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Intellectual Property

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
                                                                                                                                                Matthew 10:16

Occasionally I have the opportunity to teach students about the value of protecting one’s intellectual property. Today I handled two cases of academic integrity issues where one lab partner cut their partner’s work from wholesale cloth.

In the first case, “Beaker” had a habit of emailing his paper to his partner to check for errors. This in itself is a violation of course policy, as they are to turn in their work so we can work with them to correct it, and I’ve found students pool their ignorance just as much as their intelligence. It isn’t a pretty sight.

“Kelvin,” Beaker’s partner, had just been dumped by his girlfriend, and he wasn’t thinking straight, and somehow, pchem lab just didn’t seem all that relevant at the time. So when Beaker’s report came through and he saw mistakes in his own report, he just copied the whole thing and made a few paraphrase changes.

In the second case, “Polly” had a grueling weekend-long job interview on-site, and was exhausted. It was Sunday night with the lab report due the next afternoon. In desperation, she emailed her lab partner “Esther,” who thinking she was being a friend, emailed her paper to Polly, who again copied the tables, graphs and calculations into her own paper, disguising it with minor formatting changes.

All four are decent students, but stress, exhaustion, and other external factors made it easy for them to listen to temptation rather than get help from the teaching staff. As I sat with the copiers, it was obvious they regretted their choices. Polly in particular said she “hated the taste in her mouth” her actions had produced and was glad to have it out and dealt with.

In my conversations with the enablers, I helped them see that however minor it seemed, their work was their intellectual property, and it was in their best interests to preserve and protect it, even from ‘friends’ who made poor choices when under stress.

A great uncle of mine was a cartographer, long before computers, MapQuest and Google Earth. To protect his work from copycats, he would deliberately put minor flaws in his work, usually a small one block-long street named after his wife, that didn’t exist in the real world. Whenever a competitor came out with a new map of an area he had done, he would look for these errors.

How easy it is for us not to appreciate the value of our own work…until someone else steals it for themselves. There is a righteous form of pride. It is called self-respect. It is easy for us to neglect it in a sense of false or hyperactive humility. The second greatest commandment is to “Love our neighbors as ourselves.” We tend to forget the second half of that command. It assumes the rightness and holiness of a healthy self-love. That includes an appropriate valuing of our work.

{What happened to these students? The enablers lost a letter grade on their report. The copiers lost a letter grade in the course. Kelvin, who lost his girlfriend, and I had a really good heart to heart about how to compartmentalize in a healthy way, and I referred him to the Dean’s office where they can help find coping resources. Polly has gotten a good job she starts this summer after graduation. She will start it with a profound awareness of the need to maintain integrity in times of stress and to have a plan for success in difficult times. Esther is starting grad school this fall and has a dramatically different perspective with which to approach her teaching assignments. She will find a way to put a ‘deliberate mistake’ or other silent marker in all of her work. Beaker likewise values his own work to a deeper degree and understands human weakness in a new way. While I wish these incidents never happened, they have borne much fruit, and that is something.}


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