Academic Infidelity


With an exam in the Quinn School of Business cancelled as a result of cheating, Peter Molloy delves into the perplexing world of academic dishonesty and assesses just how feasible cheating remains in certain sections of UCD

Having trouble getting your mind to focus on the books this afternoon? Here’s a quick one to get the mental cogs turning. What have certain UCD Commerce students and the current captain of the French national football team got in common?

Stumped? The correct answer is a decidedly dubious attitude to fair play. Unless you really have been overdoing it in the library over the past week, then footballing news, and the resultant unlikelihood of Thierry Henry electing to holiday in Ireland anytime soon, shouldn’t require much elaboration. What might require some explanation, however, are developments in the Quinn School of Business.

Within the past fortnight, a continuous assessment examination has been cancelled as a result of students who had already sat the exam photocopying the assessment and distributing to it to classmates who had yet to take the paper. Recriminations were ongoing at the time of The University Observer going to print, with a significant number of affected students vocally opposed to the cancellation and the resulting requirement for an 85 per cent examination at the end of the semester.

The incident has served to highlight a recurring issue of contention for UCD, or any other academic institution for that matter: plagiarism. Intellectual dishonesty, uncited use of external research, heavily influenced conclusions – dress it up however you wish, but the question of academic cheating remains a thorny one. I know I haven’t, and there’s a substantial chance you haven’t, but the odds realistically are that at least someone, somewhere on campus who settles down to read this page has benefited academically from dishonest means at some point during their studies.

So just how difficult is it for the undergraduate of 2009 to utilise dishonesty as a means of getting ahead in grades? I’m a final year History student, and as I write, end-of-semester assignments are rapidly piling up. Like most students, I haven’t the slightest intention of cheating in order to get the job done – even if the ethics of it didn’t bother me, I’d be less than confident about my ability to actually get away with it. But how feasible is cheating in the first place?

As it usually does, Google poses some interesting clues. For a break from an afternoon trawling through journal articles, I decide to enter something much blunter into the search engine: ‘college history essays’.

0.31 seconds later, my options for dishonesty have increased to the tune of around 8,680,000 hits. This is interesting.

I click on the very first suggested page, titled – with a cringing lack of subtleness – But wait; has my cynicism led me to misjudge things? Is this the intellectual equivalent of the hooker with a heart of gold?

Screen shot 2009-11-22 at 18.45.29For, as soon as I enter the website, I notice that despite the eye-catching title, actually appears to be solidly against plagiarism. In fact, as a banner on the its homepage prominently points out, any first time visitors with delicate scruples can be reassured by the patented CheatHouse secret: “When you cite, it isn’t cheating”.

So far so good. From one deft click of the mouse, I appear to have stumbled across an online equivalent to the Arts Café, where I can whittle away the rest of the weekend, happily swapping notes on historiography and dissertation methodology with other students across the world.

Not really though. Just like the happy hooker who’s crossed to the bad side of 50 and should really be considering getting off the streets, push too heavily on the façade of a website like CheatHouse and the make-up starts to smudge. What’s underneath is decidedly less altruistic.

Just beneath the site’s reassuring message is a much larger button marked “Sign up and become a member.” A minor matter of registration, perhaps? Ah, credit card details. I see.

In reality, CheatHouse and its ilk have about as much to do with easily accessible, legitimate forums for academic review as your local drug dealer does with responsible retail practice. The truth of the matter is that getting your foot in the door of a website like this is going to set a student back to the cool tune of $69.95 for a three-month subscription.

Still, there’s nothing like inspecting goods before you buy them. Undeterred by the hefty membership fee, I set about doing a bit of online tyre-kicking, and have a look at the 120-word essay samples available to prospective customers. After all, $70 should be ensuring that what I’m buying into is top-of-the-class stuff… shouldn’t it?

Alas, I’m quickly finding that the reality of essay websites belies their quick and easy promise. I search CheatHouse for “Battle of Waterloo essay” as a sample, and settle in to my chair to read over the first page of results. Should my moral fibre ever crumble sufficiently to lead to me succumbing to the temptation of plagiarism, this should be the stuff that MA admissions are made of. Except it isn’t at all.

The majority of the results that I find appear to be rather leaden high school essays from American teenagers – solid stuff for a 17-year-old in Iowa, but not exactly the kind of material I’d be convinced enough by to stake a substantial chunk of my GPA on. Then I chance upon an A- essay from an American BA course. Perhaps this is what I’m looking for? I type far too soon.

“In a time when regimes came and went with the seasons, Napoleon’s loyalty was always to the country of France never to her newest despot.” Hmmm. Written expression aside; my reading on the period had always suggested that Napoleon rather was France’s “newest despot” from about 1799 onwards. I’m not convinced here.

For argument’s sake, though, let’s assume that it’s the early hours of a Friday morning over the next fortnight or so, and I’m still awake at home, cup of coffee in hand, with a realisation slowly dawning that an impending assignment deadline is just too close. Resolve cracks, and a Visa card is produced. In short order, I have a ready-made essay answer nestled in my inbox, and I’m now on the murky fast track to getting the marks I need to pull me through the Christmas exam period.

Or am I? As an Arts student, with regular essays and assignments the bread and butter of my academic life, submitting physical copies of written work has become a familiar routine. I sign the same form formally declaring that I haven’t plagiarised as any other student, but if I’ve already crossed the ethical line of unaccredited use of other people’s work, one more lie to add to the list is unlikely to deter me that much.

Since September, however, this procedure has changed. The SafeAssign system that the university have rolled out over the past three years has now become the default for History and a range of other subjects. Every single semi-colon that’s emerged from my home printer for academic credit since the beginning of this semester has gone through twin submission – one hard copy handed in as normal; and a second submitted electronically via Blackboard. This causes the plot to thicken.

So now, perhaps I really would be taking a risk. The last time I submitted an assignment, Safe Assign promptly informed me that approximately 17 per cent of my paper was plagiarised. It wasn’t in the slightest – the system had taken exception to the bibliography I’d concluded my essay with – but the warning was unmistakeable. If clearly referencing sources is sufficient to raise a virtual red flag, then what kind of mincemeat would the system make of Bob from Indiana and his disjointed take on the First French Empire?

Student bravado might still prove sufficient to stare down this stumbling block, of course. Anyone desperate enough might well gamble that a stolen piece of work is simply too obscure for a catch-all computer programme to discover; or that an average lecturer might be slow to move with the times, and might prefer to correct hard copies of student work. But it’s a distinct reason to pause and reconsider for the morally wavering.

Bringing something like SafeAssign to the academic table is the equivalent of random Garda road-blocks on a Friday or Saturday night. You might well get away with it, and there’s no absolute certainty of being caught out, but hop in your car with a skin-full and there’s a distinct chance that a checkpoint around the next bend might well spell the beginning of the process of disqualification.

For the moment, I think I’ll fight the good fight and try my level best to keep my student pennies from the dubious brains behind a site like… at least until December, anyway.