Wikipedia had a minor role in an incident that swept through the blogosphere last week, as the story of a college student hiring a blogger to write a paper for her prompted a debate over ethics and plagiarism.
The story starts March 27, when Nate Kushner wrote about receiving an offer from a total stranger via instant messaging to write a paper about Hinduism. He posted his story on the website A Week of Kindness, a recently started blog for Kushner's comedy troupe.
According to Kushner, a Lewis University student named Laura offered $75 for him to write a five-page paper for her. Kushner did so, but also blogged about it, including mentioning Laura's full name and adding that he had sent a link to the blog post to the university's president.
Kushner wrote what he called a "pretty awful paper", complete with nonsense names and other comedic touches. He said that he "made up some citations to make it look real, but mostly told lies that were close enough to what I knew about the truth, plus I cited Wikipedia ferchrissakes..."
The Wikipedia citation in question was to the article Georges Dumézil, referring to this scholar's theories about the development of the caste system from early tribes. Kushner cited the Dumézil article for the proposition, "It is thought by some that even today, the members of the lowest castes are descendants of those conquered tribes." While it's not known how the particular professor would have viewed Wikipedia citations, considered against the other silliness in the paper this aspect would hardly be worth criticizing.
In the following days a number of other blogs linked to the story, which provoked an intense discussion on Kushner's blog, and he posted several follow-ups over the course of the week. Opinions were divided over whether Kushner had acted properly in exposing plagiarism or if the resulting public humiliation was excessive.
Boing Boing reported that it might be an April Fool's Day hoax, although if so it was several days early. In addition, most of the information Kushner provided seemed to check out, although citing student privacy laws the university has reportedly refused to confirm that Laura is a student there.