Saturday, 12 January 2008

Ferreting out plagiarism

Lecturer: Would you photocopy someone else's essay, put your name on the top and hand it in for marking?

Students: No! That's plagiarism.

Lecturer: In that case, would you retype someone else's essay, put your name on the top and hand it in for marking?

Students: Oh, yes. That's perfectly legitimate.

Okay, I just made that up. But it's not hugely removed from the World As We Know It. Anyone who has marked student assignments at any level will be familiar with the extent of plagiarism. It's hardly rare.

Students copy* — from texts, from each other, from the back of cereal packets. Whereas the internet makes it easier to look up information**, it also provides an opportunity to copy great swathes of text about the subject of choice and paste them into essays … sometimes without even changing the typeface.

But the digital world has also made it an absolute doddle for markers to detect plagiarism. No longer do we have to rely on the sudden change in voice to indicate a second author. Programs like Turnitin do it for us. They check submitted work by scouring the internet for matching text, calculating the similarity and linking to the sources. Since students are often allowed to run their work through the program beforehand, they can check that it's okay before handing it in. The results are even colour-coded for convenience: green is fine, orange is a bit dodgy and red is run for the hills. And still the cut 'n' pasters act surprised when they're called in for a little chat.

The reasons for plagiarism are as varied as the sources. Of course, there are the usual suspects — laziness, ignorance and sheer bloody dishonesty — but there's also anxiety over writing ability. Yes, it's difficult. Doing anything well requires practice. And although there might be a smidgeon of sympathy for the I-can't-write-very-well-and-I-wanted-to-get-good-marks*** cohort, sticking your name on someone else's effort with the intent of passing it off as your own work is Not Right. It's also a career staller, if not a career killer.

So why would a professional writer do it? And not just once, but multiple times?

Living up to their epithet, the Smart Bitches have uncovered what looks very much like a case of plagiarism covering several novels by the same author. And they picked it up in the way that we used to pick it up in student essays — by noticing a change in voice.
What especially caught her eye, however, were the didactic passages in the book. They were written in a distinctly different voice, and out of idle curiosity, she decided to Google certain phrases and sentences.

Ah, Google. Is there anything it can't do?

Investigating further, they turned up similarities in another six novels. After an initial denial and some nifty misdirection around fair use and copyright, the current publishers issued a subsequent statement announcing a review of all their titles by that author.

When Associated Press ran the story, they asked John M. Barrie for a comment. Who is John Barrie? Why, he's the designer of Turnitin. While the publishers equivocated about the nature of the problem, he had no doubts that the author's "unattributed use of other peoples' work as her own definitely constitutes plagiarism."

You can read a summary of the whole sorry tale here.


*Some of 'em.

** Much of it crap, admittedly

*** Passing off someone else's work as your own is always a good way to increase your grade point average.


sarala said...

I know it isn't quite on topic but I know that I like being to use Google to find a quote whose author I don't know or the name of a song I remember a line from. I think overall it is just easier to catch the plagiarists now. But so hard to teach kids how not to. Remember when the Encyclopedia Britannica used to be the source of all elementary school research papers?

Sherryl said...

Yes, I saw all of this on the SmartBitches blog. Their analysis comparing paragraphs of stuff is fascinating - worth showing to our students, I think.
But there was an article recently (NY Times?) about how many people these days get music and movies off the net, and don't seem to see the difference when it comes to their own work. Something about *own* is not getting through!

Snail said...

Sarala: first Encyclopedia Britannica, then Encarta and now Wikipedia. If they start using Conservapedia, they're going to find themselves buried up to their necks next to a bull ant nest!

Sherryl: the mess is getting more and more bizarre. Seems that the intro to one of the books was also plagiarised!