Plagiarism

Anti-Turnitin manifesto calls for resistance to some technology in digital age

Essay argues the age of big data is the time for professors to reconsider their reliance on the anti-plagiarism business.

Why plagiarism is not necessarily deceitful or deserving of censure (essay)

“College Plagiarism Reaches All-Time High”

Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception”

Headlines like these from The Huffington Post and The New York Times scream at us about an increase in plagiarism. As a society, we feel embattled, surrounded by falling standards; we bemoan the increasing immorality of our youth. Plagiarism, we know, is an immoral act, a simple case of right and wrong, and as such, deserves to be punished.

However, nothing is simple about plagiarism. In fact, the more we examine plagiarism, the more inconsistencies we find, and the more confusion.

How we think about the issue of plagiarism is clouded by the fact that it is often spoken of as a crime. Plagiarism is not only seen as immoral; it is seen as stealing -- the stealing of ideas or words. In his book Free Culture, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig questions what it can possibly mean to steal an idea.

“I understand what I am taking when I take the picnic table you put in your backyard. I am taking a thing, the picnic table, and after I take it, you don’t have it. But what am I taking when I take the good idea you had to put a picnic table in the backyard -- by, for example, going to Sears, buying a table, and putting it in my backyard? What is the thing that I am taking then?”

Lessig gets at the idea that, when a person borrows an idea, no harm is done to the party from whom it was taken. But what about loss in revenues as a form of harm? Surely there is no loss of revenues when a student plagiarizes a paper. From Lessig’s metaphor we can see that theft, and even copyright infringement, are not entirely apt ways to think about plagiarism.

But Lessig’s metaphor does not help us understand that, in academic writing, acknowledgment of sources is highly valued. Neither does it reveal that taking ideas and using them in your own writing, with conventional attribution, is a sophisticated skill that requires a good deal of practice to master.

There are at least three important things to understand about the complexity of using sources. First, ideas are often a mixture of one’s own ideas, those we read and those we discuss with friends -- making it hard or even impossible to sort out who owns what. Second, writers who are learning a new field often “try out” ideas and phrases from other writers in order to master the field. That process, which allows them to learn, involves little or no deceit. And third, expectations for citing sources vary among contexts and readers, making it not only confusing to learn the rules but impossible to satisfy them all.

It is quite hard to separate one’s ideas from those of others. When we read, we always bring our own knowledge to what we’re reading. Writers cannot say everything; they have to rely on readers to supply their own contribution to make meaning. One difficulty arises when you read an argument with unnamed steps. As a good reader, you fill them in so you can make sense of the argument. Now, if you were to write about those missing steps, would they be your ideas or those of your source?

Writers may reuse the ideas of others, but surely they know when they reuse words, so should they attribute them? Perhaps not. Words are not discrete entities that can be recombined in countless ways, rather, they fall into patterns that serve certain ways of thinking, the very ways of thinking or habits of mind that we try to instill in students.

The fact is that language is formulaic, meaning that certain words commonly occur together. There are many idioms, such as “toe the line” or “cut corners” that need not be attributed. There are also many co-occurring words that don’t quite count as idioms, such as “challenge the status quo,” “it should also be noted that …” and “The purpose of this study is to …” that similarly do not require attribution. Those are called collocations. Student writers need to acquire and use a great number of them in academic writing. What this means is that not every verbatim reuse is plagiarism.

Moreover, imposing strict rules against word reuse may function to prevent student writers from learning to write in their fields. When student writers reuse patterns of words without attribution in an attempt to learn how to sound like a journalist, say, or a biologist, or a literary theorist, it is called patchwriting. In fact, not only student writers but all writers patch together pieces of text from sources, using their own language to sew the seams, in order to learn the language of a new field.

Because of the complex way in which patchwriting mixes text from various sources, it can be extremely difficult to cite one’s sources. Despite this lack of attribution, much research has shown that patchwriting is not deceitful and therefore should not be punished. In fact, some scholars are interested in exploring how writing teachers could use the concept of patchwriting to help student writers develop their own writing skills.

The third reason that it is not always easy to acknowledge sources is that expectations for referencing vary widely and what counts as plagiarism depends on context. If, for instance, you use a piece of historic information in a novel, you don’t have to cite it, but if you use the same piece of information in a history paper, you do. Journalists typically do not supply citations, although they have fact checkers making sure their claims are accurate. In business, people often start their reports by cutting and pasting earlier reports without attribution. And in the academy, research has shown that the reuse of words in science articles is much more common and accepted than it is in the humanities.

In high school, student writers probably used textbooks that did not contain citations, and once in college, they may observe their professors giving lectures that come straight from the textbook without citation, cribbing one another’s syllabi and cutting and pasting the plagiarism policy into their syllabi. They may even notice that their university lifted the wording of its plagiarism policy from another institution!

In addition to those differing standards for different genres or fields of study, research has also shown that individual “experts” such as experienced writers and teachers do not agree whether or not a given piece of writing counts as plagiarism. Given such wide disagreement over what constitutes plagiarism, it is quite difficult, perhaps impossible, for student writers to meet everyone’s expectations for proper attribution. Rather than assuming that they are trying to pass off someone else’s work as their own and therefore deserve punishment, we should recognize the complexity of separating one’s ideas from those of others, mastering authoritative phrases and meeting diverse attribution standards.

While most people feel that plagiarism deserves punishment, some understand that plagiarism is not necessarily deceitful or deserving censure. Today, many writers and writing teachers reject the image of the writer as working alone, using (God-given) talent to produce an original piece of work. In fact, writers often do two things that are proscribed by plagiarism policies: they recombine ideas in their writing and they collaborate with others.

Interestingly, the image of the lone, divinely inspired writer is only a few hundred years old, a European construct from the Romantic era. Before the 18th century or so, writers who copied were respected as writers. Even today, rather than seeing copying as deceitful, we sometimes view it as a sign of respect or free publicity.

Today, millennial students often copy without deceitful intent. Reposting content on their Facebook pages and sharing links with their friends, they may not cite because they are making an allusion; readers who recognize the source without a citation share the in-joke.

In school, millennials may not cite because they are not used to doing so or they believe that having too many citations detracts from their authority. In either case, these are not students trying to get away with passing someone else’s work off as their own, and, in fact, many studies have concluded that plagiarism, particularly that of second-language student writers, is not done with the intent to deceive.

Despite these complexities of textual reuse, most faculty members nevertheless expect student writers to do their “own work.” In fact, student writers are held to a higher standard and punished more rigorously than established writers.

What is even more troublesome is that teachers’ determinations of when plagiarism has occurred is more complicated than simply noting whether a student has given credit to sources or not. Research has shown that teachers let inadequate attribution go if they feel the overall sophistication or authority of the paper is good, whereas they are stricter about citing rules when the sophistication or authority is weak. Furthermore, they tend to more readily recognize authority in papers written by students who are members of a powerful group (e.g., whites, native English speakers or students whose parents went to college). Thus, in some instances, plagiarism may be more about social inequity than individual deceit.

As we come to realize that writers combine their ideas with those of others in ways that cannot always be separated out for the purposes of attribution, that writers often reuse phrases in acceptable ways, that citing standards themselves vary widely and are often in the eye of the beholder, and that enforcement of plagiarism rules is an equity issue, the studies and articles panicking over plagiarism make less and less sense. In looking at plagiarism from the different perspectives offered by collaborative writers and today’s millennial student writers, we can see that much plagiarism is not about stealing ideas or deceiving readers.

Unless plagiarism is out-and-out cheating, like cutting and pasting an entire paper from the internet or paying someone to write it, we should be cautious about reacting to plagiarism with the intent to punish. For much plagiarism, a better response is to relax and let writers continue to practice the difficult skill of using sources.

Jennifer A. Mott-Smith is an associate professor of English at Towson University. She has been teaching college writing for more than 20 years and researching plagiarism since 2009. This is the second in an occasional series of essays on Bad Ideas About Writing -- adapted from a collection of pieces edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe for an open-access book by the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University Libraries.

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Free paraphrasing tools can fool plagiarism detection software

Free paraphrasing tools can fool plagiarism detection software, study finds.

Study finds paraphrased language fools plagiarism-detection software

Paraphrasing tools, freely available online, can fool plagiarism detection software, study finds.

Some academics worry that new tools enable plagiarism to bypass detection

Programs that promote themselves as helping students paraphrase may be helping them plagiarize, researcher warns.

The broader implications of unfairly accusing a Latina student of plagiarism (essay)

In a recent article, “Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms,” Shaun R. Harper, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and I offer a series of recommendations emerging from the more than 40 campus climate assessments conducted by the center. The first action challenges college faculty to recognize their implicit biases and to remediate their racial illiteracy.

As discussed in Harper’s forthcoming book, Race Matters in College, college and university faculty members are the byproducts of their own educational experiences. Whether in K-12 schools, college or graduate school, too few of us were given sufficient opportunity to learn about race and racism or meaningfully engage with others from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

As a result, too little attention has been paid to the problematic and stereotypical ways we have been socialized to think about people of color. Naturally, the failure to challenge such biases prior to entering the professoriate has allowed prejudicial racial attitudes of some colleagues, particularly white faculty who are the overwhelming majority of college and university professors, to inform racist pedagogical practices in their classrooms.

The recent case involving a first-generation Latina student, Tiffany Martínez, at Suffolk University, is but one example. An accomplished undergraduate, published journal author and McNair scholar, Martínez wrote a personal blog post titled “Academia, Love Me Back.” In her heartfelt plea, Martínez first recounts an experience she described as both disrespectful and invalidating and then explains that a sociology professor accused her of plagiarism, not privately, but in front of the entire class. The professor’s claim was further illustrated by emphatic written statements on her paper such as “this is not your word” and “please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.”

One such comment was written in the margin near the word “hence,” which the professor had circled, an important detail, given Martínez merely used it as an appropriate transition to connect two related sentences. Was it that surprising to Martínez’s professor that she knew how to appropriately use a transitional word?

Although some may dismiss this as a minor incident, Martínez reminds us of the internalized racism and self-doubt resulting from years of educational violence. Like the many students of color from whom we hear similar stories in our campus climate assessments, what transpired for Martínez was yet another debilitating and painful experience of marginalization.

In this case, Martínez’s professor was in disbelief that a Latina student was capable of using language consistent with what is regarded as strong, academic and scholarly writing. Such disbelief is likely to have been informed by common stereotypical portrayals of Latinas with which Martínez’s professor was most familiar, which are unlikely to have been reflective of the intellectually rich contributions of Hispanic, Latina and Chicana scholars like Laura Rendón, Gloria Anzaldúa and many others. Instead of acknowledging that Martínez is as capable as her white peers, the professor assumed intellectual incompetence and publicly reduced her demonstrated genius to an act of theft. Such assumptions and actions were not only pedagogically irresponsible, but demonstrably racist.

It is imperative that our colleagues stop being surprised when students of color are able to thoughtfully articulate themselves in their writing and in class discussions. Such low expectations of students of color who have, at minimum, earned admission to our institutions effectively erases their demonstrated capabilities and ongoing potential to meet subjective academic standards.

Furthermore, it is categorically unfair that students of color are routinely targeted and attacked with allegations of academic dishonesty due to the limits placed on their genius by the white imagination. Not only are white students not subjected to the same scrutiny and humiliation by their same-race professors, but they are also regularly excused and validated when proven to have committed the very offenses that the academy abhors.

Charles H. F. Davis III is on the faculty in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Davis also serves as director of higher education research and initiatives in the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

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Melania Trump's speech raises larger issues than plagiarism (essay)

In case you missed it, in her remarks Monday night at the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump lifted portions of Michelle Obama’s speech from the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (Or at least her speechwriter, who has come forward to take the blame, did so.)

Almost eight years ago, I wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed about plagiarism and politics. I expressed my disappointment that the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, had chosen Joe Biden as his running mate in spite of Biden’s record of plagiarism. It was a different time. I had not heard of Joe Biden’s rival for vice president, Sarah Palin, and I probably overestimated the influence that elected officials have on the behavior of college students.

There are things I regret about that column, and I learned that the Inside Higher Ed commentariat is full of surprises, to put it politely. When I woke up this past Tuesday morning and saw that my news feeds were clogged with stories of another instance of political plagiarism, I went back and looked at what I’d written about Biden eight years ago. What strikes me most of all is that plagiarism is not a particularly useful way to talk about political speeches. Like many academics, I looked at the evidence Jarrett Hill provided and started to wonder what I would do if Trump had handed this in to me and I’d caught the similarity. After a few moments, I realized this question was a waste of my time, because she is not my -- or anyone’s -- student.

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways of thinking about this incident that are more interesting and more useful than pretending Melania Trump is an undergraduate who plagiarized an assignment. In particular, I am grateful to queer friends and colleagues for pointing out on Facebook how weird it is to have the candidate’s family appear and speak at a political convention. It is a tradition that is largely confined to politics.

Imagine if the spouse of a plenary speaker at the Modern Language Association or the American Historical Association made remarks introducing his or her partner, for instance. As Alex Corey, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Colorado’s English department, observed in a post, “Maybe we could also talk about the broader acts of copycatting within the official political sphere, like the fact that at every national convention and throughout campaigns and periods of holding office, partners in marriage (most often women due to the political environment) must take the stage to speak as symbols of the candidate's/officeholder's ‘values’ and subtly remind everyone that the most legitimate kind of adulthood -- the most ‘capable’ of representing the public -- is the one that also heads a two-partner family. So maybe heteronormativity is the more pernicious plagiarism on display here?”

Corey mentioned that Jordan Stein’s comments were useful in framing this post. Stein, who teaches in the English department at Fordham University, in turn cited Lauren Berlant’s Queen of America Goes to Washington City as inspiring his thinking on the political family. The family man as a form of plagiarism is an idea that may take some getting used to, but consider the ridicule that attended the bachelor candidate’s Lindsey Graham’s innovative idea that he could have a “rotating first lady.” Plagiarism on college campuses often occurs when a student is under duress. Absent the expectation that spouses perform on behalf of the political career of the person they married, there would be no need for Melania Trump and the Trump campaign to devise a speech, plagiarized or not.

Plagiarism is not the only way to steal. Jason Payton, an assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University, comments, “Ms. Trump’s speech enacts the ambivalence toward black culture that Eric Lott has argued has conditioned white America’s experience of its whiteness for centuries. Lott notes in Love and Theft that the 19th-century blackface minstrelsy tradition alternated between white “celebration and exploitation” of black culture, or between ‘love and theft.’ The appropriation of black culture to consolidate white identity that Lott identifies within the 19th-century minstrelsy tradition continues to the present day, and this act of historical appropriation forms the horizon against which we should view Ms. Trump’s plagiarism …”

Payton continues, “Ms. Trump affirms the American values of ambition and industriousness, but in failing to credit Ms. Obama for her inspiration, Ms. Trump also constructs a racial fantasy wherein the advocacy for American values can be divorced from the history of critique and resistance by people of color.”

In a similar vein, Crystal Feimster, a faculty member in the department of African studies at Yale University, points out that “white folks have been stealing/ventriloquizing black people's words to their benefit for centuries, so why should Trump be any different? It is white supremacy at its best. I especially love that she cribbed the hard work part and the expression commonly used by black youth that your word is bond …. The fact that we can laugh about it, act astonished that she borrowed Michelle Obama's words or dismiss it as trivial without connecting the dots is part of the problem we face as a nation -- our inability to recognize the way racism and white supremacy function beyond overt racial slurs and violence …”

“‘Blue lives matter’ and ‘all lives matter’ are stolen words used to erase violence against bodies of color,” Feimster adds. “Plagiarism matters, so this matters.”

Race and ethnicity also figure in the aftermath of this event. Kirsten Silva Gruesz, a professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, describes “the defense of Melania as already so toxically racialized. Good vs. bad immigrant, for instance.” After a litany of racist and misogynist attacks on Ms. Obama by Trump supporters, these same supporters are working to characterize Ms. Trump as the victim of a misunderstanding, even as they erase Ms. Obama’s endorsement of bedrock American values.

Plagiarism is a useful and important concept when people are being evaluated for expressing ideas in their original language -- in college, for instance. There are times, such as in academic writing, where the author’s name indicates that the work is her own, and her sources are cited using an appropriate system of citation. There are other kinds of writing, like the manual for your toaster or the Book of Common Prayer, where there is not this presumption of original expression. Sadly, it’s difficult to expect that Donald Trump’s campaign wanted to give Melania Trump the platform to speak her mind, so even calling Trump a plagiarist gives her a kind of agency that I don't think her husband or his campaign intended for her to have.

Finally, as Jane Coaston, a political reporter at MTV, explains in an article you should go read right now, Trump’s plagiarism was “the least bad thing to take place on a no-good, very bad night.” For professors, one of the most frustrating things about dealing with plagiarism is that it takes time away from teaching other students, and from research. The plagiarism issue is important for thinking about this RNC if and only if it allows us to think about the larger issues that have brought us to this political moment.

Jonathan Beecher Field is associate professor of English at Clemson University.

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Why the plagiarism in Melania Trump's speech matters (essay)

Let's establish a clear fact from the outset. The speech that Melania Trump delivered this week at the Republican National Convention would easily have been flagged for plagiarism in any college-level speech or writing class.

Meredith McIver, a speechwriter for the Trump campaign, has since come forward to accept blame for the plagiarized sections. But whoever wrote the words in question, the speech was, in short, plagiarized. Period.

Despite Trump campaign protests to the contrary, the speech contains more than mere generic vocabulary that both Melania Trump and Michelle Obama (or their speechwriters) drew upon. Trump's speech bore similarities to Obama’s in not only vocabulary but also in subject matter and syntax, making the possibility of a coincidence a mathematical fiction.

Oddly enough, many teachers such as myself will in time come to appreciate Trump's speech because it contains, in a relatively short space, several types of plagiarism and may serve as a model for future study. Most people know that when you copy someone else's words directly, it's plagiarism, and, yes, contrary to the protestations of her husband's political apparatus and their many defenders across social media, Trump's speech contained direct word-for-word plagiarism.

But there's more. Trump's speech contains what is sometimes called mosaic plagiarism, where the vocabulary might be altered with synonyms but the structure of the original is maintained. That's really the most egregious error in the Trump speech. To limit the plagiarism to mere shared vocabulary drastically misses the point and shows a simplistic understanding of plagiarism. As the Modern Language Association handbook makes clear, "using another person’s ideas, information or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft." Melania Trump's speech contained textbook plagiarism. Further debate on that point is moot.

Oddly enough, Trump defenders such as the attack-dog-in-chief Chris Christie proudly declared 93 percent of the speech was original, which of course is a tacit admission than 7 percent of the speech was indeed plagiarized and a tactic that the great orator and propane enthusiast Hank Hill would describe as playing "lawyer ball."

Still, Christie's faux defense demands that we ask, what percentage of intellectual theft is actually permissible? If 7 percent is acceptable, why not 10 percent? Or 20 percent? Where do we draw the line?

Let's grant that 93 percent of the speech was original. There's also a matter of context. It's not as if Melania Trump delivered this speech at local school board meeting or in her sophomore speech class. Along with making a case for her husband as a viable presidential candidate, it was her first significant attempt to sell herself to the country as first lady, which was the same exact context as Michelle Obama's speech. That makes the instance even more significant.

To be sure, Melania Trump's speech and its “only” 7 percent plagiarism would be enough to earn it poor grades from more colleges and universities than we have room to list. And since education is a significant political talking point, hopefully we can all agree that this is a pretty big deal.

Indeed, I once taught at a community college -- an open-enrollment institution -- where it was standard policy for students to fail an entire course if they were caught plagiarizing a single sentence! If a student wanted to be shown any mercy, at a bare minimum, they had to admit to their error. Reminding a professor that other students had plagiarized in the past did nothing to remove the student's guilt. From Texas to New Jersey, such policies are not uncommon.

Only 7 percent? More like, “Yikes! Seven percent!”

As someone who has taught college-level English in a variety of environments -- on-site and online, at community colleges and major research universities-- I can say without hesitation that the speech delivered by Melania Trump would have, at the very least, earned at least a zero on any assignment and possibly, depending upon the writer’s response to the offense, an F in the course.

But this is “just” politics, right?

Not really.

It is a sad reality that, in 15 years, I have not had a single semester - and that includes summers and short semesters -- where I have not failed at least one student for plagiarism. Not one. From day one, I try to impress upon students the dangers of intellectual theft and repeatedly warn that, yes, I will catch them (and I don't need Turnitin.com or other resources to do so, though they have made the process much easier) and that they will pay a steep price. But there are always students who believe that they can, perhaps, pull the Jedi mind trick on me, hoping I won't notice their plagiarism.

Unfortunately, due to number of instances I've had to address, I've become somewhat of an expert on plagiarism. I see it all the time. Fortunately, most of my students grasp its importance and are willing to listen to my repeated entreaties to avoid it. But there's always that one student who just doesn't seem to care, who thinks the potential payoff is greater than the potential punishment.

Of course, I've heard every excuse imaginable. “I didn't know it was plagiarism.” “It was an accident.” “It was only a few sentences.” “It was my speechwriter.” I even had a student try to convince me that it wasn't his fault because his mom had helped him write the paper, and yet another who repeatedly argued that his computer had been hacked and that his paper had been modified without his consent or knowledge.

Excuses abound. Rarely, a student will admit that they simply cheated and ask for mercy or lenience. In those scarce instances when a student displays a genuine desire to both admit and learn from his or her error, I’m inclined to work with the student. Often, the student displays genuine remorse and doesn’t commit the same error again. But such instances are rare. Usually, they dig in their heels and proclaim their innocence, despite damning evidence to the contrary.

Interestingly, despite the Trump campaign's longstanding reputation for “straight talk” and the avoidance of politics as usual, the campaign's spin doctors were in full damage control mode the day after the speech, with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort going so far as to say that the speech simply was not plagiarized.

So why does yet another political plagiarism scandal matter? And let’s be clear: other examples abound, from Republicans and Democrats alike.

It matters because ideas matter. The words that express these ideas matter. That’s why this scandal is important and shouldn’t be trivialized -- although, of course, with our 24-7 news cycle, it will soon be just a memory.

Writing well ain't easy. Knowing when to use a colloquial verb choice, for example, takes time, practice and experience. To steal another's words, to engage in intellectual theft, without proper attribution, is a disservice to those of us who live by the power of the written and spoken word.

Perhaps in this instance, it matters all the more because of the example it sets for students and other future orators. To deliver a plagiarized speech is bad enough, but celebrating the value of hard work and family values insults those principles that the speech ostensibly claims to cherish, regardless of its author(s). By downplaying the importance of an act of plagiarism, those responsible disrespect the very people whom the speech itself claims to hold in such high regard.

Just some “straight talk” from someone who teaches in the trenches.

R. Scott Rasnic is a professor of English at Cedar Valley College.

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President of Kirkwood Community College admits to plagiarism in speech

Board of Kirkwood Community College "expresses its disappointment" after president admitted he used material from The New York Times in a speech.

Pulse podcast features interview with Don Kassner of ProctorU

This month's edition of the Pulse podcast features an interview with Don Kassner, CEO and president of ProctorU, which provides remote proctoring of online exams.

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