NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again—and Faces a Backlash

A New York University professor’s blog post is opening a rare public window on the painful classroom consequences of using plagiarism-detection software to aggressively police cheating students. And the post, by Panagiotis Ipeirotis, raises questions about whether the incentives in higher education are set up to reward such vigilance.

But after the candid personal tale went viral online this week, drawing hundreds of thousands of readers, the professor took it down on NYU’s advice. As Mr. Ipeirotis understands it, a faculty member from another university sent NYU a cease-and-desist letter saying his blog post violated a federal law protecting students’ privacy.

The controversy began on Sunday, when Mr. Ipeirotis, a computer scientist who teaches in NYU’s Stern School of Business, published a blog post headlined, “Why I will never pursue cheating again.” Mr. Ipeirotis reached that conclusion after trying to take a harder line on cheating in a fall 2010 Introduction to Information Technology class, a new approach that was driven by two factors. One, he got tenure, so he felt he could be more strict. And two, his university’s Blackboard course-management system was fully integrated with Turnitin’s plagiarism-detection software for the first time, meaning that assignments were automatically processed by Turnitin when students submitted them.

The result was an education in “how pervasive cheating is in our courses,” Mr. Ipeirotis wrote. By the end of the semester, 22 out of the 108 students had admitted cheating.

Some might read that statistic and celebrate the effectiveness of Turnitin, a popular service that takes uploaded student papers and checks them against various databases to pinpoint unoriginal content. Not Mr. Ipeirotis.

“Forget about cheating detection,” he said in an interview. “It is a losing battle.”

The professor’s blog post described how crusading against cheating poisoned the class environment and therefore dragged down his teaching evaluations. They fell to a below-average range of 5.3 out of 7.0, when he used to score in the realm of 6.0 to 6.5. Mr. Ipeirotis “paid a significant financial penalty for ‘doing the right thing,’” he wrote. “The Dean’s office and my chair ‘expressed their appreciation’ for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my ‘teaching evaluations took a hit this year.’”

Worse, Mr. Ipeirotis’ campaign aroused mistrust. Students were anxious, discussions contentious. He found teaching to be exhausting rather than refreshing. Dealing with the 22 cheating cases sucked up more than 45 hours “in completely unproductive discussions,” forcing him to focus attention on the least-deserving students, Mr. Ipeirotis said.

“The whole dynamic of the class changes,” he said. “They hear what I’m saying, but back in their mind they are thinking about cheating, cheating, cheating … It’s a vicious cycle. So, I get into class—I’m less happy because I had to deal with cheating the day before, instead of preparing better for the class. Students get less happy. I look at them. I don’t get positive feedback.”

Mr. Ipeirotis is hardly the first professor to complain about Turnitin, but his story was unique in its public accounting of intimate details. Most memorably, the professor quoted a lengthy e-mail from a cheating student who concocted an elaborate excuse about doing a homework assignment on someone else’s laptop and then getting distracted because the grandmother of the student’s best friend had a stroke.

Such details apparently contributed to the claim that the blog post violated students’ privacy. Mr. Ipeirotis believes he didn’t do anything wrong. But with a 6-week-old son and no stomach for a legal battle, he withdrew the story less than one day after its publication. “I’m not going to fight without support of NYU, right?” he said. “They feel that there is a potential liability.”

NYU had no comment on the legal claims. But Ingo Walter, vice dean of faculty at Stern, disputed the idea that fighting classroom scofflaws is futile, saying cheating “should be a key concern of the faculty.”

“We are teaching the next generation of business leaders, and it is important that they think about the consequences of their actions,” he wrote in a prepared statement. “We are also trying to satisfy ourselves that Stern graduates know what they are talking about when they represent themselves to practitioners and in the world of stiff competition with graduates of other top schools.”

As for Mr. Ipeirotis’ claim that he suffered financially for doing the right thing, Mr. Ingo had this to say: “Stern faculty members are obligated to support the University and Stern honor codes and are never sanctioned in any way for doing so. This includes possible class-feedback consequences in plagiarism or cheating cases in course evaluations. Moreover, the course evaluation input of any student who has an honor code infraction is removed from consideration when evaluating teaching performance.”

In Mr. Ipeirotis’ view, if there’s one big lesson from his semester in the cheating trenches, it’s this: Rather than police plagiarism, professors should design assignments that cannot be plagiarized.

How? He suggested several options. You could require that projects be made public, which would risk embarrassment for someone who wanted to copy from a past semester. You could assign homework where students give class presentations and then are graded by their peers, ratcheting up the social pressure to perform well. And you could create an incentive to do good work by turning homework into a competition, like asking students to build Web sites and rewarding those that get the most clicks.

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