May 27, 2012
This semester’s batch of plagiarism stories

This semester has been another eventful one, and now that I have a chance to breathe, I can post about my plagiarists! This one will just round them up—I’ll tell the individual stories in future posts.

This semester, I taught 4 classes of Intro English Comp, had a total of 86 students, and had plagiarism issues with 6 of them.  Only 3 of these were major—the other 3 were fairly minor.  By major, I mean significant chunks of text that cannot be anything but willful plagiarism, and the minor ones were various forms of patchwriting, aka partially rewriting a passage of text without attribution.  I’m not counting the occasional missed citation, or a minor summary issue, or I’d have ten times that number.   

So, 6/86= about 7% of my students had issues with plagiarism, …and

3/86= at least 3.5% were willful plagiarists.

It’s hard to tell where my numbers fall.  Am I catching all the students who plagiarize?  Are my assignments (particularly my open argument assignment) a plagiarism-attractor?  Am I just not teaching plagiarism-avoidance effectively?

Some numbers from other sources: According to a study in  Education Week, 54% of students have admitted to plagiarism.

Various studies involving students self-reporting cheating vary wildly, from about 30-80%, sometime in their academic careers. 

Of course, I cannot easily compare these numbers to my own.  These are students self-reporting on their whole academic careers, in all their classes, and perhaps they’ve only plagiarized once or twice; perhaps never in English class.

So far, I haven’t been able to locate a good study on the typical percentage of students who plagiarize in English comp classes.  And it seems very strange to me that there is not—if at least 30% of students are doing it (unless they are lying, that is) then wouldn’t there be a huge hullabaloo about it in English classes, where the goal is to teach (original?) writing, and the method is to write (original?) papers?  But I have a theory on this.

According to a thoroughly nonsensical but appropriately collaboratively-written recommendation for the non-adoption of plagiarism-detection software, by the Miami University Department of English Composition Committee,  “On average the Composition Program hears about 7 academic dishonesty cases per semester. Considering that over 3000 students enroll in composition courses each semester, this number represents less than one-fourth of 1% of students.”  

0.25%!  Man, if I taught there, I could do some real damage to their stats.  So what’s happening at University of Miami that makes their students so much more ethical than mine?

My theory: nothing.  The difference is not so much, I suspect, in the quality of student (though the University I teach at does have a selectivity about 20% lower than University of Miami), or that I’m a terrible teacher (I think if I express one concept most clearly, it is this), but in the lack of reporting.

I’ve written earlier about how infrequently instructors report plagiarism to the University.  Instead, they seem to treat it as an in-house problem, making the student re-do the assignment, fail them just for the assignment, take off points, (or maybe they even ignore it).

And here’s the thing: this lack of reporting is not lost of the students.  According to the same Education Week article linked above, 47% of students believe that educators ignore students’ cheating.

My theory: they’re right.

And maybe there’s a relationship between the willingness to plagiarize, and the fact that plagiarists aren’t often reported.

But, I’m doing my darnedest to even the score.  One student even wrote in a letter of tips to the next class (an exercise I have them all do on the last day) “Don’t plagiarize in Prof. X’s class—she’ll catch you!!!”  Since I hadn’t caught this student for plagiarism,  I suppose word got around about my other cases.  Hopefully, it’s a deterrent; we seem to think so in the case of criminal justice, that police presence deters crime, or referees keep a game fair.  The analogy isn’t perfect, but I wish more instructors saw it that way, instead of the threatening evil accusations, that we were really more like friendly traffic cops or referees who keep the game fair for the rest of us by benching players.    

So, next post I’ll tell you guys about one of the more funny the players I benched this semester…perhaps for good.

January 21, 2012
Caught at the Finish Line: The Saga of the Retroactively Caught Plagiarist

I’m finally getting around to recounting my biggest plagiarism case of last semester—because it finally resolved this week, a few days before the beginning of the new semester!  Peggy, whose last name was a derivation of a word that ironically means corruption, turned in a somewhat suspicious essay two weeks before the end of Freshman Comp class at State University.

Read More

January 19, 2012
Using Plagiarism to Detect Fraud

I’ve been apartment hunting and using Craigslist to do so.  Sure, Craigslist doesn’t have the best reputation for all its stuff, since its listings are only as good as the people doing the listing - caveat emptor, and all that.  But, I’ve sold and bought used cars using Craigslist, so I know it can be great, and cheap, if you’re careful.  While I expected the usual scams to be in the apartment listings, I thought I was pretty good about picking them out before emailing the ad.  Unfortunately, this proved not to be true.

Read More

January 17, 2012
Reading Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0

On my long battle uphill to the comps exam, I’m reading some books on digital culture and thinking about how changes in the way we communicate affects plagiarism and intellectual property issues. I’ve started with Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0 and the thesis of the book so far (I’m only halfway through, but it’s very clearly laid out) is that the Internet is in danger of over-regulation by commerce and the government and we better watch out or else the freedoms that most count on from the Internet are in jeopardy.

I totally didn’t plan this, but the book is becoming an excellent (if paranoid) companion to the SOPA debates.

In one of Lessig’s first chapters he brought up what was, for me, a really interesting point: the architecture of the web manipulates actions people do on the web. (You’re thinking “well, duh”).  I’ll let Lessig explain:

"We can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we believe are fundamental. Or we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to allow those values to disappear.  There is no middle ground.  There is no choice that does not include some kind of building.  Code is never found; it is only ever made…" (6).

I’m going to sound dumb, but I never really thought of that in those terms before; I suppose I assumed the ideal was to make the web as reflective of real human experience as possible, or as efficient as possible…but those things are not really true.  And I’m flashing back to playing Hero’s Quest when I was a kid on my family computer, trying to figure out the parameters of the world - what I could do and not do, and how that shaped my choices, making me avoid somethings and try others, ultimately forcing a win condition only after heroic deeds were accomplished. 

Because Hero’s Quest was a fictional world, I was constantly aware that it was designed, and I wasn’t bothered by that: I just wanted to figure out what the game was trying to make me do, and do it.  But though I can be very aware of the designs affecting my daily life, and how they either interfere with my tasks or make them easier, I don’t think of them reflecting some grand scheme that reflects certain fundamental values…that’s always seemed very conspiracy theory.  But, when we are talking about encouraging or discouraging a specific behavior, I can buy that design affects the likelihood of the behavior occurring, or even being able to occur.  And this made me think about how the structure of the web could encourage/discourage plagiarism and how it could be coded differently.

For instance, Tumblr itself is a case in point.  There have been many many many back and forth squabbling (and rightly so) about people plagiarizing fan fiction by simply reblogging someone’s work and leaving off the source.  Tumblr gives us the option of leaving off the source because you can delete the data in the source box which even says in tiny gray slanty letters (optional).  Both the code and the words on the page give the option of easily plagiarizing.

If Tumblr wished the code could easily be changed, which would stop all the silly nonsense of people immaturely or unknowingly taking credit from artists who in turn get all worked up about it.  How could it change?  They could make filling in a source mandatory, or even automatic when reblogging, OR they could stop reblogging altogether and plagiarists would have to go back to “old fashioned” cut-and-paste if they wanted to steal.

Taking this a few steps further, if we wanted to seriously crack down on plagiarism what could be done?  I gave it some thought and came up with a few ideas for an anti-plagiarism u/distopia, but I’m not a programmer so there could be practical problems with some of these ideas, or maybe some are already in practice or more could be done - feel free to let me know.

1. There could be no cut-and-paste.  Websites like Wikipedia could make it impossible to highlight and select text (like some pesky .jpeg files), making it just not as easy to plagiarize.  Or, the whole function of cut-and-paste could not exist: when you Ctrl+C….nothing happens.  Scary world.

2. Word and other word processing software could either not allow pasted text, or have an app/plug-in that flagged the author every time a chunk of text was pasted into a document and quotations were not used.  Maybe a little paperclip guy could pop up in the corner: “It looks like you’re about to commit academic dishonesty…”

3. The structure of the web could have a built-in copied text check.  Maybe every time text is posted to the web, it checks against everything else out there and then highlights and links it automatically to other websites with the same text.

4. That red underliney thing that now automatically happens under every misspelled word even in writing on websites could happen with plagiarized text.  Maybe a purple underline, for plagiarism.

hmm…I’m sure there’s more, but I’m out of ideas.

Anyway, I’m not suggesting these things happen, or that they are good ideas.  How many times is cut-and-paste used for good and not evil?  The point is that these are (mostly) restrictions, that would probably influence behavior, but do we want all the baggage that comes with restricting rather than being permissive? 

I tend to buy into the idea that we should err on the side of too much freedom, and make personal responsibility that much more important, but that doesn’t mean we should be blind to the encouragement some options give, or forget to put up warning signs.  

This seems to me to be very like the SOPA issue, with the key difference that it affects not only ethical norms (if you think that piracy is an ethical issue), but money.  And money is a big deal.  But like discontinuing copy-paste, giving the code-building keys to someone else can make expression harder.

I think I’ll get somebody to program me that paperclip guy for my students.

January 12, 2012
Plagiarizing for Extra Credit

At the end of Fall semester I gave my usual extra credit assignment to my overachieving State University Students - to write an Op-Ed for the school newspaper, which they would actually have to submit in order to get the extra credit.  Now, because 1. This is for a measly 10 points of extra credit which can affect their grades by maybe 1%, and 2. They were asked to base the Op-Ed off of their own final argument paper. and 3. They actually have to share this work with the editors of the school newspaper and possibly risk publication, you’d think this was exactly the sort of assignment a student just couldn’t plagiarize.

Well, you’d be wrong.

Exhausted after grading stacks and stacks of final papers and presentations for 64 students, I finally got around to glancing over the extra credit to give those last-minute desperation points before I submitted the final grades.  Since I wasn’t handing them back, I just skimmed them to see that they actually did something like what I asked them to do.  Even in my half-conscious, glazed-eye state, I had to do a double-take at Oscar’s paper, so named because his plagiarism and subsequent denial should win an Oscar.

It smacked of Wikipedia-isms, with very specific dates, names, and facts with no attribution, so I ran it through  I was thinking the whole time - nah, this has got to be just bad paraphrase - the student was solid A- material, not super-engaged, but he did all the work, and showed some critical thinking skills. 

The Turnitin report came back with 70% plagiarism, and, even better, he had plagiarized the UNIVERSITY’S OWN WEBSITE.

The Op-Ed basically consisted of a 2-sentence introduction that was his own, something like…”Did you know it’s the 50th anniversary of my yadda yadda team?  Let me tell you a bit about how awesome State University sports team is.”  Then 5 paragraphs of cut-and-paste from the University sports team website, about the history of the team, and a closing that was also straight from the website, something like, “If you want to support the team, come on out to this and such event.”

So, it being late, and me being tired, I just sent the student a short email:


I can’t believe you plagiarized an extra credit assignment.

Send me electronic copies of all of your other work for this class so I can see how extensive this problem is.

-Professor ____

The student wrote back immediately with all of his previous work attached and a funny excuse: ‘I just forgot to attach my Work Cited sheet - here it is.’

I explained in the next email that a Works Cited entry wouldn’t cover the fact that basically his whole paper was completely unchanged, without quotation marks from the online source.

He pleaded ignorance in the next email, saying that, well, this was just a BLOCK QUOTE and he didn’t know how to indent the right way.


Again, I explained why this was inappropriate, and improbable, to have more than half of a paper as a quotation from a single source, and that there was no take-backs.  In fact, this student had already submitted this to the school newspaper for publication!  Additionally, as I explained, this was not an appropriate assignment to have any quotations in, as it was an Editorial, a piece of pure personal opinion. 

Just to see how extensive this was, I tested the rest of his old papers, but found no other instances of plagiarism, not even a little bit, which was unusual. This case then, hinged on this weird extra credit assignment.

The student’s next excuse was that his coach had given him “permission” to use the website for his paper, and he could prove it by having the coach write to me.

I said, sure, have the coach write to me.

Surprisingly, he did.  The coach wrote me a little note about how good of a kid Oscar was and how hard he works, and how Oscar had approached him and he suggested getting information from the website.

I emailed the coach a copy of Oscar’s paper with the plagiarized 70% highlighted, and explanation of the assignment.

The coach’s tone changed in the next email and he said he would have “a talk” with Oscar.

Oscar wrote me back finally saying that he understood what he did was wrong and that he was sorry.  Oddly, he kept referring to plagiarism as illegal, which was probably something his coach told him.

So, I was on the edge about what to do for this case.  On one hand it’s “just” an extra credit assignment, on the other hand, it’s plagiarism, he submitted it FOR PUBLICATION, which could have had dire consequences for the school newspaper at least in terms of reputation, and he tried his darnedest to sneak out of it. 

It being an extra credit assignment also posed a particular problem.  If I wanted to just give him the slap of the wrist option, a zero for the assignment, there was no real punishment.  Oh wow, a zero for my extra credit, I’m sooooo sorry I tried to get away with academic dishonesty.  The slap on the wrist becomes sort of non-consequential.

I’ve been chumming up to the Office of Student Conduct so I sent them an email asking what other instructors have done in this circumstance.  They gave me some good options - just give a zero, dock all the extra credit for the semester, subtract the amount the extra credit was worth from the total amount of points for the semester, or dock participation points or some combination of these.  I could also, of course, file a report with the Office of Student Conduct, either an informal “watch this guy” report, or a more official all-the bells-and-whistles judicial hearing report. 

I just went with the “watch this guy” report, docked all the extra credit for the semester, and told him that he had to write an apology and essay withdrawal to the school newspaper editors as well as a new Op-Ed without any plagiarism. 

He wined in the next email, but I threatened him with the other options I had on the table, and he emailed me his new Op-Ed the next day.

All in all, it went ok, but I can’t help feeling I was way too lenient.  I hope his coach gave him extra laps or something.

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December 22, 2011

I have a ton more plagiarism stories since I’ve gone through a hellish end-of-semester, but I’m going to start with something a bit more fun: sneaking across enemy lines. 

In the course of researching student sources of plagiarism, I’ve happened upon a good number of ghostwriting services, agencies that charge $10 or so per page to write an “original” paper.  They even have the moxie to call their papers “plagiarism free” (which is certainly accurate right until the student hands it in as their own).

This, of course, worries me, because these agencies make it almost impossible to prove plagiarism.  How wide-spread are these services?  How many students do they “help”?  From my perspective, there is really no way to tell for sure.  My normal methods of detection, looking for big words, lists of facts, sophisticated constructions, mismatching citations, not following the assignment, blue underlined text…are all worthless in detecting ghostwritten plagiarism.  These services (if they are any good) write “to spec” - following assignment guidelines because the student sends these in, and the ghostwriters write like a student, not like a professional writer or a Wikipedia page. 

For all I know, a large percentage of my students are using these services.

So, I decided to gather some information straight from the source. is a ghostwriting service with the tagline “The Art of Relieving Students’ Pain” beside a picture of giddy students in cap and gown clutching on to their (ill begotten) diplomas in the breeze on a sunny day.  

I’ve had to investigate this site on several occasions, and this picture always makes me feel a bit sick inside.

Underneath the smiling sirens, there is a “live chat” feature to answer questions, which speaks at least somewhat to the success of this company.  I was very curious about what information I could glean from the “chat” so I didn’t quite go undercover to see what I could find out.

***the site operator’s pseudonym has been changed***

Please wait for a site operator to respond.


You are now chatting with ‘Kate’


Kate: Hello, how may I help you?


you: hi Kate, are you one of the writers?


Kate: no i am support team member


Kate: do you have any questions about our service?


you: Can you tell me where you are based?


Kate: we are UK based company,support team office is located in Eastern Europe,Ukraine


you: Thanks! It looks as if there have been some updates to the website in the last year or so, I’m noticing.

Kate: yes,there have been a lot of updates


Kate: do you need any assistance with paper?


you: Can you tell me anything else about the “Director’s Notice” page?


Kate: do you mean social responsibility?


you: yep - do you know anything about why that came about?


Kate: if your order falls under one of the described disciplines


you: I’m in the USA by the way - it must be (early?) there


Kate: we will have to contact your professor and ask his permission for you to use our service


Kate: yes,but we work 24/7


you: wow! I hope you don’t have to. :)


Kate: so we’ll have to inform your professor that you are going to use our service as third party to collect materials for your assignment


you: Can you give me a copy of what you would send to the professor in these disciplines?


Kate: we;ll have to check your instructions first,it doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen


you: ok - sounds great, but can I have a copy to look over anyway?


Kate: do you mean email to professor?


you: Yes - is it a form letter?


Kate: yes,just give me a second


Kate: Dear _____


Kate: I am writing you on behalf of Academic Assistance Agency .


Kate: Your student ___has placed the order with the topic “____” and is using our services. We are helping him/her to collect the materials for his/her assignment, so he/she will be able to work on her paper.


Kate: The reason why I am writing you is that we feel this is our Social Responsibility, because this knowledge might affect his/her actions in her further career.


Kate: Could you please confirm that _______is your student and he/she really has an assignment in “____”? Also, we would need to know if you do not mind your student to use our service.


Kate: We also need your first and last name, and full name of the university _____ attends. It would be appreciated, but not obligatory, to provide us with a phone number we can reach you at, if additional questions arise.


Kate: Thank you for cooperation


Kate: it’s sample of the letter


you: Excellent, thank you


you: Do you know if all medical fields would require this sort of letter?

Kate: is there anything else i can help you with?


Kate: no,that’s why i suggest you to place free inquiry on our website first and provide there instructions


Kate: so we can check them and get back to you with confirmation that we can proceed without contacting your professor


Kate: or that we have to


you: Also, would CustomWritings be able to provide not only research, but original experimentation work?


Kate: what kind of experimentation work do you need?


you: Hypothetically, if one were to need to do a sociological experiment, counting people on a street corner and recording accurate results, would CW be able to do that?


Kate: according to our policy,our writers do not conduct primary research,complete interviews and all that kind of stuff


Kate: but they can provide you with hypothetical results


you: thanks


Kate: or analyze already completed data


you: oh?


Kate: i’m sorry?


you: tell me about providing “hypothetical results”


Kate: it means that writer will make them up


you: will there be an indication that they are made up in the text of the paper?


Kate: of course no


Kate: only in case if you want to


you: great - I appreciate your answers!


Kate: you are always welcome


you: Can you tell me anything about what you do at the Support Team in the Ukraine? Do you support several companies or just this one?


Kate: we work only with this company and provide all required assistance for our customers and writers


Kate: unfortunately i’m not able to disclose any information about it


you: I’m sorry! I hope you have a wonderful morning, Kate. You have been very very helpful.


Kate: in case if you have any questions feel free to get back to us anytime


Kate: we’ll be glad to help you


Kate: have a good night

November 28, 2011
The Grayer Area

So that last situation cleared up OK so far - I think the tomato student cooled down by now, and, besides, I wasn’t too rough on him.  Afterall, he still has a shot to get an A in the class if he works for it, but now knows citation is a big deal. 

For other circumstance, which is somewhat less of a gray area, I will have to deal with tomorrow.  This is a different class - Freshman composition 101.  I don’t know where these students are from but some are pros at the research paper, and some tell me they’ve NEVER had to do ANY research.  Ever. 

And I believe them.

…They’re really bad at it.

This was the third essay of the semester, and it incorporated just 3 sources.  Basically, a five-paragraph essay using a source each paragraph.  The whole purpose of the paper is to get the students to learn MLA-style citation, integrate sources, and summarize without plagiarism.  Earlier in the semester, we spent a class period discussing plagiarism and what the consequences are.  For this assignment, we spent one class day on finding library sources, one day on evaluating sources (basically - don’t use Wikipedia), one day on citing properly, one day on one day on integrating sources (use quotation marks, silly), and one day on summarizing correctly.  Peer review, then bam, it’s in.  I had them use to check their work on the peer review day but Amy claimed she didn’t have it that day.  

On the day the students turned in their papers, I had them use again, and the paper was “yellow-flagged.”

I checked the work and yep, two whole (out of five) paragraphs were taken verbatim from online sources - no quotation marks.  But here’s why it’s (sort of) a gray area: the student added a single citation at the end of each paragraph, and a correct citation in the Works Cited page.

If it were just a matter of missing quotation marks, that would be one thing, and I could take points off the paper, just like I did for tomato-man.  But two WHOLE paragraphs!!!! 

(And, oh yeah, as part of the assignment guidelines I said no block quotations, so she can’t pull that).

Incorrect citation is still plagiarism - there is a mislabeling of attribution and a gross overuse of a source, and I do think this student has to know that what she did was copy-paste plagiarism, even if she underestimates the consequences.  Later in the paper, she uses quotation marks correctly.

So what do I do with Amy…  I can:

A) Give her a big fat XF.  She can retake the course, but will always have that permanent stain on her record of failure due to academic dishonesty.

B) Give her an F for the course.  She can retake the course and her GPA will even out.

C) Give her an F for the assignment.  It’s worth 20% of her grade, and she’s not doing so hot right now, so that’s basically giving her an F - a D if she works for it.

D) Give her an F for the assignment AND make her redo it.

E) Give her a reduced grade for the assignment and make her redo it.

F) Make her redo it.

G) Give her a reduced grade on the assignment and don’t make her redo it.

H) Do nothing.  Embrace intertextuality.

I) Other

I’ve pretty much made my decision already, though I’m open to suggestions.  What I want to hear from you is: what would you do?

November 23, 2011
Gray Areas

So I haven’t posted lately because I’m working on a conference paper on Oscar Wilde and his plagiarisms in Dorian Gray, but I just had some just-enfolding plagiarism stories that I simply must to share. 

This latest rash of plagiarism is all about the gray areas.  I haven’t had this issue as much—my plagiarists up until now have been fairly cut and dry—but perhaps I’ve stressed plagiarism so much that the students that would normally be outright plagiarists think they can get away with doing things halfway.

In my English research-composition class at Above Average Community College I had two borderline cases, one worse than the other, both involving a misread of APA style.

APA style, unlike MLA style doesn’t generally like writers to use as many direct quotations.  That’s because the style is meant for social scientists and medical researchers who generally aren’t trying to focus on or maintain the integrity and artistry of a writer’s words, but give credit for ideas, data, and results.  Consequently, the format encourages summary and paraphrase of ideas, then correct citation.


According to Locke, Jones, and Smith (2009), 45% of adult lions eat their young.

Now, it’s assumed that in this citation, the author did not directly word-for-word quote Locke, Jones, and Smith; instead he or she was summarizing the results section of a huge research paper.

The problem was that basically, my student used this format, but WAS directly quoting Locke, Jones, and Smith. 

Now, for one sentence, that’s not so bad; I don’t consider that plagiarism so much as an error, a couple of points off and a stern talking to.  However, the student stretched this to the limit and did use direct quotations with quotation marks, correctly, but sandwiched between the quotations were more unattributed quotations from the same source.

Something like this:

According to Locke, Jones, and Smith (2009), 45% of adult lions “eat their young” (p.78). One wildlife specialist claimed that he saw his favorite lion, Simba, eating two cubs, whole. The specialist said, “Simba was never an aggressive lion” (Locke, Jones, and Smith, 2009, p.67).

Looks good, right?  But from reading this, we would assume that the words without quotation marks were the student’s own: One wildlife specialist claimed that he saw his favorite lion, Simba, eating two cubs, whole. The specialist said

The problem was that these words weren’t the student’s.  It was word-for-word from the source without using quotation marks.  The error is rooted in a couple misunderstandings about using quotes within quotes, and the stress APA puts on refraining from direct quotations. 

So is this plagiarism?  The source was in the Works Cited, cited before and after the quote, but just not in the right place to properly attribute what was taken.  If we want to use the stealing metaphor, it’s not as if the student walked out of the shop with his pockets full of apples he didn’t pay for.  He went to the register, put three apples on the scale, paid for them, and “forgot” there was a fourth apple in his cart when he walked out of the shop.  Did he steal this fourth apple - sure!  But is it kind of understandable…?

Since it’s Freshman English class, my decision was to hit his grade on the paper hard, and give him a good talking to, but not to fail him.  I have to admit, the fact that this student was otherwise a good student, and I checked his other stuff for plagiarism and found none, factored into my decision. 

So, I thought all was good, right?  I was being pretty nice, right? 

Well, not according to the student.  The normally mild-mannered student puffed up like a balloon, fuming red in the face, and looking like he was going to go caveman any second. 

The problem was that all he saw was the grade at the top of the page, he compared his grade to his slacker-student neighbor and got enraged, thinking, without even looking at his paper, that I was somehow out to get him. 

I lectured for a bit on common errors and he interrupted the lesson with a challenge.  I normally like challenges, but this was more of a “no, I don’t believe you because you’re wrong” challenge.  I put an example on the board and he just folded his arms, saying he still didn’t buy it, looking for all the world like a giant tomato.

He had to excuse himself from class a few times, pacing in the hallway, during which I talked to him in the hall and finally got him to flip his own pages and see his error.  He still didn’t “see” it.  I think all he saw was red.

Hopefully, he’s calming down - he has the break to look over his work and realize his error.

October 30, 2011
Odd Flaws in Turnitin

I’ve written before about how Turnitin, as it is *just* a software tool, has a percentage system which can be misleading.  My students are often misled, thinking that an originality report (lately they’ve been calling it a “similarity index”) of 15%, means that they’ve done something wrong and plagiarized 15% of their paper.  The color-coding system doesn’t help with this assumption either, going from friendly greens and blues with 0%-15%, yellow around 15-30%, and angry red after.  And then the students with yellows get all belligerent saying that Turnitin is “wrong.” 

But Turnitin isn’t “wrong.” Sure, they may have plagiarized 15% of their paper.  But, more likely, they used quotations, book titles, or college-paper cliches like “In this day and age…” which would make up the 15%.  Teachers can view the reports, and see exactly what Turnitin is saying is not original material, so the teacher can determine if the 15% either has meaning or does not.   

But with my latest case of plagiarism, I noticed an odd gap in what Turnitin searches come up with. 

I’ve been using online blogs in my latest classes for homework assignments.  I think this gives a bit of extra umph to students’ motivation, and it’s a bit more fun because students can personalize the webpages.  My plagiarist had a suspicious post - very factual, with specific statistics (dead giveaway), but no citations.  I copy-pasted a sentence into google and found the source (Wikipedia) right away.  However, just out of curiosity, I copy-pasted his whole website into Turnitin to see if anything would come up.  Since Turnitin uses a web search-engine as part of its check, I expected it not to work: for the whole document to come up red hot, since it’s available as a blog on a web.  If Turnitin used a real-time comprehensive web search engine for each sentence/passage, the document would have said the student plagiarized herself. 

But it didn’t.  In fact, Wikipedia didn’t even show up.  Instead snippets of other material showed up, material that either the Wikipedia author used, or material that these authors got from wikipedia in a similar manner as my student.  The student’s own copying suggested he got the material from wikipedia and not from these other sites since the order of material mimicked Wikipedia’s order closely.  Several entries were word-for-word plagiarized; probably about 45-50% of the material was not his own.  However, on Turnitin the student’s blog showed up as 29% on the originality scale, a yellow warning, not a red. 

Why didn’t Turnitin find the student’s own website?  And why not Wikipedia? 

I searched Turnitin’s site for an answer and got to a promotional page that says in layman’s terms how the algorithm works, searching through archived student papers  that have been submitted to Turnitin from other students, and academic databases (similar to those used by students to do research), as well as: “The Current and Archived Web: Similar to Google and Bing, Turnitin has built a web crawler that crawls the Internet and indexes content into a searchable form. Turnitin currently contains over 14 billion web pages from the current web as well as archived web pages.”

Several words here stick out to me: indexes content, and current as well as archived.  This seems to suggest that at least some of the web search isn’t real-time.  I imagine that instead of taking up valuable bandwidth, time, and all the other stuff associated with web speed, particularly at busy times of the day, Turnitin must make a copy of the web, much like the Wayback Machine archives the Internet.  But not everything is archived, at least not everyday.  Everyday there is so much going on online, it would be ridiculous to think we could capture it all.  It’s more like a photograph - you get most of what’s in front of the camera, but not everything in all dimensions.  And a tiny blog, recently made, and not well-trafficked doesn’t have a good chance of getting web-crawled.

Just to be sure, I checked this blog.  First, is it on the Wayback Machine?   Nope.  Then, I ran it through by pasting all my blog entries into a Word Document. 

So, how did I fare on my own “similarity index”?  2%.  My URLs were linked to student papers, no doubt used in Bibliographies, and the few quotations I’ve used were highlighted, linking them to their web-sources.  Surprisingly, there were no mismatches, or false positives, no sentences or phrases that came up as plagiarism, that were my own writing.  I guess I’m just that original. 

October 28, 2011
Funny Plagiarism Stories

In case you can’t get enough of my stories, this Chronicle forum has a bunch of them.

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