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Inequality and trust sit the test

Date

Matt Wade

everydayonomics

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If you search ''buy an essay'' on Google a multitude of websites will pop up offering stress-free ways to complete a looming assignment.

They promise teams of ''experienced writers'' on hand to write your essay - some even offer a money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied. The going rate seems to be about $US10 a page, although express services that promise essays in a few hours can cost three or four times that. One website that caught my attention audaciously claimed a focus was ''on professionalism, integrity and honesty''. Its heartwarming goal was to ''make your academic life joyful and easier''.

Internet offers like this have made cheating easier than ever for students. Web-assisted academic dishonesty poses a major threat to the credibility of universities, and academies the world over are struggling to find cost-effective ways to identify those trying to pass the work of others off as their own. Many university teachers now rely on plagiarism-detection software to automatically check student papers. A spokesman for the University of Sydney, one of Australia's biggest, said the ''wealth of online resources available to students, combined with the growth in electronic detection systems, has meant that universities have had to adapt their policies and practices in assessing and marking''.

Now there are claims that economy-wide forces are influencing student dishonesty. Researcher Lukas Neville, from Queen's University in Ontario, says students are more likely to cheat in areas of high economic inequality.

The inspiration for Neville's study, published in the journal Psychological Science, was his own university teaching experience. ''I ran into the question of academic dishonesty firsthand,'' he said. This got him thinking about the underlying influences that promote, or inhibit, student dishonesty. Neville had a hunch it had to do with trust. If students don't trust each other, some of them might think they have to cheat to keep up with their unscrupulous classmates. And, as other research has shown, this kind of distrust is often found in places where income inequality is high.

Neville didn't speak directly to students to examine the connections between trust, inequality and academic dishonesty. He let Google searches speak for them.

Neville obtained data from each US state on searches for phrases like ''free term paper'', ''buy term paper'', and the names of cheating websites. He then compared these with survey data on how trusting people are in each US state and an official measure of income inequality in each state. His comparison revealed that states with low levels of generalised trust and a big gap between the rich and the poor were more likely to be the source of ''cheat searches'' than states with a smaller gap. He concludes that growing inequality in the US and the increased prevalence of academic dishonesty ''may be related trends''.

There is lively debate among economists, and others, over how much economic inequality contributes to social ills, such as academic dishonesty. Inequality has been blamed for encouraging all sorts of bad things including street crime, tax evasion, corrupt business practices and employee theft. Some development economists say yawning inequality is detrimental to growth in low-income countries.

In the bestselling book The Spirit Level, the British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue strongly that greater equality always makes societies stronger.

But others, like the economist-turned-federal MP Andrew Leigh, say the negative effects of inequality on those social outcomes are extremely small, if they exist at all.

In a recent speech Leigh said that part of him ''deeply wants'' arguments like those made in The Sprit Level to be true, but his research has convinced him otherwise.

A better reason to care about the distribution of income, says Leigh, is because ''humans have a palpable discomfort with high levels of inequality''.

Even if inequality is promoting academic dishonesty, university teachers won't be able to do much about how wealth gets divided. They'll have to find ways of combating cheating in the classroom.

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