I’m Pissed – Academic Integrity and the Essay Database

Well, this is a weird one to have a sudden spike in views in the middle of October. Drop something in the comments box; let me know where you’re all coming from.


I’ll kick this off by saying the following: I won’t link to the website I’m about to discuss (you might be able to deduce it if you’re aware of it), I will not name names, and I won’t even name chemicals – lest it contribute to the problem in question.

Recently I was made aware of a particular site that hosts student essays. It masquerades as a “database” but it reality all it does is take content of what people have written and hosts them. There’s very little to it, it just hosts the words as taken straight from a file, and puts them up there. There are authors, identified by a combination of apparently real names, first-names only and pseudonyms, but no profiles or hyperlinks to link similar authors together. It’s actually stupidly basic – not even tags or categories or anything remotely organisational. It is literally just a repository of HTML files.

And on this site you can find not one, but three different pieces of extended written work that I and colleagues have set for students.

This isn’t just “here’s one essay about polymolyacrylmethylethylamide” or “here are some facts about polymolyacrylmethylethylamide” – that is shit you can find literally anywhere – it is the very exact same piece of work that is set. It is “here is the exact synthesis of polymolyacrylmethylethylamide we use” and “here are the properties tests of polymolyacrylmethylethylamide we use complete with the exact same reagents and quantities” and “here are the functionalisations of polymolyacrylmethylethylamide we set”. And the three sets of work, that each match up with work set across three separate lab courses, are submitted by the same user.

It doesn’t take Sherlock Fucking Holmes to come to the conclusion that these are reports submitted sometime last year by one of our own students.

polymolyacrylmethylethylamide

Figure 1: Structure of polymolyacrylmethylethylamide, which is totally a real chemical and not at all made up just for illustrative purposes.

Naturally, I am pissed off with this revelation. I am pretty livid, and not in the humorously-annoyed way that I was when some idiot tried to dox me and utterly failed at doing so. I’m pissed for several reasons, and I don’t have a particular order to them, so I’ll drop them in bullet-point form and see if it makes sense by the end:

  • I’m pissed because someone has profited from this. The site in question pays people to upload content – their business model works on donations and adverts from what I can tell, and hosting non-dynamic content can’t be too pricey, so I assume this is just leftover profit to entice content creators. It’s like a slightly more insipidly flavoured predatory O.A. journal. But it’s not just student work that has gone into this. There are years upon years of scientific development that has gone into this polymolyacrylmethylethylamide as a chemical entity. And there are further years upon years of development expertise that has gone into turning it into a feasible lab experiment for undergraduates. It’s not all their work – post-graduates, teaching fellows, lecturers, markers and years of student experience have come together to make this a reality and someone at the end of the chain got cash for it. One might call it “enterprising”, and, sure, I’ll take that on the chin if you insist, but no matter how you want to spin it this is an obnoxious dick-move, at best, on the part of the uploading student.
  • I’m pissed because it’s a complete piece of work. It replicates everything we set. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s any different to printing off a copy and handing it around to everyone saying “hey, copy this and get an A!”.
  • I’m pissed because using it defies the fucking point. One of the reasons you set undergrads extended projects is so that they can research around the topic. I don’t particularly care if they stick polymolyacrylmethylethylamide into Google or into Web of Knowledge (well, actually, I’d prefer the latter, but I take what I can get) but they should be looking around and synthesising information. It’s a skill that needs to be learned. Where you have source A and B and C and put them together. That’s the point. With this out there, it’s suddenly a one-stop-shop. I’m pissed that this even exists just to tempt students into it.
  • I’m pissed – super-pissed – that some of the information contained in this hosted report is incorrect. It’s laughably wrong in places. Yet it’s out there in the wild now. We have to track it down like one of the infamous errors we’re all aware of that persist in textbooks. Because it’s out there, I have to issue lengthy corrections to dozens of separate people, or paste it up online for all to see again.
  • I’m pissed with students who cite and copy it uncritically (I’ll avoid the details, but it’s on par with saying “2+2=4, therefore 4=3”) and so I want to do blue-fucking-murder upon them. I want to take every single one that has cited it without thinking and hug them tightly around the neck until they stop squirming on a permanent basis – but I’m still pissed that it exists and presented in such a way that people might mistake it for reliable in the first place.
  • I’m pissed that people read it, copy the “4=3” mistake alluded to above, but then don’t even bother to cite it at all. It took me the best part of a semester to figure out where this shit was coming from because of that.
  • I’m pissed because this makes citing Wikipedia look positively sane. You know, there’s nothing wrong with Wikipedia as a starting point – no sensible academic denies that. But this is not the same thing. It’s not a factual repository, it’s an exact copy of what you’re supposed to submit.
  • I’m pissed that this site ultimately exploits students. Not just robbing them of research experience and teaching them that Dr. Google will make it all better, but that they will ultimately be turning a profit. Their hosting will be cheap, but their visits will determine their advertising revenue. Because if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product – and without AdBlock, oh my is the site utterly riddled with some dodgy adverts. Someone, somewhere is getting a tiny little drip-drip-drip of income off of the efforts of students who wrote the content and of those naive enough to search it out and copy it down.
  • I’m pissed at the complete lack of academic integrity shown by both the students that upload their work here and the ones that use it. This is not responsibly publishing your work Open Access, this is facilitating outright plagiarism.

It’s difficult to exactly express why I’m that pissed at it in succinct terms. And I’m sure countless people will say to get over it because it’s simply a sign of the times. Across the country and across the world there are set standard experiments that we do to teach undergraduates how to perform in a lab. The information is freely available – and it’s widely distributed because it’s reliable, works and does what we need it to with utmost efficiency. So it stands to reason that this will “leak” onto the internet and ultimately we will have to deal with that.

And at the end of the day I suppose I’m really fucking pissed that this will necessitate me sending an email about academic integrity and plagiarism to a lot of undergraduates who should damn-well know better.

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One thought on “I’m Pissed – Academic Integrity and the Essay Database

  1. I can’t say I’m surprised. Knowledge and academic integirty aren’t very important to a lot of people. They get into the sciences because it’s supposed to be a surefire way to make money. At least, that’s the message they beat into our heads at school.

    We need to teach students to actually research from the first grade, so it’d become a habit. It’s hard to teach new habits to 20YO’s.

    Reply

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