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NET.CETERA / Students Lie, Cheat and Steal, Courtesy of the Internet

EVERY COLLEGE class has a couple of cheaters, but this is

crazy: Early this month, the University of Virginia was stunned to find that

fully 122 students in introductory physics courses had plagiarized their term

papers over the last few semesters. About half of those students are now

expected to be expelled, making this one of the most sordid cheating scandals

ever.

Even more unusual was the method by which they'd been caught. The students

were nailed by a computer program written by their professor, Louis Bloomfield,

that automatically compared each paper to every other, hunting for

similarities of six words or more. He'd heard rumors that the kids were

cheating, and, sure enough, the papers his program fingered were almost

complete replicas. "I was a bit shocked," Bloomfield said.

Welcome to the new war in academe, where technology is the weapon for both

cheaters and their academic overseers. As students increasingly pilfer papers

off Web sites and online sources, professors are girding up with their own

technologies to nab the culprits-in a sort of elegant collegiate game of

mutually assured destruction.

After all, the Net has made it insanely easy to cheat. The modern student,

pressed for time after a grueling all-nighter pirating MP3s, can easily snag a

paper from sites like School Sucks, which charges $8 a page for papers from a

library of 25,000 topics. Or they can visit Papercamp.com, Cheater.com or any

of more than a dozen other services. Check out the bloated directory in Yahoo

for yourself.

You don't even have to go the illicit route. Many honest students nowadays

put their papers up on personal Web sites, as a sort of virtual CV, thus

offering even more pickings for cheaters.

The irony, of course, is that academia has always thrived from such easy

and open sharing. Ever since medieval times, universities were the original

peer-to-peer networks, sharing ideas, texts and documents freely and globally.

But these days, the data age tends to encourage Napster-style ripping off,

instead of using research documents legitimately by citing sources and the like.

Indeed, the Net has caused problems even more subtle than outright

cheating. Many professors I know complain of "cut-and-paste scholarship"-essays

that are composed of too many windy, distended citations, culled without

thought from CD-ROM databases and online materials. "They're using this stuff

like Hamburger Helper-just cramming it in without thinking," one professor told

me.

It's a potent reminder that digital technology can have some curious and

unexpected side effects. As cybercritic David Shenk has noted, the easy

availability of information online can, paradoxically, cheapen its value. We

stop treasuring ideas and start treating them like throwaway

commodities-packing 'em in by the volume like mattress stuffing.

The old joke used to be "My dog ate my paper." Nowadays, we've got a new

one: My computer wrote my paper.

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