The Business Ethics of Web 2.0: Does Collaboration and Open Source Blur The Line of What It Means To Cheat?


The business school at Duke University was recently shaken up by a scandal when 10% of the Class of '08 was caught cheating on a final exam.

A massive cheating scandal at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business has rocked the campus, and has led to concerns that cheating may be on the rise in MBA programs. The incident included 34 students – nearly 10 percent of the school's class of 2008 – and will lead to stiff penalties for all involved.

The cheating took place on an open-book, take-home final exam in one of the school's core classes. According to reports, the professor of the class noticed remarkable similarities to questions on the test, as well as on assignments handed in earlier in the course. Originally, thirty-eight students were brought before the school's Judicial Board, but four were eventually found not-guilty of violating the school's honor code.

Now Businessweek writer Michelle Conlin has picked up on the story and asked if it's cheating, or postmodern learning.

The accused MBAs were, on average, 29 years old. They were the cut-and-paste generation, the champions of Linux. Before going to B-school, they worked in corporations for an average of six years. They did so at a time when their bosses were trumpeting the brave new world of open source, where one's ability to aggregate (or rip off) other people's intellectual property was touted as a crucial competitive advantage.

It's easy to imagine the explanations these MBAs, who are mulling an appeal, might come up with. Teaming up on a take-home exam: That's not academic fraud, it's postmodern learning, wiki style. Text-messaging exam answers or downloading essays onto iPods: That's simply a wise use of technology.

This reads as though Linus Torvalds has a position aside Kant, Bentham, Rousseau, and other philosophers of ethics. As if the open source mindset is somehow to blame for the actions of these students. I don't buy it. Why not? Because every single one of those MBAs knew what they were doing.

The problem isn't about when it's ok to share and when it isn't. Those dilemmas have been with us for decades in other forms. The issue here is about what gets you ahead in life.

The accounting scandals that prompted SOX, the massive daily bombardment of advertising, the screwed-up state of national politics, and the Duke b-school scandal are all the product of one thing – the death of substance and the rise of marketing. Mobile phones, the web, and other improvements in technology have caused an information proliferation that has made the signal we are looking for very hard to pick out from the noise, all while our capacity for attention remains unchanged. So what do businesses do? They ramp up the signal to make it stick out that much more. Companies no longer pour money into production because production has become commoditized. New resources go into marketing, and that means that things don't get better as much as message just get louder.

We live in a world of soundbytes, of quick hits, of ADD, of shallow analysis. Why does it pay to focus on MBA classes? Will better financial analysis abilities get you ahead? Will a deeper understanding of management theories get you hired? Will hours of in-depth study on strategic thinking pay off? Not as much as networking and a slick resume.

As the noise has drowned out the signal, search has become the bottleneck of life. These students know that. They know they should focus their efforts on the polish and the shine, because that is how you get ahead. Combine that with a culture of instant gratification and a generation of students raised to believe that they have the right to do whatever it takes to make themselves happy, and you have a recipe for unethical business decisions.

I don't blame the web 2.0 collaboration mindset. These students didn't think that sharing was ok. They simply thought that it's better to focus their efforts on what gets them hired, and in this day and age, substantive thought isn't near the top of that list. Degrees and titles count so much more than actual knowledge.