Technology Will Keep B-School Applicants Honest

Business schools can count on technology to prevent applicants from plagiarizing essays. Pro or con?

Pro: A Deterrent and Remedy

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Technology makes plagiarism easy. The modern environment of online access and community has diminished ownership of ideas and information. This global network has also expanded our world views: Students may view the concept of intellectual property as very Western and far removed from cultures that perceive knowledge as a collective resource for social evolution. With those influences, it’s easy to rationalize the quick online search for "personal statement" and the two keystrokes that create most modern plagiarism: Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V.

The same technology that makes plagiarism easy to commit makes it easy to detect. In the past we relied on recollection and incongruities to recognize plagiarism. Today we simply search for a familiar-sounding phrase. We submit essays to software that scours thousands of sources for matching content. This puts the commission and detection of plagiarism on a level playing field.

Perhaps technology’s most untapped potential is plagiarism prevention. Whether by generational, cultural, or "rational" ignorance, many commit plagiarism without full knowledge of its definition or consequences. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that "… an easily replicable, scalable, and virtually costless educational intervention can be highly effective at reducing the prevalence of student plagiarism." Business schools have an educational opportunity before candidates enter their doors. They can provide online tutorials and webcasts during the admission process. They can clearly display definitions of plagiarism on essay instructions. They can encourage applicants to do self-plagiarism detection before essay submission.

Education and prevention, in addition to detection, are essential in developing professional integrity not just in our students, but also in tomorrow’s leaders. Technology can indeed be the key.

Con: A Limited Tool

Make no mistake about it: My 20 years of research shows that students in high school and college cheat. And now students, often with their parents’ knowledge, are buying admissions essays to submit as they negotiate the increasingly competitive college admissions process. Something needs to be done, and plagiarism detection technology seems to hold the answer for many. While it may be the most obvious immediate answer, it raises some serious issues.

One concern is the message it sends, especially to those who do not cheat. Publicity surrounding the adoption of plagiarism detection methods at different schools can convince these students they have no choice but to cheat as well to remain competitive. Unfortunately, such methods can establish an atmosphere of distrust between students and their schools even before they arrive on campus. It seems to me that students, and society in general, need to be able to place a greater level of trust in our major institutions right now.

Second, this form of cheating detection gives an advantage to wealthy students. Affluent applicants can afford to hire either someone to write admissions essays for them or a coach to "help" them write their own. Plagiarism software will not detect such work—assuming that it’s original. And this raises an issue of fundamental fairness.

While it may sound naïve to some, perhaps it’s time colleges show some initiative. Maybe they could use their resources to encourage students to do the right thing rather than just looking for those who do not. An obvious problem with plagiarism detection strategies is that they often solve nothing. Students either subvert the system or apply to a school that isn’t checking admissions essays or doesn’t require them. If colleges would show a willingness to step up and address the real problem rather than just isolate it, the benefits to society could prove enormous.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Anon

You mean Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V?

Mrspb

So maybe the only answer is to scrap essays that are sent in. Here's an opportunity for SAT to add college essay admissions to their repertoire. Administer essay questions at designated monitored locations and then allow schools to access them. Students will pay for the fee just like SATs.

It's not a good answer but it's the only scenario that works against the "fairness" issue. If we can't check for plagiarism because it would be unfair, then make things more difficult. This is where it's going. Unless we stand up and say it is wrong and do what it takes to make it unacceptable for students to waste time and money for a fake degree. Getting a degree without the work is no different than buying one at a paper mill.

Micky

What the...! Using a photo of an Asian girl. Are you trying to pass a subliminal message that only Asians plagiarize essays?

Whenever you report anything negative, you use an image of a non-white, like that anti-abortion poster in NYC. How sleazy!

cahobs

Agree with Micky here; he's got a valid point. Now coming to your (BW's) articles on MBA applicants cheating on their apps. Maybe it's time US B-Schools start looking at themselves for the kind of requirements they have, that support such methods. Make no mistake, I am not supporting cheating of any kind in any manner, but aren't these same Ivy league students who have for many years now "showed extracurriculars, did work for NGOs, did lots of community service" and yet "mysteriously" are responsible for the financial meltdown from their lofted perch at Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bros, Merryl, so on? The most important factor to be considered here is whether applicants with hectic work schedules at major companies really took time to meet all the above said requirements?

Its not the students stupid! its the b-schools that need to be closely monitored for all their high value and community oriented speech, they encourage the behavior and the economy we see today.

Jeff Lorton

Professor McCabe states, “One concern is the message it sends, especially to those who do not cheat.” I work with many admissions professionals and have yet to meet one that does not verify every part of the application. The use of technology to help confirm the authenticity of applicant-created documents works to help identify problems and as the professional says, “This puts the commission and detection of plagiarism on a level playing field.” Professor McCabe does not seem to understand the admissions process when he uses the same argument that he has used in defense of honor codes in the classroom. The message is very clear, admissions professionals verify. They care deeply about being fair and using all parts of the application to make fair, well informed decisions about applicants. They need the essay to help them know and understand the applicant beyond the grades, test scores, and recommendations.

Jeff Lorton
Turnitin for Admissions
jlorton@turnitin.com

Krishna Raha

I share my thoughts with Jeff here. I would ask Prof. McCabe to list some suggestions on what the colleges need to do to validate his point. The institutions have their reputation and ranking to save. Isn't it fair on their part to go ahead and use technology to get the best? After all all moral ethics put aside, they are running a business and not some charity to take in people because of some "level of trust."

Tom K

It seems to me that plagiarism prevention measures are necessary to identify (and filter out if appropriate) any bad seeds to maintain the integrity of the institution. Until the student is accepted and enrolled, there is no honor code and there is no trust established.

Yes, some students will purchase essays or have someone else ghost-write their admissions essay, and it may pass Turnitin. But at least some of the noise (ie, bad seeds) will be filtered out prior to further admissions interviews where interviewers can dig into the applicants integrity.

DanTe

But the whole idea of an MBA is Misappropriate and Blatant Acquisition. Cheat, steal, and lie is the curriculum. Or is this just earlier screening of the candidates to see if they can do it all without getting caught?

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