08/23/2012 10:13 am ET | Updated Oct 23, 2012

Why Students Who Plagiarize Get Away With Nothing

Many in the education world were surprised, and a bit puzzled, to learn last week that dozens of incidents of plagiarism had been reported among students enrolled in the free online courses offered by Coursera. Coursera is the online venture that has partnered with Stanford, Princeton and other elite institutions of higher education to offer web versions of popular courses to the public. The instances of plagiarism, which apparently occurred in at least three Coursera courses, were discovered by fellow students engaged in "peer grading," evaluating their classmates' assignments. The professor teaching one of the courses posted a message imploring his students to stop copying others' work without attribution.

Plagiarism is regrettably common among students enrolled in traditional classes, of course. A survey released last year by the Pew Research Center found that plagiarism among college students is at an all-time high. The motive behind such cheating, one assumes, is to procure a higher grade with less effort. But the Coursera students were not taking their courses for a grade, or even for credit. They were taking the classes only for their own edification -- a fact that unexpectedly illuminates an aspect of plagiarism that is often missed. In addition to cheating professors who expect original work, classmates who toiled over essays of their own, and writers who presume their words will appear under their own names, plagiarists also defraud themselves. Lifting the labor of someone else's mind is the opposite of real learning.

Cognitive science research demonstrates that the acquisition of "deep knowledge" of a subject -- knowledge that is stored in our memories long-term and that can be flexibly applied to new situations as well as familiar ones -- depends on two conditions.

First, we have to think about the meaning of the information. As the University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham has put it, "Memory is the residue of thought." We remember what we think about -- and plagiarists have thought about their topics only long enough to select an appropriate passage to copy. (This first prerequisite of acquiring deep knowledge -- thinking about the meaning of the information -- also helps explain why rote memorization is so ineffective. There's no meaning for our minds to grasp in a dry list of facts, and so these facts often fail to find a hold in memory.)

The second condition for acquiring deep knowledge is making connections among the various pieces of information we're learning, and between this new knowledge and the knowledge we previously possessed. Here again, plagiarists have given themselves little opportunity to discover connections or to bind the new information to their memories by tying to things they already know. Students who plagiarize in an ungraded course are getting away with nothing at all: no lasting memories, no profound understanding.

Like a thief who steals an empty safe, they make for easy objects of derision. But while many of us know better than to pass off another person's work as our own, we think little of engaging in the intellectual equivalent of cutting and pasting. How many times have you borrowed the opinion of a political pundit? How often have you retailed the wisdom of a best-selling book or an expert on TV? The ethical infraction is minor, but the crime against our intellectual lives is great. Every time we mentally skim the surface, every time we allow someone else to do thinking, we miss a chance to develop deep knowledge. Even without a grade, it counts.