Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When a student's work intersects with copyright, integrity and ethics (Opinion/Rant)

This blog post reflects my opinion and not the opinion of any organization that I am associated with.  I look forward to comments on this, especially from those who deal with copyright, ethics or academic integrity.

Wowza that's a lot of PaperRecently, I spoke to someone who had been hired to write papers for a university student. I knew that there were services available that would either resell older student papers or connect a student to someone who will write their papers for them, but I never expected to interact with someone who had participated in this industry.

You will wonder if the person felt that the work had been wrong.  I didn't ask that that exact question, but sensed that earning money trumped that concern.  In reality, it is the student who would get into trouble if it was discovered that the work was not his/her own and not the person who has been hired to do the work.

This is a topic that is discussed in the news on occasion (e.g., Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 12, 2010 and Nov. 22, 2010 which call these writers "shadow scholars"). In the past few days, I've talked about this with a few colleagues/friends and concerns regarding copyright, integrity and ethics have arose, as well as detection.  That had led me to writing this blog post in order to share some thoughts on this more publicly.

Areas of Concerns:

Copyright - One person's immediate reaction was that there was a copyright violation; however, I would argue that paper was a work-for-hire.  In this case, the writer has been paid to write the paper for the student, and the copyright becomes owned by the student.  Therefore, there isn't a copyright violation.

Integrity - One concern is that the student is not representing his/her abilities honestly.  This means that the grade for the work does not reflect what the student can honestly do, nor does it mean that the professor has a correct impression of the student's abilities.  The professor may offer a recommendation for the student based on the work, and thus unknowingly misrepresent what the student is actually capable of.

Ethics - Most, if not all (at least in the U.S.), academic institutions have rules of conduct, which include rules about the student's work being the person's own work. These rules and expectations are often in the student handbook as well as on course syllabi.  Professors may even spend time during the class discussing this expectation.  And universities have processes in place to handle students who break these rules of conduct (e.g., judiciary boards).

Yes, the student has acted unethically and so has the "shadow scholar", whether that is someone hired to do the work or a parent who is trying to be helpful.  For parents, I can see how the lines between being supportive and doing the work for the student can get blurred.  Parents often read their children's papers and offer feedback.  However, wouldn't it just be simple to go and fix paper for the student?  And then wouldn't it be helpful to do some of the research?  And...  Yet being helpful isn't teaching the student anything except that it is not necessary for the student to do his/her own work.

I can imagine that the shadow scholar, who is hired to write papers, sees an opportunity for making money that can't be turned down.  The person will gladly tell you that the work isn't against the law, even if it is unethical.

What Causes Things to be Blurry - A number of years ago, I heard a professor speak about plagiarism and how it is a more blurry subject that we imagine.  Students plagiarize for a number of reasons including:
  • Not having the language skills necessary to write original text.
  • Not having a deep understanding of the topic in order to write original text.
  • Coming from a culture where copying text is not seen as being wrong (in fact, it may show respect to copy what others have said).
  • Not knowing how to edit or reword text in order to give it an original spin.
  • Being overwhelmed with work and thus looking for an easier way of getting some of the work done.
  • Seeing others plagiarize where it is deemed to be "legal" and not knowing when it is not okay to plagiarize.  For example, an business executive takes text prepared by employees and uses it as-is in a report that he puts his name on.  Although he would see text as a work-for-hire, he has not acknowledged that the work is not his own.
Things also get blurry when we tell students to get help with their writing. For undergraduate and graduate students, we may tell them to go to a writing center and ask for help. Campus writing centers do not rewrite papers, but do offer advice on how to make a paper better (e.g., spelling, grammar, focus).  Someone who uses a campus writing center will get better grades because the papers will be better constructed. 

Doctoral students are sometimes counseled to hired an editor in order to fix grammar problems, etc., in a dissertation.  This is seen as acceptable.  The student's doctoral committee would be intimate with the topic and the student's work in order to detect if the student hired someone to do more than just edit. 

It is the ways that things get blurry that could lead to copyright, integrity and ethical concerns, and perhaps cause a student to hire someone do his/her work. As we might say...a slippery slope.

Detection - Did the student do original work?  Internet searches on text, looking at the language usage in a paper, and tools like Turnitin will help a professor understand how original a student's work is.  However, if a student hired someone to write the paper, the paper should be original so these tools/techniques would be meaningless.  (If the student brought a paper that had been used previously, Turnitin might detect that the work is not original.)  [I must note here that have a digital repository of papers - whether those papers were born digital or digitized - helps professors and services locate text that is not original. Yes, even in this post, there is a spot to mention digitization!]

As other professors have noted, understanding what has been discussed in class and in the readings can help you detect papers that do not reflect what is occurring in the class.  Looking at the person's writing style can also help you detect work that is not theirs (e.g., word usage and sentence construction), although it might also indicate that the student went to the writing center for help.

Another solution is to give student's assignments that require that they use what they are learning in class and which requires them to do work that would be difficult to outsource.  I know...not all assignments are like this or should be like this (e.g., literature reviews), which means that professors are always opening themselves up to receiving work that is not the student's own.

And What About Prospective Employers? - Does this mean that a prospective employer should view all applicant grades with suspicion?  If the employer wants to be sure that the grade and degree reflect what the person knows, should the employer ask more detailed questions?  ("Tell me about...")  I can imagine job applicants being annoyed with detailed questions about what they learned, yet that would be one way of ensuring that the person has the necessary knowledge.

By the way, we don't always think about what it means once the cheating student is out of school.  Will the person continue to hire others to do his/her work?  Will the person make bad or inaccurate decisions because of knowledge never gained?  Will the person empower another generation of students who don't do their own work?

As I sit here, my mind turns to the spring semester, which will start in a matter of weeks.  The questions above swirl in my mind and I wonder what should I do differently?  What can I do differently?  I have no perfect answers, the same predicament as my peers.  (Actually, the "perfect" solution would be to have each student meet with the professor individually to discuss/recite what he/she is learning, etc.  But it would be much too time intensive for most classes to be practical, due to the number of students.)  If my wondering leads me to a workable solution, I'll let you know.

If you have thoughts, comments, concerns, solutions, etc., I hope you will share them with me.


Bubba said...

Jill, I go to a private, online university and the skills of my fellow students are atrocious. If these people hire someone to write their papers, they will gain degrees with no meaning whatsoever and their employers will be sorely disappointed in the caliber of these graduates.

Copyright lawyer said...

Jill, The papers written by a "shadow scholar" would generally not be "work made for hire." Just paying someone who is not your regular employee to create something does not make it work for hire; a signed agreement would be necessary.

Handing in a paper written by someone else is not copyright infringement either because of the "first sale" doctrine or because of an implied license. The first allows the purchaser of a specific copy of a work to do what s/he wants with that copy -- lend it to a friend, resell it, give it away. First sale may not apply when the transaction is entirely online, but even if it does not, the seller of a ghost-written paper would probably be found to give the purchaser an implied license to use the paper as both of them intended, as a submission of course work.

It is worth noting that US copyright law, unlike laws in most countries, does not recognize an attribution right for authors. Therefore the act of "passing off" that is inherent in plagiarism is not a violation of US copyright law.

Susan D'Entremont said...

My husband teaches mostly international students, and your comment about people coming from a different culture where attitudes about copying and plagiarism are different is spot on. (I'm not talking about the purchasing of papers here, but the grayer areas.) Even in the US, what is considered plagiarism has become much stricter over the years.

Kids in the k-12 environment are being taught more about this than in the past, but it is still very murky. Kids see copyrighted material being republished over and over again throughout the web, often on reputable web sites. Some of these sites have actually received permission to reprint, but are often not clear about it. Also, some might state that the material has a Creative Commons license, but not a lot of folks are familiar with what that means.

Even adults who work in the historical societies and other repositories I deal with are confused by this issue. I've heard many people say that their material is out of copyright because it is "old." Well, 50 year old unpublished photos are still very much covered by copyright.

This suggests that what university educators can do is try to explain this as much as possible. Yes, there should be punishment for out-and-out cheating,but for the areas where there is more wiggle room, the focus should be more on educating the students on the complexities of the issue than solely on punitive measures. I've heard of a couple of cases where a student's undergraduate career was destroyed because of a mistake that was made mainly out of ignorance of these issues.

Craig Dove said...

Thanks for posting this, Jill; I've continued to mull over the problem, but haven't come up with anything new, particularly regarding the person who supplied the essays. It seems wrong, and yet... why? That person is abetting cheating, helping them circumvent what is essentially a contract between teacher and student, but the shadow scholar isn't part of that contract. I can hash this out in Kantian and Aristotelian terms, but it seems a bit like the proverbial "victimless crime" where the only person directly harmed is the person buying the essays. But I'm approaching this from a different perspective than you...

Jill Hurst-Wahl said...

Thanks to those who have left comments thus far. I appreciate all of them. The person who wrote papers for a college student has also written a reply, which you can read.

BTW thank you Copyright Lawyer for your comments on the "first sale" doctrine, which I had not considered.

Craig, while I had considered this a breach of contract between the student and the professor, I had not thought of this as a "victimless crime". However, a "victim" could be a future employer or client that is now working with -- perhaps relying on -- someone who does not have the correct education.

Anonymous said...

Let's suppose a student writes a good, well-researched paper following all the appropriate rules and hands it in to be marked. Does that student still own the paper? If he or she does, then are universities in violation of copyright when they digitize such papers and supply them to services such as Turnitin?

Jill Hurst-Wahl said...

Dear Anonymous,

Take a look at UMBC's statement on the use of TurnItIn. At the bottom, it state:

"The U.S. Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office's specific [position] on use of under FERPA can be found in the Letter to: Parker, November 13, 2007 guidance letter issued by the U.S. Family Policy Compliance Office.

"Use of the service was determined not to infringe U.S. copyright laws by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in the March 2008 decision A.V., et al v. iParadigms, LLC."

Emil Perhinschi said...

When a student can get away with hiring a ghost-writer it means the evaluation procedures of the school are broken.