Plagiarist Paradise, or Homework as Communication Medium?

A friend and fellow Ph.D. student just referred me to “‘legitimized’ plagiarism on Facebook,” an application called Facebook Docs. From the Facebook page:

Make next year easier… upload last year’s homework to Facebook Docs! […]

It may be summer, but before you delete all of your homework, you should upload it to FACEBOOK DOCS!

FACEBOOK DOCS is an application made by a company called SCRIBD.

Wouldn’t it be nice if next time you got stuck on a problem, you could just open up Facebook Docs and find the paper of a student from last year… not to cheat, but just to compare…

Everything you write is /your/ property. Thus, there’s no reason to not share off your mad writing skills and maybe help some poor soul down the road…

Its like getting a book with comments already in the margin!

PS… Cheating is wrong. but helping others is Christian.

Now, a few things.

The educator in me cringes a bit because it’s almost certain that this will be used to plagiarize. That’s why I added it to my own Facebook account, actually, figuring I might need to search it in the future when I read a paper that seems just a bit off. I did catch a plagiarist this way once, using Google—I suspected that undergraduates are unlikely to use womb metaphors when deconstructing film, and the first search hit confirmed this for me. Dealing with a plagiarist was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my graduate school experience, and the idea of online tools further enabling this is bound to tick a lot of us off. Even if this service is meant to be used for tutoring rather than plagiarism, the “make homework easier” mentality may be missing the point of homework, and the punctuation errors really aren’t helping.

On the other hand, these folks have done their homework (ha ha). They have a pretty reasonable argument that homework answers are students’ intellectual property, and arguably, exam-taking alone and without external references is not exactly representative of problem-solving outside a school context. The problem, of course, is that some teachers can’t or won’t make up all new testing materials each year—but why should that be the students’ problem?

Perhaps voicing this perspective seems unsympathetic to my teaching brethren and sistren, a function of my own need as a researcher of media and culture to update teaching materials frequently and rely more on papers than exams. I’m sorry, brothers and sisters, but I must say that I was swayed somewhat by today’s Featured Doc, “They Didn’t Study,” offering examples of amusing doodles and inane answers on exams. I haven’t really thought much before about how homework actually functions as a medium of communication, but this got me thinking about it.

I did this stupid stuff in high school, even in college a bit. (My calc test asked me to draw “Region R” and “Section S,” but I added “Mister T” as a free bonus.) Sure, this may have been picked as the Featured Doc to strengthen the argument that this service isn’t just about cheating, but come on: you know we “culture people” are suckers for evidence of “resistance.” If I try hard enough, I bet can envision a scenario in which doodling Batman or a Ninja Turtle in one of my own classes could result in bonus points.

For what it’s worth, when you google the company that makes this application, Scribd, the second link is a Scribd doc, “pictures of geek culture.” At first I thought this was just an odd coincidence, unrelated to my other comments about Facebook Docs, but now I wonder if it’s potentially relevant after all. Should we be reassured that the geeks—perhaps those least likely to cheat—are those most firmly associated with this service at present? Or, if this takes off, should we see Facebook Docs as a sign that the non-geeks are becoming media literate enough to conceptualize homework as intellectual property, to contribute to and learn from user-generated content online? I still expect to drop by for a search or two while grading some day, but I can’t write this off as nothing more than legitimated plagiarism just yet.

Postscript: A friend from Penn just walked in the room and I showed her this post and the Featured Docs. She said that she used to make similar doodles on her own tests, and then she suddenly exclaimed that she knows the person who drew this, who showed her the drawing in person. Also, I’m not sure why, but the Facebook Docs uploaded from Penn so far include an issue of the Annenberg newsletter. And, finally, apologies to the anonymous artists whose work appears here uncredited.

8 thoughts on “Plagiarist Paradise, or Homework as Communication Medium?

  1. I run a similar site to Scribd Docs that just launched on Tuesday called While we allow students to share documents we take a very strong stance against plagiarism. We address the plagiarism concern here: but I will also summarize the key points: takes a strong stance against plagiarism and cheating. It is NOT an essay mill or a cheating site; it is a service that allows students to advance their own work through collaboration and the sharing of ideas. Content is on the internet and in libraries; Scriptovia is not doing anything different by putting student content in a centralized place. goes to great lengths to educate its users about plagiarism – that it is ethically wrong and that users can incur serious penalties if they are caught plagiarism. Some students may not understand what it means to plagiarize. explains what the difference is between collaborating and plagiarizing. It instructs them how to properly site references in their work and how to correctly use so that they don’t accidentally plagiarize someone else’s work.

    In addition, documents on are presented in HTML form within the browser. This allows services like to crawl all of our documents and track plagiarism against them.

    In the end the responsibility is on the student not to plagiarize.

    The benefits to allowing students to share their work far outweigh the pitfalls. It allows students to help each other, learn through example, get recognition and feedback on their work, and allows them to learn many 21st century skills.

  2. It’s good that these sites take a uniformly strong stance against plagarism, but I think that once you start talking about uploading images of completed homeworks and lab reports, plagarism will be very difficult to detect. (I know that Aseem mentioned that Scriptovia’s documents are in HTML and are searchable, but the Facebook Docs seems to allow pictures).

    This is the scenario that concerns me about these sites: A student in an engineering class looks at his homework for 5 minutes and decides he or she can’t figure it out. Rather than rereading the course material, working out similar example problems, going to the T.A., or discussing the problem with other students, he or she decides to check one of these websites to see if anyone has solved the problem before. Luckily, someone has. This student doesn’t copy the uploaded assignment, but they use it as a guideline for how to solve the problem, essentially cutting out the important developmental step of thinking through the solution. At the end of the problem they check their final answer against the one online, and it turns out to be different. Thinking that they must have just made a calculation error (since they followed the solution pretty closely), they just fix their final answer and turn in the problem.

    Of course, alot of this happens in person with classmates too, but in person there is a level of accountability… If you ask someone for help on homework, you both feel some pressure to make sure that at the end of the process everyone understands what was done. I don’t think that pressure exists online (for the same reason that many people say and “do” things online that they would never do in person).

  3. Jordan,

    Both high school and college students (especially engineering students) understand why they are doing homework. They know it is for practice and preparation for the upcoming test. For the students who just want to get their homework done as fast as they can there are plenty of other ways to achieve this goal, and they are going to cheat with or without For the other students Scriptovia becomes a valuable resource and community for studying and learning. Now students have access to 10 times the study materials that they once had access to. Say I am an engineering student with a final coming up. Instead of only having access to the problem sets that I completed during the term, now I can access 20 other problem sets from students at different schools that I have never seen before to help me study. Maybe I am making similar mistakes on all of my homework and I just can’t pin down what I am doing wrong. With I can upload my problem sets and ask for feedback or help. Someone might even tell me that I could be doing these problems in a faster or more efficient way. Now I am better prepared for my final and have refined my virtual communication and collaboration skills which are needed in today’s 21st century workplace.


  4. For the students who just want to get their homework done as fast as they can there are plenty of other ways to achieve this goal, and they are going to cheat with or without

    In my (limited) experience, both as a student and as an educator, most students want to get their homework fone as fast as they can, and I don’t blame them. Students usually have alot on their plates.

    I do not think that the scenario I described is necessarily cheating; it just concerns me because I believe it eliminates an important facet of learning.

    The availability of extra problems to solve in engineering courses is nothing new. Classes rarely assign all of the textbook problems for homeworks, not to mention all the extra problems available in libraries. Many teachers will even provide extra problems upon request, especially unsolved ones.

    I understand and agree that there are benefits to talking through problems with peers, either in person or online – I’m just concerned that having solved problems posted on these sites will undercut the learning process. This does not mean that I think solved problems are not valuable; learning by example is a great strategy. But seeing solved problems before thinking through a problem on your own is, I think, detrimental, and unavoidable in a context that thrives on instant gratification (i.e., the internet).

  5. Hey Jason,

    I’m curious about the IP status of homework. I ask for two reasons: 1. Questions that come from books are probably copyright to the text book authors/publishers. 2. It seems to me, similiar to your idea of homework as communication, that homework is something like a letter. I don’t know if anyone has tested this, but I feel like homework is very similar to a letter. (One person writes/creates/produces text for another specific person and it is delivered to that person.)

    The reason this matter is that I believe, in terms of publishing rights, letters belong to those who recieve them. (I might have this wrong or it might have changed, but I think that it is the way it works.) Therefore, even though the homework on these sites is the student’s IP, they might not have the right to publish/widely distrubute them. (At least, if they were letters they wouldn’t, I don’t think? Maybe I’ve got the wrong end of this stick completely.)


  6. Jordan,

    I understand your point completely. I don’t think we are seeing eye to eye in terms of how exactly engineering students will use the site. We both have theories but can’t be sure because nothing like Scriptovia or Scribd’s Docs has come into wide adoption in the past. To be honest, Scriptovia hasn’t yet had to deal with this use case because there are no problem sets on the site yet. I want to assure you that Scriptovia, as a company, does not endorse cheating and does not exist to undermine the learning process. That being said, as people upload problem sets we will revisit this concern as analyze exactly how students are using the problem sets. If we find that our site is undermining the learning process then we will take the steps to rectify the concern.

    I hope that doesn’t sound like some big corporate PR message 🙂


  7. Chris,

    Therefore, even though the homework on these sites is the student’s IP, they might not have the right to publish/widely distrubute them.

    That’s a really interesting point. I was once told (by a professor) that if I wanted to use any papers I wrote for a course for some other purpose, I had to obtain the instructor’s permission first. The instructors seems to be totally left out of the loop as to deciding what can and cannot be posted on these sites.


    as people upload problem sets we will revisit this concern as analyze exactly how students are using the problem sets

    It is somewhat reassuring that you are going to try to monitor the usage. Thanks :-).

    It also occurs to me that this sort of file sharing is unavoidable on some level (like so many other sorts of file sharing). Maybe it’s better to have it done on managed sites with well-meaning administrators rather than having someone develop a site that does in-fact encourage cheating.


  8. Jordan,

    The professors are out of the loop and really I don’t see much that they could do to actually prevent students from adding to these sites (regardless of the rights argument which MIGHT be legalistically correct, but which is the sort of thing that is impossible to enforce). The output end (ie, checking against the sites to catch cheaters) is where the professors will be functioning. At least I think.

    Jason, as the resident guy who really does this stuff, do guidelines exist for this sort of thing? I mean in the student handbook or whatever? Should there? Or in the IT policy of the IT people? Just curious.

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