It was sad but not surprising to see that in Nova Scotia, Canada’s university province , yet another essay mill has sprung up to help students cheat in return for digital cash on the virtual barrel head.
So this week I’ve been feeling like if we ever could rely on a broad sense of personal integrity or honour to help uphold standards of intellectual integrity, we can’t anymore. Fortunately, our society has a way of curtailing bad behaviour when social norms are not enough. We call them laws. So consider this modest proposal:
Plagiarism at universities should be illegal.
After all, plagiarism, when successful, allows students who have not earned credits to be granted them nevertheless and thus to earn degrees to which the students have no right. And yet, those students can, for the rest of their lives reap the benefits of those degrees without any real fear of discovery or punishment (once you’ve graduated, nobody double-checks your papers). But taking money for a job as a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor based on a degree you did not earn seems tantamount to fraud as far as I can tell. And fraud is illegal.
I, of course, am not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to all the legislative and litigational hurdles that would have to be overcome to get this done, but I would welcome input from clever lawyers who agree with me. And, to be sure, making plagiarism a violation of the law would not stop it altogether, but it would have an effect. For one, it would clarify the seriousness of the offence, and make would-be plagiarizers think twice before stealing a paper. Second, the law could standardize procedures across institutions. Third, the legal ramifications would force all professors to give a full account of the proper use of sources. Finally, it would give authorities the power to shut down the essay mills designed for no other purpose but to defraud public institutions.
Look at it this way: if you payed your tuition with money you printed in your parents’ basement, you would be guilty of a crime, not just an academic offense. Why is getting credit for someone else’s work a lesser offence?
(Editor’s note: This post has been updated.)