Is Policing Plagiarism At A University As Counterproductive As Trying To Stop Copyright Infringement?
from the seems-like-it dept
We’ve talked in the past about how multiple studies have shown that greater enforcement efforts to stop copyright infringement aren’t particularly effective. One of the reasons for this is that they tend to piss off and anger the biggest fans, which has significant ripple effects and unintended consequences. A few months ago, there was an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which I’m finally getting around to writing about, all about one NYU CS professor’s experience in trying to catch and deal with cheaters on tests.
The professor, Panagiotis Ipeirotis, wrote a very detailed blog post about what happened, but after it went viral online, and some others expressed concerns that it may have violated the privacy of some students, he took the post down. The Chronicle of Higher Education had a mirror of the post up for a while, but have since taken it down. What was really amazing is that Ipeirotis spends much of the post explaining just how “effective” his efforts to catch cheaters was. He was mainly using the (somewhat controversial) service Turnitin, and certainly found a lot of folks who were clearly copying answers from elsewhere. Reading just the first part of the post would make you think this had all been a huge success and that Ipeirortis was actually singing the praises of such software.
But he’s not. The key point was that it absolutely destroyed classroom morale. Rather than coming to class each day eager to learn, students (apparently even those who weren’t cheating) just weren’t as happy about the overall learning experience in the classroom. And part of that may have come from Ipeirotis, who notes that he spent a ton of time that semester “dealing with” cheaters and his general distrust may have carried over into the classroom. He notes that the whole class was a lot less fun and a lot less focused on actually learning.
That was clear in the classroom and later came through in the evaluations, which were significantly lower than usual — which also resulted in him getting a smaller raise. While some responded to the blog post by focusing just on the evaluations and the raise, he noted later that the evaluations was a lesser issue compared to the more general one, and in a later post, he noted it was the other issue that was the real problem:
Even if I had received a $1M bonus from NYU for my efforts, the basic problem would still be there: the teaching experience would degenerate into a witch hunt, focusing on cheating, instead of being about learning. And yes, I would still write the same blog post even if I were fully satisfied with my annual evaluation. In fact, the blog post was in my folder of draft posts for a few months now, long before receiving my annual evaluation.
This is a key point that we’ve been trying to make about enforcement in the copyright world. Even when it seems “effective,” the overall environment — created by suing fans, by trying to lock down technologies, by pursuing new draconian laws and by blaming people for sharing information — is simply toxic. It’s not a positive environment in which new beneficial ideas and solutions come forth readily. It’s an angry us-vs.-them world, rather than a “let’s learn and solve problems together” world.
And just as we’ve suggested all sorts of new business models that simply take “infringement” out of the equation, Ipeirotis similarly suggests that professors get around the whole cheating/plagiarism issue not by trying to crack down on cheating, but on creating situations where cheating is impossible or less effective:
He suggested several options. You could require that projects be made public, which would risk embarrassment for someone who wanted to copy from a past semester. You could assign homework where students give class presentations and then are graded by their peers, ratcheting up the social pressure to perform well. And you could create an incentive to do good work by turning homework into a competition, like asking students to build Web sites and rewarding those that get the most clicks.
The simple fact is that some people will always find a way to infringe, just as some people will always find a way to cheat. But plenty of others will not. Plenty of people want to support the content creators they like, just as plenty of people at universities really do want to learn. What many who focus on enforcement and punishment don’t realize is that creating an environment that focuses solely on punishing those who infringe or cheat does have serious and significant spillover effects and unintended consequences on the rest of the “market/class.” If, instead, you focus on the people who do want to support or who do want to learn, and provide them with a positive environment to do so, it actually ends up creating consequences in the other direction — often turning around those who wanted to infringe or to cheat, and turning them into good actors as they see what’s happening around them.