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Academic Policies Need Change with Advent of Web

Column by Thomas R. Karlo
Contributing Editor

These days it seems that everyone at MIT has their own homepage. Publishing documents on the World Wide Web has become such a given that many classes use it to distribute handouts, and some even have students handing in papers by putting them on Web pages. But when a student publishes an essay on the Web, are they jeopardizing their academic life?

It's hard to dispute the idea that publishing papers on the Web is generally a good thing for students. Just a few years ago, all the work that students put into writing papers often ended up in the bottom of their desk drawer, never to be read again. By putting their essays and papers on the Web, students are given the ability to distribute their work as never before. Considering the low cost, it's a tremendous addition to academic life.

There is a risk, however, that someone else will copy your work and hand it in as their own. Plagiarism is always a problem, especially when competition is intense. Before the advent of the Web, there used to be a relatively limited number of published sources students could plagiarize from. Now there are thousands of documents around, and potential cheaters don't even have to type the text in. All it takes is a couple of mouse clicks, and your old paper is getting handed in by someone else.

When this happens, will the student who published his paper on the Web be responsible for the cheating? Traditional rules concerning plagiarism and academic dishonesty say yes. But they come from a time when copying a paper required physically receiving the original from the author. Today, a dishonest student can take another student's work having never met the original student, and without the original student's consent or knowledge. And that student doesn't even have to be currently attending MIT, or even from MIT - I'm told lots of our courses are taught at some other universities.

I've probably put about half of what I've written for classes online. Many of those classes probably repeat their assignments from year to year in one way or the other. Do I have to worry that someone this year might copy an old work of mine? If they do, will MIT be on my side in protecting my control of those works, or will it see me as an accomplice to the crime?

The rules concerning such copying need to be examined in light of the changes in the academic environment. The idea that the original author is a necessary accomplice to the cheating may have to be given up, as it will no longer be easy to prove they condoned the academic dishonesty. Conversely, the student who is caught copying from someone else's work will have to be punished more severely, and those grading papers will have to be aware of the increased risk of such cheating.

Besides the basic issue of academic dishonesty, the rules will need to deal with the more universal issues of such copying. Students have the same right to publish their work, as well as the same right to protect those works from misuse and misappropriation. If the right of students to publish their papers openly is not protected, it will put a damper on the ability of students to exchange their thoughts and ideas through this new medium.

MIT should consider this problem and see if an adjustment to the basic policies of academic dishonesty and cheating is needed. A clarification of the rules concerning issues related to students' publishing of documents online would be helpful as well. By adjusting to this new form of expression and communication, MIT can both improve academic life, as well as train its students to respect the work of others well after they leave our campus.