Cheating: a sign of good health?

October 1, 2004

Fears of an ethical decline in the academy are premature, argues Ron Robin

Do we live in particularly deviant times? A cursory glance at academic newspapers, internet bulletin boards and even the general press suggests that a raging storm of academic crimes and misdemeanours - ranging from plagiarism to the fabrication of data - is sweeping through the groves of academe.

Reactions to such revelations have been severe. Pundits, politicians and public figures have discovered in the sheer numbers of such acts an ominous sign of intellectual decline, if not decadence. Personally, I have my doubts.

To begin with, I would argue that academic deviancy appears more common because it is easier to detect. Many of us have, at one time or another, stumbled across a student paper created by internet cut and paste. Such instances are usually presented as evidence of uncontrollable online fraud.

The internet may, indeed, facilitate deceitful practices. But this same form of technology has streamlined detection as well. Suspicious prose can be "Googled" to detect its origins, while Amazon and other sites provide online searches of books on every conceivable subject. With a growing number of journals requiring the posting of data on their internet sites, the hordes of amateur sleuths who comb through such accessible material have become a fabricator's nightmare.

While statistics are hard to come by, there is little to suggest that we are in the midst of an intellectual crime wave. I do not, of course, deny the transgressions of ethics and standards in academia. In a profession that boasts few visible saints, there has always been a constant stream of rule benders. The difference today lies neither in the quantity nor the quality of contemporary malfeasance in the ivory tower. Wrongdoing is simply more resonant than rampant.

The public visibility of academic fraud is due, in part, to the demise of professional governing bodies. Academic enclaves - from history to histology - possess, in theory, professional mechanisms for maintaining disciplinary order. Such procedures are now functionally obsolete.

Epistemological fragmentation, the sheer number of practising academics, and the confusing volume of professional societies have eclipsed the monopoly of what used to be one coherent professional association capable of enforcing both mores and morals. An authoritative - and often discreet - academic centre has been overwhelmed by an ebbing, porous periphery, quite oblivious to the codes and cautious mannerisms of conventional governing boards.

Hence, once-secluded deviancy debates have spilt out of their protected professional surroundings. They now take place on cacophonous internet fora where an often gratuitous tone of acrimony and irrelevant verbal abuse dominate discussions. Even in the best of times, academic discourse is often an exercise in verbal intimidation and metaphorical bloodletting.

Yet, when mediated on the internet, with its protocols of instant participation, active rejoinder and a lack of restraint borne out of the medium's relative anonymity, such cyber exchanges are inflammatory, lacking in reflection, restraint or even perfunctory contemplation.

This intellectual equivalent of a bar-room brawl naturally attracts the attention of a scandal-hungry mass media that is always fond of revealing the faults and foibles of the self-righteous.

Finally, the very existence of wrongdoing serves an important normative function. The sociologist Kai Erikson once observed that the detection of deviancy - academic or otherwise - is not necessarily a sign of a society in crisis. Aberrance "is not a property inherent in any particular type of behaviour; it is a property conferred upon that behaviour" for the functional purpose of inscribing or revising rules and regulations.

In other words, delinquency debates are part of a necessary process of reinvention and reflection rather than a symptom of decline. Scandals are necessary, observes historian J. C. Davis, "because it is only through deviance that we understand normality". If this is indeed the case, the present raft of academic scandals may well reflect vibrancy rather than demise.

Ron Robin is the author of Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases that Shook The Academy , published today by University of California Press. He teaches US history and communication studies at the University of Haifa, Israel.

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