Two days after Aaron Swartz is accused of downloading a huge swath of academic journal articles from the paywalled site JSTOR, another activist has posted a similar trove to the notorious Web site Pirate Bay. What happens when academics espouse plagiarism?

Swartz is not just another script kiddie. A decade ago, at age 14, he helped write the spec for RSS, the most popular newsfeed protocol. And he wasn’t downloading Lady Gaga albums, but academic papers.

Swartz’s arrest prompted an activist going by the name “Greg Maxwell” to post 18,000 JSTOR essays in response:


The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind, and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available freely. Instead the articles are available at $19 each–for one month’s viewing, by one person, on one computer. It’s a steal. From you.[..]

I had considered releasing this collection anonymously, but others pointed out that the obviously overzealous prosecutors of Aaron Swartz would probably accuse him of it and add it to their growing list of ridiculous charges. This didn’t sit well with my conscience, and I generally believe that anything worth doing is worth attaching your name to.

Meanwhile, academics like Panagiotis Ipeirotis are questioning the value of anti-plagiarism software targeted at their students:

The controversy began on Sunday, when Mr. Ipeirotis, a computer scientist who teaches in NYU’s Stern School of Business, published a blog post headlined, “Why I will never pursue cheating again.” Mr. Ipeirotis reached that conclusion after trying to take a harder line on cheating in a fall 2010 Introduction to Information Technology class, a new approach that was driven by two factors. One, he got tenure, so he felt he could be more strict. And two, his university’s Blackboard course-management system was fully integrated with Turnitin’s plagiarism-detection software for the first time, meaning that assignments were automatically processed by Turnitin when students submitted them.

The result was an education in “how pervasive cheating is in our courses,” Mr. Ipeirotis wrote. By the end of the semester, 22 out of the 108 students had admitted cheating.

Some might read that statistic and celebrate the effectiveness of Turnitin, a popular service that takes uploaded student papers and checks them against various databases to pinpoint unoriginal content. Not Mr. Ipeirotis.

“Forget about cheating detection,” he said in an interview. “It is a losing battle.”

The professor’s blog post described how crusading against cheating poisoned the class environment and therefore dragged down his teaching evaluations. They fell to a below-average range of 5.3 out of 7.0, when he used to score in the realm of 6.0 to 6.5. Mr. Ipeirotis “paid a significant financial penalty for ‘doing the right thing,’” he wrote. “The Dean’s office and my chair ‘expressed their appreciation’ for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my ‘teaching evaluations took a hit this year.’”….

In Mr. Ipeirotis’ view, if there’s one big lesson from his semester in the cheating trenches, it’s this: Rather than police plagiarism, professors should design assignments that cannot be plagiarized.

(via Virginia Kuhn)

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