In a society that has commodified knowledge, plagiarism is no big deal, argues Frank Furedi.
Last month, the University of Virginia was stunned to discover that 122 students in its introductory physics course had been caught cheating. This mass plagiarism soon became headline news in the United States. That it happened at the University of Virginia helped to transform a relatively routine practice into a general statement about the decline of honesty, responsibility and community.
The University of Virginia has prided itself on its 160-year-old honour system. Students are expected to act honourably and not cheat, so many of its exams are unsupervised.
When a student is caught cheating, it really means something. And when 122 students are discovered to be cheats, the meaning of an academic community, as embodied by the honour code, is called into question.
What is surprising is that it took this scandal to put plagiarism on the public agenda. Plagiarism is widely practised in US universities. A survey of American college students published in 1999 claimed that 10 per cent of students had been involved in "cut-and-paste" plagiarism.
Even in high school, cheating seems to be widespread. A study by Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, published in April, found that 74 per cent of 4,500 high school students interviewed had cheated in exams. The internet provides the plagiarist with a veritable storehouse of resources. Online paper factories such as schoolsucks.com and Cheater.com provide whole essays to anyone with internet access.
Many universities have fought back with programmes that are designed to enforce academic honesty. The University of California, San Diego, employs the services of a web-based company, turnitin.com, to detect copied text in essays. Some US academics are changing their class assignments. Many no longer let students choose their essay topic. Others insist that students turn in copies of their research material with their essays.
The worst aspect of this affair is not so much cheating but society's acquiescence to it. Many commentators seemed to be dubious about Virginia's "anachronistic" honour code. The idea of honour and of students exercising responsibility seems outdated. Others opined that in the era of the Napsterisation of knowledge, it is difficult for students to resist the temptation to borrow and copy material from the net.
Attitudes towards plagiarism appear to be ambivalent, even tolerant. According to one US poll, 66 per cent of students' parents agreed that cheating "didn't seem like a big deal". In focus groups on cheating, American students stated that cheats were just being smart by using resources available to them on the internet.
It is not only cynicism that informs the perception that cheaters are clever students. The growing commodification of education ensures that the line between knowledge and information becomes blurred. When accessing information becomes just another way of gaining knowledge, the moral argument against internet plagiarism becomes a feeble one.
Sadly, internet plagiarism is not restricted to the other side of the Atlantic. And, if anything, we in Britain are more complacent about its development. The 1999 plagiarism scandal at Edinburgh University was comparable in scale to that at the University of Virginia. Yet it did not become the focus for a national debate.
In British higher education, the bureaucratisation of the system has helped create an environment where information is equated with knowledge.
Quality assurance bureaucrats seem more interested in "key skills" than the appropriation of knowledge. Virtually every benchmarking statement celebrates the virtues of transferable skills such as "information retrieval skills" and "information and communication technology skills".
From this perspective, the 122 students at the University of Virginia are not so much wayward cheaters as effective "learners". They clearly demonstrated that they had acquired some impressive transferable skills.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the morality that drives students to copy material from the internet may not be all that different from the instrumentalist ethos that is expanding its influence over higher education.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent.