In Week Five of Understanding Cheating in Online Courses, we are investigating the methods used to cheat in online courses. One of the recommended readings is an article on Inside Higher Ed, written by Alexandra Tilsley, September 21, 2012, called “Paying for an A.” Out of curiosity, I checked out the websites mentioned in the article, looking for the answers to two questions. (1) Do they address the question of cheating, and if so, how do they justify what they are doing? (2) Who do they employ?
A couple of the sites mention cheating in the FAQs. BoostMyGrades.com encourages potential clients to check honor codes at their schools. They claim they can be considered “a supplement to your own studies and work.” I wonder if this eases the consciences of the employees. WeTakeYourClass.com claims to merely be helping by providing answers; submitting those answers is the student’s choice.
As a perpetual student who often wishes I could take classes for a living, I wanted to know more about who these sites employ. (No, I’m not seriously considering employment with a site like this! I wouldn’t want to damage my own reputation as an ethical person and an academic by working for such a business.) However, I was curious…
NoNeedtoStudy.com is hiring! They advertise for undergraduate students and college graduates with GPAs of 3.7 or higher. They give preference to students from prestigious colleges, presumably by being flexible about the GPA. They also advertise for graduate students with any GPA. Applicants must provide copies of transcripts and ID.
I was amused to see typos and grammar mistakes on these websites. For example, NoNeedtoStudy.com’s employment application form requests information about your “Exucation Background.” WeTakeYourClass.com states: “Once we release the answers, its up to you to submit those answers.” Classic its / it’s grammar mistake. Grammar and spelling mistakes on a website could lead the reader to several conclusions. The authors of the websites might not be very detail-oriented. They might not proofread their work, including the work their clients pay for, such as research papers. They might not be very reputable. They definitely shouldn’t be hired to take your English class for you!
For my #cheatmooc, Understanding Cheating in Online Courses, I watched a presentation by Dr. Robert Harris called Identifying and Reducing Plagiarism in Online Courses (AKA Plagiarism Prevention). The presentation was hosted on Google on Air on Monday, June 3, 2013, and I watched Part One live and Parts Two and Three via recording. I have questions and comments about Parts Two and Three, but since I watched the recording I couldn’t ask Dr. Harris directly.
I definitely want to say that Dr. Harris had many excellent and practical suggestions that I can very easily imagine using as a writing instructor. I also especially appreciated the shout out to reference librarians. Dr. Harris suggested that ideally, professors would work with a plagiarism specialist such as a reference librarian. The practical ideas that Dr. Harris suggested in Part Two, “Plagiarism-Resistant Assignments,” reminded me of the Information Literacy course I took in library school. Likewise, it reminded me of the time I spent working at Zollinger Library, UNM-Gallup. I recall many students coming in with assignments in which their bibliography had to include two scholarly articles, one newspaper article, one book, and two quality websites (or some such combination). Dr. Harris has suggested that this is a way that a professor can plagiarism-proof an assignment. It is unlikely, for example, that a research paper obtained dishonestly (purchased, copied, borrowed, etc.) would have this exact combination of sources that the professor specified.
Dr. Harris mentioned something he called citation theft, and he defined it as using the works cited list from someone else’s paper. In other words, you can find an interesting article about your topic, take its citation list, and then locate those exact articles for further reading in your own research. Dr. Harris called this a short cut, and he suggested preventing this short cut by requiring students to submit an annotated bibliography and then discussing with each student the articles listed on the annotated bibliography.
OK, now wait a minute. It seems that the professors and the librarians really need to talk. What Dr. Harris is calling citation theft is referred to as citation mining in library school, and here’s the thing: it’s presented as a legitimate way to locate resources on your topic. In other words, librarians recommend to students that they use this technique. Here are some examples: Kennesaw State University, Georgia State University, University of Calgary. I am sure there are plenty of others.
Dr. Harris mentioned that the process of research, not the final product of the research, should be considered the purpose of an assignment. Given that point of view, which I don’t disagree with, I can understand why Dr. Harris might not want students to mine citations. If a student uses exactly and only the citations from someone else’s works cited list, then that student has not learned to conduct a unique literature review. However, if professors and librarians are going to work in partnership to address the problem of plagiarism, then they need to be on the same page about whether this activity of getting ideas from someone else’s works cited list is mining or theft. I don’t think students appreciate the mixed message of a reference librarian recommending a technique that the professor prohibited (or at least frowns upon).
Another idea that struck me…
Dr. Harris suggested that the use of colons and semi-colons are a stylistic clue that plagiarism might be taking place since most college students don’t use them. I can remember back to about eighth grade when I used both colons and semi-colons, and I used them correctly, I might add. My English teacher was surprised that I was using them and asked where I had learned them. My answer was, “Last year, in English class.” I still use them, and I think you will find two colons in this blog post. Also, Dr. Harris mentioned that the use of a noun as an adjective is an unlikely structure and possible red flag. I love to use nouns as adjectives, but it doesn’t mean I’m plagiarizing. I have two thoughts about this. First, it’s a shame that facility with the English language is a red flag. Second, I assume that Dr. Harris means that these things are red flags if they are not normally present in a particular student’s writing. Please don’t suspect a student of plagiarism just because she paid attention in seventh grade English class!