Apparently, the student who wanted to buy a paper contacted Nate on the basis on an interest listed in his AOL instant messaging profile. For starters, that's an insane way of going about finding a paper to plagiarize for university purposes. Nate's AOL-listed interest in hinduism could yield anything from gibberish to a sting. Either Laura wasn't canny enough to buy her paper from the many online plagiarist sites, or she figured that those sites had been hacked by her professors.
What really kills me here is that Nate wrote the student a glib but flawed paper in exchange for money. According to what I read, he sent the college dean a link to his "outing" post. What he really needed to do, though, was to contact the instructor. If the instructor, for any reason, fails to catch the plagiarism, the dean will then be able to shame (and now publically) the instructor.
It really is more possible to miss plagiarism than one might think. The student in question seems to be on the Dean's List of honor students at her college. Maybe she usually writes decent papers, but this time, she dishonorably chose to take the easy route. If that's the case, her instructor (who might be trying to write a dissertation or secure tenure while teaching this class) might not get around to googling Laura's essay--particularly not if she's smart and tinkers with the phrasing. The dean's involvement will humiliate the instructor, probably. Was there no way of alerting the instructor directly?
[Update, via bOing bOing. Nate informs us that he didn't contact the dean himself, that Laura, the student in question, turned in the paper without alterations (alas), that the dean had contacted Laura, that all the internet publicity had churned up telephone calls to everyone involved, and that the Laura cried and her mom was nice. Nate feels kinda bad, and Laura is probably going to get the book thrown at her. Laura shouldn't have plagiarized, but she also shouldn't get the full Gannon/Guckert treatment. The first post about the plagiarism sting got 81 trackbacks. The story showed up on a number of major blogs: bOing bOing is in the top-ten rated blogs on blogshares (yeah, I looked--I'll stop wandering over there soon). The story was told well, with great dialogue and dramatic tension, and during these Terry Schiavo-obsessed times, everyone clearly loved an easy crime to condemn.
What I think Nate's reversal really points out is that many sins within the academy are more like family affairs than matters of state. Academic records are federally protected. While Laura violated her own privacy by seeking out a manufactured paper in the public domain, the spirit of the law is to give students some room to make errors within the academy. This, obviously, was a major error, but the university has internal mechanisms for punishing it. The paper for a course is not like an article for an academic journal or a newspaper. My students plagiarize in minor ways all the time: they misunderstand the standards of citation or pull a fast cut n' paste for a sentence or two, and when I catch it, I give them a stern talking-to but don't report them. Usually, it's a contained and containable problem. Laura did go out of her way to purchase a paper whole, which is obviously dishonest, but it shouldn't ruin her life. An email to her instructor with a link to the website would have taught her a sufficient lesson. Most importantly, her last name shouldn't have been made public.]