May 22, 2011

Is Academic Corruption on the Rise? - INSIDE HIGHER ED

Ivan Pacheco 
In Germany Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former Minister of Defense, and Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a Vice-President of the European Parliament, resigned from their positions after plagiarism was discovered in each person’s doctoral dissertation. In the UK, the London School of Economics had to address alleged plagiarism in the PhD thesis of Saif el-Islam Gaddafi, the famous son of Muhamar Gadafi. In Pakistan, over a hundred and forty lawmakers were found guilty of holding fake degrees, and in the UK, a university registrar was condemned to a suspended jail sentence after he was discovered trading fake degrees for spanking sessions.
More still. In 2009, the academic community and the public were shaken by the (so called) “climategate. ” The illegal interception of email correspondence between US and the UK researchers suggested the fabrication and manipulation of data in order to support the theory of human-instigated global warming. Yet after examination in each country no wrongdoing was proven. On May 2011, a report commissioned by a group of legislators in the US, known for their denial of climate change theory, was found (in large part) to be plagiarized underscoring the vulnerability of researchers and encouraging doubts about the reliability of anyone’s data.
Many believe that plagiarism and other forms of academic corruption are becoming more pervasive and the examples presented above might suggest that it is true. Before panicking, it is important to consider that the academic world is expanding, hence opportunities for academic corruption as well. The number of undergraduate and graduate students has been growing in almost every country around the world and those who enter the system stay for a longer time. (Just consider how much time it takes to get a Ph.D.) The personal investment is greater, as is the competition. In addition, there are more countries trying to move into the “big leagues of academia,” which adds even more pressure to the whole system.
Higher education and academic research have more impact on society today. Perhaps it is a consequence of being immersed in the modern knowledge economy. Most well-paid professional positions require a higher education credential (often a masters or a doctoral degree). Research has the potential to reshape the lives of millions of people, also the potential to return wealth to the researcher and prestige (and improved position in rankings) to the institution that hosts him or her. Additionally, research is often used to justify public policy. The stakes have become much higher.
A question that is not asked very often is what motivates people to plagiarize and why others resist it. One possible answer is that academic corruption is both a consequence and a symptom of the growing importance of higher education in the world. Because education, research, and publication are connected to valuable goods of society, such as money and prestige, it should not be surprising that some people decide to take shortcuts to get academic credentials that will provide access to those rewards.
Academic corruption is certainly more visible now than, lets say, decades ago, and academic knowledge exercises an increasingly important influence in most societies. The mass media and the social networking tools have contributed to greater awareness of corruption.
Academic corruption’s surreptitious nature makes it almost impossible to track the extent of the problem, not to mention benchmark today’s corruption against fraud committed a century ago in order to know if it is indeed growing and to what extent. It is easier to measure the perception of corruption, something that the organization Transparency International recognized a couple decades ago. Still, many people are convinced that actual corruption is on the rise. Some claim that the Internet has make plagiarism easier because today it just takes a few keystrokes to copy and paste a few pages or a complete dissertation. Certainly, technology makes academic corruption easier to commit, but it also makes it easier to get caught.
There is a silent war against academic corruption, and what we see in the media is just the tip of the iceberg. The targets include lazy students cheating on term papers; wannabe doctors cheating on exams, research and publications; and ghostwriters providing their services to a wide clientele. There are a growing number of computer programs to identify these abuses but with limited impact. And these programs generally only detect the repetition of words sequences.
As a warning to those who don’t want to bother attending a university to earn their degree but prefer buying their diploma and transcripts, there is a small but efficient number of people and agencies identifying diploma mills and disseminating information. Some countries and institutions now have high-tech test rooms to anticipate and neutralize high-tech and low-tech cheating strategies on admissions exams. Employers are outsourcing the screening of employee credentials.
Is academic corruption truly on the rise? Is it equivalent to the war on drug traffic, a war no one can ever win? What do you think?
Guest blogger, Ivan Pacheco, has over ten years of higher education experience including his roles as Director of Quality Assurance for the Colombian Ministry of Education, acting Vice Minister of Higher Education, and board member for more than ten Colombian public universities. He is currently writing his doctoral thesis at the Center for International Higher Education where he posts news of academic fraud to the Higher Education Corruption Monitor on the Center's website:


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