Why the Plagiarism Market Adds to Global Inequality

Transparency, Russia, China, Leon Kaye, universities, accountability
Got dissertations? The biz of plagiarizing them is booming.

A decade ago I was a graduate student at a top-25 business school. As with any relationship, there was the honeymoon, then the tension and then the disbelief when I was accidentally emailed a massive spreadsheet with all of my classmates’ academic performance and test scores. Before I got the email begging me “don’t read it,” I read it, not knowing what it was.

Suspicions that friends and I had about some of our classmates became justified as I saw standardized ESL (English as a second language) scores that were far from some students’ ability to communicate; essay grades that did not seem to match remotely with their writing skills; and GPAs that appeared to be far lower than what a top university would desire — one student had a 1.9 GPA and only a few years of work experience.

Those raised eyebrows turned into exasperation when our class had a cheating episode. A group of students used cheat sheets during an exam and, in fact, were quite brazen about it; a small group of us called them out, and went to the department’s administration out of frustration. We felt screwed, as we were the ones staying up late polishing our group projects while our classmates, the vast majority of whom were from wealthy families overseas, spent their time playing golf, hanging out, going shopping and attending top recording artists’ concerts. The cheating rubbed more salt on the wounds.

Nevertheless, the program’s dean, as well as our class president, were more concerned with being popular amongst the students rather than following the university’s honor code. The only students who were punished in any way were those who complained, evident in the screams directed at us by some students during an emergency class meeting; for months we were ostracized.

That incident was particularly galling because, at the time, Duke University’s Faqua School of Business punished 34 students in the wake of a similar cheating episode. For all the criticisms leveled against the U.S. by the rest of the world, one thing in which the U.S. often leads is accountability. Do something wrong, and most likely you will be caught, and the chances are high you cannot bribe or telephone someone important to wiggle yourself out of such a fix.

This is particularly true within U.S. universities and colleges, many of which have honor systems. Pull a stunt that puts you at an unfair advantage over your classmates, and you might find yourself sitting before a tribunal of professors and students — your next adventure not at spring break, but dealing with customers at a retail store.

In fairness, part of the issue with the cheating chapter in which I found myself was cultural. Cheating at school is not necessarily seen as an evil in other countries as it is here in puritanical, self-righteous America. In Korea, cheating is often described by the “Konglish” term cunning. The emphasis on rote memorization in China is one reason why one study suggested taking on the problem of cheating should not rely on punishment, but education. While Western academics insist on citation and taking care not to copy someone’s work, memorization is seen as a sign of respect in classrooms in other cultures, which can cause misunderstandings between students and their professors when they study abroad.

But the connection between plagiarism and overall corruption in society can be clearly made, and increasingly, it is the wealthy and well-connected who benefit while the middle class and poor feel as if they are left behind.

For example, despite China’s well publicized and aggressive crackdown on corruption, the world’s most populous country still ranks poorly when it comes to overall transparency. Arguably, the problem starts before some of China’s leaders enter the government or enterprises. With the concept of “face” and prestige given prominence in Chinese society, many universities now find that they must employ a bevy of tactics to tackle challenges such as falsified transcripts and ghostwritten application essays.

The problem is evident in a mea culpa written two years ago on Vice by a once struggling Korean-American who wrote college essays for Chinese students who had the money to pay for their purported life stories. The comments were full of indignation. But as one observer replied, if one grows up in a household where everything is handed to them, why bother toiling with a tedious assignment such as justifying why a top school should accept you?

China’s corruption may still be endemic, but in Russia the problem is far worse. As a recent article in Slate points out, the problem with plagiarism is not just in the classroom. Many of Russia’s leaders, if they did not copy sections of their dissertations, outsourced them, often to characters who cobbled together their work by lifting sections from others’ research projects. Outrage so far, however, has not gone anywhere as Russia’s leaders shrugged off even the harshest criticism.

So far the governments of China and Russia have managed to maintain the strength to stifle dissent, which means any social movements that protest the status quo have little chance at going anywhere in the near future. But in a world where transparency is important to ensure that all citizens have the chance to survive and thrive, the world’s leaders need to take action. Just as advocacy on protecting the environment or ensuring labor rights for all is necessary, so is a proactive approach on intellectual property — and not only when it comes to technology, but also when it comes to other citizens’ academic and published work. Everyone needs to believe that they have a chance to build a better future, not just those who are born to the right families.

Image credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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