Sunday, August 7, 2011

Thoughts on Plagerism Prevention

Many universities and high schools use a service called which scans the web, and archives of papers, journals, and books in order to determine whether a paper is plagerizing. I like the sentiment: people should certainly do original work and make sure that citations are full and accurate. However, I think this poses a serious problem for intellectual discussion and creativity. Here is the reason: most of the time (since I graduated from college) when I want to float an idea that I had or force myself to articulate my opinion of some scholarship I would write about it and post it on this blog or on Platonic Psychology. Now, taking the summer art history course, I have to be very careful. If I write an analysis something discussed in class and said topic shows up in a  paper, it is likely that my phrasing in the paper, by natural impulse, will sound like the previous work I have penned. Beyond this, friends of mine have had long discussions on Facebook about papers they were going to write. It seems absurd to penalize a student for using social media to discuss their academic pursuits. Isn't that the opposite of the goal of education?

I do see the obvious counterargument: most plagerism is plagerism and not students enjoying high-minded discussion on the internet. I also do not have any evidence such a scenario might happen, however, Turn It In is constantly expanding their database so it seems that one of these incidents is in the foreseeable future. In reality, I guess, my complaint is a selfish one: I do not want to live under constant fear that one of my papers is going to sound too much like one of my blogposts and get hauled into see some dean and try to talk my way out of failing a class. I can only hope it never happens.


  1. I've thought a lot about these issues -- especially since you brought it up last time and in connection with Part & Palimpsest -- and I've decided simply not to worry about it. (I'm even very likely to post entire paragraphs I will later turn in as parts of papers.) While I disapprove of plagiarism, I don't approve of TurnItIn as a method of combating it; it seems too guilty-until-proven-innocent, too mechanized, too paranoid. It's a tragedy that the plagiarism problem has gotten bad enough that professors feel they need to resort to such measures, but it seems likely to me that this sort of thing is only going to result in an arms-race: those who are really determined to plagiarize will find a way, and eventually share it with their less ingenious colleagues; meanwhile, honest hard-working students like you live in fear. Ultimately, the only way to fix the problem is to create an environment where ethical behavior is the expectation and the norm; by feeding students' papers indiscriminately into software like this, one sends the message that plagiarism is the expected norm.

    Given that the situation is as it is, however, I have a couple of options. I can live in fear that any repetition between the internet and my papers will be mechanistically interpreted as plagiarism (and that the professor can't be bothered to double-check); or I can simply behave as ethically as possible, and deal with the problem if and when it comes up. The latter course of action seems to me by far the superior: if they are resulting to these technologies, professors are apparently already living in fear of plagiarism to a degree I find extremely destructive; I can either sabotage my own intellectual development by joining them there, or do my best to let the cycle of paranoia stop with me.

  2. I agree with your point, to be sure. There must be other ways to prevent plagiarism and an ethical environment is the bes way. Furthermore, Turn It In specifically seems to give professors a rather maniacal glee and drive to catch plagiarists (which can be witnessed in UC Berkeley's class podcasts) which seems rather disturbing even if it is in pursuit of a good thing.

  3. Can you point me to an example of this glee? I'd be interested.

  4. correption---I don't know how teachers would go about creating an ethical seems like our society as a whole is going the route of increasingly lax morals. As a parent I became aware of so much cheating throughout the educational system, and it bothered me much more than it did my kids. They seemed content to let the cheaters cheat. The problem is, it's not a victimless many grades are based on 'curves', and the non-cheaters get penalized.
    I liked the system at my kids' Magnet high school...all tests were in class essays. The questions were randomly assigned and varied from student to student. This doesn't address the issue of longer papers, of course. I think Turnitin is a pretty limited solution, especially as Darby says, so many people are discussing their thought online these days. Maybe shorter papers on more individualized topics directly relating to course discussions, etc. would help professors spot problems.
    Great post!

  5. Ethical environments are surely challenging to create, but not impossible. My college Alma Mater was run by an honor principle (both academically and socially) and everyone was expected to behave to a certain standard. To be sure, there were still instances of cheating, but the only ones I ever heard about (and those were few and far between) were the ones that came up before the council who dealt with violations of the honor principle. Although an honor principle sounded silly when I arrived, people took it very seriously, and provided an ethical environment.

    Unlike college, I think it would be very difficult to institute such a thing in high school. Students are less mature and so preoccupied with getting into college as well as being cool that it is much more difficult to institute a regulating system. That said, I do not in any way believe that this generation is particularly less moral than any other-- although perhaps technology changes certain moral boundaries (such as internet piracy, etc). I don't think its necessarily that society's morals are becoming more lax, but that a lot of social institutions are becoming bankrupt of their authority and people are more interested in pretending those institutions are fine instead of trying to fix them. I don't think the institutions fail to serve their purpose because people are somehow worse than they used to be, but rather accountability measures are far too feeble and incentives (especially monetary) to do the wrong thing are higher than ever. Our institutions look a little bit like those in my vague understanding of late Republican Rome. I hate too be vague, but I don't want to be too political. My point is that every age requires a new set of tools to fight the problems of it's day (cheating, corruption, etc) and forging these tools requires a look forward rather than nostalgia.

    That said, I think TurnItIn is an especially problematic tool because I've read studies that say that this current generation is more likely to collaborate, especially online, than previous generations because social media makes it easy to do so. Even just in classics, there are a massive amount of group projects collecting data, submitting translations, archiving photos, etc and I think that students should be encouraged to join these, submit their work, and help expand the work of others by their contribution. I think TurnItIn makes collaborators nervous because they could be penalized (even expelled) for cheating off their own work (because, this is at least what makes me worry). The worst part, is that there are places now on the internet where you can pay someone to write a paper for you. These papers will not put up a red flag on TurnItIn, but they're still cheating and my guess would be that they are becoming increasingly popular as TurnItIn's database grows.

    Curves are, of course, a totally different problem that I don't like. However, my high school and college so rarely employed them that I had few encounters with them.

    correption: In answer to your question, my best example is David Ebrey in his Philosophy 25A, Fall 2008 at UC Berkeley the can be accessed from iTunes U (for free). Lecture 3 (near the beginning) is the sort glee I was talking about.