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Your cheating heart

The Australian journalist and broadcaster Derryn Hinch once observed (in his book about how to play Scrabble), that "Anything worth having is worth cheating for". I'm not sure it follows, however, that everything people cheat for is worth having.

We all understand that someone might inflate their academic credentials in order to land a job teaching, or writing an article for the New Yorker. That sort of thing is as old as credentials. The Internet has made all kinds of cheating easier, from finding an unaccredited institution to sell you a degree (as Ben Goldacre notes that TV nutritionist Gillian McKeith has done) to finding student papers to turn in as your own, to buying illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

The growing problem, however, seems to be a more subtle form of cheating: accusing someone you don't like of cheating in hopes that the resulting difficulties will persuade them to just go away. This seems to be what happened in the weird case of Chris Dussold, a former professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, whose story surfaced in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a year ago. Dussold, who had decided to resign after years of denying apparently unquashable rumors that he was sleeping with a student, was summarily fired in 2004 on the charge that he had copied the teaching philosophy statement he had included in his application for tenure. Dussold retaliated by searching for – and finding – examples of plagiarism by the very university dean who fired him, among other university staff. Dussold initiated a lawsuit against the university.

I'm not an academic, and it's hard for me to judge just how terrible it is to copy a statement of teaching philosophy; opinion among academics seems to be divided. Certainly, you can't plagiarize your teaching record, student evaluations, or other material you must submit to win tenure. But it certainly would give a group who already wanted to remove someone a solid excuse.

A different example – but I suspect not uncommon – was a young friend of mine who from a very young age had always been a gifted reader and writer. Due to incurable homework troubles, he found himself in a community college with a writing professor whose own skills (judging by the exercises he assigned and the sample paragraphs he praised) wouldn't have landed him a job writing for one of those Web sites that regularly emails you out of the blue and asks you to write for them in exchange for copies of the Web site. The teacher accused my friend of plagiarism – not because he'd found similar text to my friend's work through Google or one of the term paper sites but because, he said, the writing was "too good". Pointing at one sentence my friend had particularly liked, he said, "That's a professional-level sentence." Well, yes. This particular kid could write publishable prose at 12. But at 18, rather than get into a long, drawn-out battle with the teacher and the college head, my friend agreed to drop the course in return for having no blemish on his record.

Which leads us circuitously to this week's fuss over "Essjay", the Wikipedia admin who awarded himself a PhD in theology and a degree in canon law, as well as a tenured professorship at an unnamed private university. He might never have been found out except that he got quoted in a New Yorker article about Wikipedia (abstract). Essjay has now identified himself as 24-year-old Ryan Jordan, with no advanced degrees and no teaching experience. Although, really, who knows? Maybe that's just another game and the real guy who's written or contributed to 16,000 entries, is one of Wikipedia's most trusted administrators, and has been hired by Wikia, Wikipedia's for-profit sibling company is in fact the dog in that famous New Yorker cartoon.
Now, Wikipedia is a true meritocracy, or close to it. Fourteen-year-olds become respected contributors if they write and edit enough good articles. Why – WHY – would anyone inflate their academic credentials to contribute to Wikipedia? Shouldn't a cheat aim higher than that?

The New Yorker has had, throughout its 80-odd years of existence, a stellar reputation for accuracy, which I suppose is gives this incident some additional deliciousness to those who think that anything that embarrasses the "MSM" (mainstream media) must be a good thing. As Guardian editor Charles Arthur points out, it's a terrible moment for the journalist, who wrote, in general, a very good piece. It's easy to Monday-quarterback now and ask how she thought a professor in a private university would have time to spend his claimed 14 hours a day on the site, or whether a professor could really supervise an in-class quiz while surveying 20 IRC channels. But usually when you're interviewing someone you're trying to get them on your side, to talk to you in a way they don't normally talk to people they've never met. And Essjay certainly was an expert on Wikipedia. Lying about his credentials got him nothing: he'd have been quoted anyway.

If the point was to be able to boast about fooling a stalwart publisher dedicated to accuracy – well, you work for something intended to educate the world. Why was this worth cheating for?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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