database makes the declaration for us. And let's recognize what the paper has become, so that we can declare, "Long live the paper!" jjohnsoned@gmail.com

Jason Johnson, former technology director at Washington's Lowell School, is an information technology consultant at Ingenium Corp.

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