A pandemical plague of plagiarism

This post has been inspired by a couple of very interesting pieces I read over the last couple of days. The first was this article, written by an associate professor from NYU. Unfortunately the original article has been taken down for some legal reason, but you can read a summary here. The second was this piece written by an academic from Imperial College. Both articles bemoan the current attitude of students regarding plagiarism, and both also have something to say about the steps that can be taken by academics and institutions to combat it. I would urge those who are interested to read both pieces and the attached discussion in the comments to the articles.

This is a highly emotive topic, with a lot of issues that surround it. Instances of genuine plagiarism used to be extremely rare, but the advent of the internet, PDF papers and wikipedia made it just so easy to copy and paste sentences, paragraphs, even whole sections into your essay. Faculty members that I know of have found that an increasing proportion of their time is spent dealing with cases of plagiarism, and efforts to educate students about exactly what plagiarism is, and how to avoid it in their work, have only been partially successful. Institutions have in general failed to address the issue, or are only just waking up to the fact that they need to address it. In many cases, institutions have strict rules and heavy sanctions for plagiarism cases, which if they were to be strictly applied to the enormous volume of cases which now occur, would mean a substantial proportion of the student body would be heavily penalised, or even asked to leave the institution.

All that aside, in keeping with the theme of this blog, my aim here is to discuss the technology and software that is currently being used to address (and in some cases, exacerbate) the problem.

From the student’s perspective, there are the online ‘essay mills’ which provide essays on a huge variety of topics, their database being mostly made up of essays submitted by other users. In some cases these companies will custom-write you an essay to your specifications (for a significant sum of money, naturally). I’m not going to link to any of these sites, because I don’t want to give them even the tiniest whiff of publicity, but a cautionary tale about the usage of these sites comes from Dan Ariely, here. My feeling is that there are only a very small minority of students who use these sites (students are generally poor after all, and a custom essay from these sites is expensive). The bigger problem is students copying material from the internet, from papers, and other sources without correctly attributing it.

From the faculty member’s perspective, a number of solutions are now available for the automatic detection of plagiarism. Possibly the best-known one is a piece of software called ‘TurnItIn’ which has been adopted by a couple of departments that I know of. This very clever piece of software searches the text of the suspect essay, compares it against known sources (papers, books) the whole of the internet, and against all other essays which have previously been scanned. It then produces an originality report, which looks like this:

Sample Turnitin originality report

The essay text is on the left hand side, and the sources from which it has been copied are on the right. If the total originality score of the essay is above, say, 20% (which allows some margin for false positives, coincidence, general benefit-of-the-doubt etc.) then the student receives a failing grade, or some other sanction. This can be a relatively simple and automatic procedure, and is one of the reasons why many departments have now switched to requiring electronic submission of written material.

There are various other services and bits of software which do similar things with more or less functionality, either paid or free. Some examples are here and here, but there are loads of others. What these bits of software do is quickly, and easily identify not only whether a student has copied something, but exactly where it came from, thus potentially saving many hours of typing phrases into Google to attempt to identify the source.

Interestingly, the makers of Turnitin also provide a service aimed at students called ‘WriteCheck’. This service does something similar, but aims to identify problem sections of an essay before it’s submitted. Students can upload their essay for a fairly-nominal fee ($4.95) and it will be scanned against Turnitin’s database (but crucially, not added to the database) and a similar originality report produced. Needless to say, if you’ve written your essay rigorously and in the correct way, you should have no need of such a service. However, if you have a legitimate reason to be worried about the originality of your work for some reason, it seems like $4.95 would be a relatively small price to pay for peace of mind.

So there you have it – technology and the plagiarist, pitted against each other in an evolutionary arms race. Software like Turnitin means increasingly that if you’re determined to cheat on your essay, you are more likely than ever to get caught. On the other hand, there are at least services which can ensure that you’ll never (inadvertently) hand in a copied piece of work again.



About Matt Wall

I do brains. BRAINZZZZ.

Posted on July 21, 2011, in Internet, Software, Study Skills and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’ve run into this repeatedly at a Midwest State University only to be told (a) that students didn’t understand plagiarism (all 7 sports-team members had the exact same kind of misunderstanding) and (b) that a star-faculty member and #1 fundraiser for a deparment was allowed misconduct in his non-research publications. It seemed to me that it was no in anybody’s interest in that academic setting to police, discover or discipline plagiarists at any level.

    • Thanks for the comment John. It does seem to be an issue that institutions have so far been unable or unwilling to address satisfactorily. I’m not sure what the answer is to be honest. While institutions are not enforcing the rules it will only continue. Perhaps the only solution is to move to other kinds of plagiarism-proof assessments? That does seem kind-of like admitting defeat though, plus, I’m not sure exactly what such an assessment would look like.

  1. Pingback: The student essay as an assessment technique – an obsolete technology? | Computing for Psychologists

  2. Pingback: The student essay as an assessment technique – fit for purpose? | Computing for Psychologists

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