Oxymoron Alert: “Ethical Cheating”

What will they think of next?

From Arthur M. Harkins, Associate Professor based in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, University of Minnesota, and George Kubik, comes a scholarly paper that will have students cheering. Here is the abstract…you can buy the paper here.  Personally, I can tell where this is going, and I can think of more productive ways to spend my money.

Here is the abstract…a good workout for those of you who like to spot euphemisms, buzz words, and looming rationalizations:

Title:    “Ethical” cheating in formal education

Author:    Arthur M. Harkins, (Associate Professor based in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA), George H. Kubik, (Technical Adviser at the University of Minnesota, St Paul, USA)

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to emphasize the importance of modern and forward-looking educational practices that encourage learner development of open sourcing and collaboration as being desirable competencies for twenty-first century knowledge and innovation workers. Its intent is to employ the topic of “ethical cheating” as the springboard for opening a constructive dialogue between historic traditions of academic ethics and the emergence of digital-age learners who are already functioning as digital pioneers, innovators, and content contributors in an increasingly connected, rapidly-paced world.

Design/methodology/approach – The paper examines the subject of academic cheating in the context of emerging high-technology environments. It defines the term “ethical” cheating from the perspective of digital-age learning and contrasts it with traditional academic views of cheating in classical educational situations.

Findings – Rapid developments in digital information technologies such as cell-phones, pdas, and the internet are profoundly changing student attitudes toward what constitutes cheating in academic settings. The presence of widespread high-tech devices already enables increasing numbers of learners around the globe to participate in extensive and ongoing collaborative and open-source activities that reflect competitive business practices but run counter to the accepted norms of traditional educational institutions. The introduction of the term “ethical cheating” here reflects the growing dissonance between traditional academic views of ethical standards and the impatience of learners straining to become twenty-first century workers and societal members. A new dialogue is needed to reconcile these differences.

Originality/value – The paper introduces the term “ethical cheating” as a springboard to initiate a new dialogue between traditional academic norms and the emergence of new student attitudes regarding the use of digital technologies that facilitate learning through open-sourcing and collaboration.


Translation: “Everybody does it.”

25 thoughts on “Oxymoron Alert: “Ethical Cheating”

  1. To be fair, the paper is in fact free and, ironically enough, comes complete with notes and a bibliography.

    I confess that I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but a quick glance indicates that it’s pretty predictable: “Our supportive assumption is that students cannot compete globally within the current strictures of academic integrity, and that they cannot employ networking, collaborating, knowledge producing, and innovation actions [!] in timely ways without cheating.”

    I do intend to read the whole thing, in a “know your enemy” sort of way. Then again, I’m a perpetuator of “time-consuming, obsolete education systems,” so I can’t really be trusted. I hope to have time to write my own piece on this in the next day or two. Thanks for the idea.

      • I suspect I may have access because I’m on my work computer. The university library probably subscribes to the journal or clearinghouse or whatever, giving me a cookie to bypass the paywall and access the material.

        Trust me, not worth buying… but it does give me more incentive to read the whole thing and post on it. I’ll post a link here when it’s done.

        • I’m really interested in your piece on it. I suspect this argument will become more and more prevalent, and the implications of that, in my view, will have far-reaching consequences, and not very pretty ones.

  2. This reminds me of an essay by Jerry B. Harvey of George Washington University, in his collection, How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back My Fingerprints Are on the Knife?, where he says he would fail any student who refused to help another student “cheat.” His reasoning being that academia is a false environment, the only place where we expect people to succeed, or fail, solely on their own efforts. In the “real world” people collaborate, make deals, and learn to negotiate for cooperation. His view was that a student who refuses to help another student is being selfish, and would be the sort of toxic employee that prevents other employees from gaining access to needed information and resources.
    He did state it much more eloquently than I have, though I believe that’s the gist of his thesis.

  3. Ah. He’s an idiot.

    The terrible idea that academia succeeds by mimicking the real world has been rotting education for some time now. If you can’t learn ideals and principles in college, what earthly good is it? We have to know what the ideal is to know when the real world is forcing us to compromise.

    I’m sorry you told me about this. It will ruin my day.

  4. Jack, unfortunately ethical relativism is alive and well at least in the mind of Arthur M. Harkins, Associate Professor based in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, University of Minnesota. Another oxymoron is the word Leadership and ethical cheating. Dr. Harkins really needs to get a job on Wall Street. He would fit in nicely with the creeps who caused the financial meltdown in the name of greed. Another good place for him would be China where software piracy is in their DNA. The message his paper gives is that since technology has changed and now provide an infinite number of ways of accessing and using information, it’s time to revisit our societal norms about just what is and is not cheating. By this logic, steroid use is acceptable because of drug advances. Does Dr. Harkins also believe that cyber-bullying is all right since the technology makes it so easy to do?

    • Part of the reason the Chinese pirate so much is that their government is so restrictive of media. Because they can’t get it through legitimate means, they get media under the table.

  5. This is silly. Letting students cheat just creates a dependency on someone else’s knowledge.

    My programming teacher in high school was a fan of collaboration between students. What this inevitably became was less-apt or confused students looking to (and sometimes stealing code from) advanced students for help on moderate-difficulty problems, then being left in the dust when the advanced students collaborated for the brain-melters.

    • What the paper seems to be talking about isn’t what I see as collaboration in the true sense, knocking heads together with a colleague to solve a problem neither can figure out alone. It’s just mooching off the internet.

  6. I once had a professor tell me: “Life is an open-book test.”

    I guess today it’s: “Life is a Google search.”


  7. I’m going to get on board this bandwagon of disdain, but I’m also going to take it to a place that many of you probably don’t want to go.

    Jack, I think you’re right that the authors’ claims are largely based on the observation that “everybody does it.” But I also think the perception that there is a need to reevaluate the meaning of “cheating” is a symptom of the powerful American tendency to manufacture a false sense of equal opportunity.

    These authors presumably recognize that there’s a large segment of the constantly growing student population that simply doesn’t have the intelligence, interest, or drive to succeed on their own merits. But they really, really want as many young people as possible to obtain a college education and a degree. And many, many other people feel the same. In light of the conflict between what is true of education and what people want to be true, I think a reasonable person has to choose one of two options: Either reduce your expectations as to the number of people who become educated, or reduce the difficulty involved in completing that education.

    Simply holding people to a higher standard isn’t going to make them live up to that standard if they don’t want to or they don’t have it in them. And as far as I’m concerned, if you can’t stand on your own two feet, you don’t belong in college at all.

    • Oh, please, let’s do go there. I feel a little chagrined at having to discuss this without reading the whole article, and will attache that caveat. But this goes hand in hand with the misguided effort to send everyone to college, including those who would be better off spending the time and the money somewhere else. The point is to have the skills, and a diploma that accurately reflects that you have the skills, to think and analyze and create without “collaboration” or mechanical assistance.

      I one watched in amazement as a 7-11 clerk angrily insisted that 50 cents minus 48 cents equaled ONE because that’s what “the machine” said. I kept making her re-enter the figures, not because I cared about the lousy cent she was shorting me, but because I was fascinated that she was so handicapped by her dependence on technology.

      One approach to egalitarian objectives is to make everyone equally incompetent and stupid. It’s impossible, of course, but the Harkins plan seems to point in that direction.

  8. As a teacher, cheating makes me very angry, because it gives an advantage to lazy and/or unethical students over hard-working and honest students. It’s impossible for me to understand how that can be seen as a good thing.

    But I also recognize that, while cheating may help students to earn a particular grade, it actually hinders their ability to learn skills or achieve a sound education. There’s a big difference between achieving a particular mark in a course, and successfully mastering the course material in a meaningful and applicable way. Students who approach education with the latter goal in mind get a lot more out of their courses than do students who merely want to achieve a particular grade.

    I agree with Edward’s assertion that part of the problem is the one-size-fits-all emphasis on a college education. I would love to see 18-year-olds presented with a greater variety of options, and also for adults to have better chances to return to school at a time when they are ready and eager to pursue an education.

  9. Jack,
    “And what are Type II ethical cheaters really doing? They are using a variety of digital technologies and networks to pull together needed data and information for immediate and practical applications. We assert that this activity is better preparation for work in the real world than the memorization of disconnected facts and data.”

    Aren’t you sad you wasted all that time in law school memorizing case law and other useless information instead of simply cutting and pasting relevant information from the Volokh Conspiracy?


    • Nah.

      1) If I hadn’t had to analyze the case law (nobody memorizes it), I wouldn’t be able to understand the Volokh Conspiracy enough to use it (with proper attribution, of course)
      2) I wouldn’t know when the libertarian profs over there are full of beans, which they sometimes are, and …
      3)I wouldn’t have realized how boring I would find much of the law.

      Actually, what I liked doing was writing appeals, and almost ended up doing that….and I was good at it, too. And you can’t write a good brief without doing the foundation work of analyzing the cases yourself.

  10. This brings to mind- as an anology- that remarkable dissertation called “A Practical Guide To Politics”, where Tammany Hall sage George Washington Plunkett described the difference between “honest graft” and the dishonest variety. The legacy of Plunkett and Boss Tweed has apparently spead to academic circles.

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