I blew two weeks of sporadic work and inter-library loans on it, but a recent case of plagiarism has finally been fully documented. I learned a lot in the process. First, this NYT article is six years old, but nevertheless eye-opening as to the degree of the problem educator’s face.
Complicating things, even websites that sound like they might be helpful, such as www-dot- academicintegrity -dot-com (I refuse to link to them and thereby improve their Google standing) , are in fact thinly veiled essay mills. This particular site is almost comical in the disingenuous caveats about the ill-gotten gains cheaters garner, and the moral high ground of the narrow ethical route which greet you to their front page. And speaking of ethics, they’ll sell you a canned essay on the subject, or even ghost write it for you, for a price!
But all is not lost. Some people have been kind enough to gather resources to discourage and detect plagiarism. And as far as detection goes, good software solutions (linked on the aforementioned pages) are relatively scarce. I tried out doccop and CatchItFirst , which both scour the web for matches to any text in an essay. I cannot speak to their effectiveness, because they both reported that the single essay I was probing was unplagiarized, CatchItFirst adding the almost pathetic “100% original” seal of approval. Apparently the folks who wrote their program have fallen for that new-old myth: “If it’s not on the internet, it doesn’t exist.”
Well, the essay I was . . . well, “suspicious” is not the word for when you’re looking for documentation to validate what you already know . . . but the essay for which I was seeking the provenance did, in fact, exist on the web. It finally turned up in a chapter of a text available through Google Books. But seriously, Google, if you’re listening, for the love of all things good, offer at least a link to the same search run at Google Books and Google Scholar if the generic Google phrase search comes up empty! Though I was relieved to find the primary source at last, I was miffed to have searched Google and Google Scholar, repeatedly, and never been offered either results or link to Google Books.
Oh, and doccop also provides you the ability to search against any corpus you like. The strength here is that you, your department, indeed your university or university system can now keep a database of all essays submitted electronically, and using doccop, you can run a similarity check against that database. This puts the skids on those giant collections that certain frats and sororities have amassed and which they make available to members.
Long time readers might be wondering why I haven’t trotted out my favorite whipping pony, Turnitin.com . Fear not; I haven’t forgotten them. I have long disparaged the number-one site not for its profit and not for its effectiveness, which are both quite impressive, but for its[Photo] unethical methods. Not only do I wince at the “guilty-until-proven-innocent” detection strategy, which has driven many universities to abandon the service, but moreso I abhor that universities are effectively giving away, to a profit-motivated company, student work without attribution, compensation, or even student permission (except the permission obtained with a grade held to their heads).
I’m not claiming the student work in question is precious stuff. Indeed, much of it is poorly written, poorly documented, and flat-out uninteresting. But that doesn’t give us permission to give it away to a company who turns around and charges us for contributing to their databases. Turnitin defends their practice of collecting free student work on the grounds that student names are removed and the text is reduced to what they call “digital fingerprints” which is about like saying it’s not an essay, it’s simply zeros and ones strung together! Isn’t the very act of removing attribution to the author the very theft we combat every day in the classroom? And Turnitin celebrates this removal of identifying tags. The irony is viscous nigh unto a solid.
A student recently (well, 3 years ago) won his case against his University and, by proxy, Turnitin.com using precisely the reasons I have mentioned so long on this site. Read all about it elsewhere.