Price and Plagiarism

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The Web is a tool. Like all tools (including swords), it comes with two edges. While in the short term it appears to give advantages in one direction, over time it can surprise you and cut both ways.


When my wife, the rather brilliant Dr. Deborah Deitcher, PhD, was first teaching college students at Manhattan College (which is not in Manhattan, but in Riverdale), she warned the students very clearly that she understood the Web as well as they did, understood the temptations to plagiarize, explained what plagiarism was and what it was not - lack of knowledge was not going to be an excuse - and how it would not be tolerated.

More than anything, the Web has allowed for the explosion of content. The sheer amount of content out there, combined with (and driven by) its unprecedented availability, has led to nearly free access to just about any of human knowledge at each person's fingertips. This eases and thus creates a great temptation to plagiarize.

At the same time, the sheer amount of information has necessitated the creation of algorithms to process that information. These algorithms lead to tools to match quotes against sources, "plagiarism checkers" to ease catching plagiarism. First came the abundance of knowledge, advantage cheaters, shortly followed by tools to manage that knowledge, advantage educators.

And yet, unsurprisingly, every semester at least one student was convinced that his or her ability to use Google was somehow smarter than the professor's combined ability to do the same plus use an automated plagiarism checker that did it for her.

Students were convinced the Web gave them a tool to beat the educational staff and avoid the hard work necessary to learn; they quickly learned that the tool cut both ways.


Since the computerization of the airline industry, airlines have used demand-based pricing to modify their fares by the second. You could sit next to a person, in the same class seat, using the same routes, dates and times, but your ticket cost $200 and your neighbour's cost $400.

However, since airlines tightly controlled their inventory and either dominated specific routes to eliminate the impact of competition or "collaborated" with their competitors using public signalling to avoid competition, these tools were not as readily available to the broader market of retailers in a far more competitive environment.

The Web has changed much of that.

Companies selling online - Amazon, WalMart, BestBuy, everyone - use similar algorithms to present different prices at different times and through different channels to different people. The same toothpaste might cost $1, $2 or $5, entirely dependent on the day, date, time and source of the user. The algorithms and digital presentation give retailers and ability to modify prices to maximize their profits on a customer-by-customer and millisecond-by-millisecond basis.

Short-term: advantage retailer.

But, as for plagiarism, so for pricing, the tool is a double-edged sword. Just as retailers can use the Web to modify pricing, it isn't too hard to use the Web to compare pricing across retailers, and even across time within a given retailer.

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal released their "Christmas Sale Tracker" (for those who cannot access the article through the paywall, the tracker itself is here), which tracks the prices of 10 hot gift items from early November, through Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the Christmas season.

It is fairly easy to see that prices for the same item at the same retailer, let alone across retailers, vary widely... and every consumer can see it as well. This type of tool significantly reduces the leeway retailers have to raise prices. And unlike in the airline industry, where competition is slim, allowing tighter price management and easier signalling, the retail industry is broad and fiercely competitive.

Initially, the tools of Price and Plagiarism give one side the Pride to believe they can Prejudice the outcome, but over time the very same technologies and sometimes even the exact same tools balance the other side. Pride indeed goeth before the fall.