[dm-l] [tan?] Digital Plagiarism

Daniel Paul O'Donnell daniel.odonnell at uleth.ca
Fri Jan 2 12:18:49 MST 2009

Hi all,

This may or may not be tangential to our main interests on this list,
but I'm interested in asking it here because I can assume a certain
level of familiarity with the strengths and weaknesses of digital tools
and algorithms.

Last semester I started using turnitin (http://www.turnitin.com/).
Initially this was as a pure essay management and on-line marking system
(for which it is very good, BTW). But the software was designed to test
originality against a database of web and submitted sources, of course,
and I found myself checking the originality reports on students' essays
whenever something sounded fishy (you can read an initial discussion of
my experience here:

What I found was that a small percentage of essays (6 in about 200
submissions) contained sections of material that had close parallels
elsewhere and no acknowledgement of sources--in other words, likely were
plagiarised to a certain extent. In a few cases, mostly the two senior
papers that showed this problem, the question was fairly cut-and-dried:
the students involved had clearly copied and pasted large chunks of text
from on-line sources, leaving behind tell-tale clues like the use of an
asterisk to mark a cross-reference in an encyclopedia entry.

The more disturbing examples were found in my first year classes and
involved a very different kind of parallelism. Here the students in
question seemed to confine their unacknowledged debts to two main types:
the use of quite small sections (a couple of sentences at most) at key
points of their argument (e.g. theses, key transitions) and/or the
wholesale use of examples from a single source (i.e. all the quotations
used were found in the same source, in one case a site that students
could use to find "useful quotations" from a given work. 

I interviewed some students (both those tagged by turnitin and others)
and discovered that they were working in a way that is quite similar to
how I would build a blog entry and which almost seems to invite this
problem in essays (this is the point of the blog entry I wrote on the
question, mentioned above).

My question for the digital literati among medievalists, however, is
whether this second kind of "plagiarism" actually is plagiarism, and, if
it is, whether it should be treated in the same fashion as the
relatively certainly deliberate use of large passages from
unacknowledged sources that I'm more used to catching? 

On the one hand, I need to stress that this is minority behaviour--by
far the largest number of essays I looked at last semester correctly
documented their debts (including in several cases among my first years,
debts to essays found at sites that sell essays to students!). Also, the
examples I found have an extremely distinctive thumbprint in the
software--they fade in and out of verbatim quotation in a way that
stands out clearly through length and general pattern of endebtedness
from examples of passages where people just happen to have said
something quite similar to each other. On the other, I'm really not sure
that the plagiarism is not the result of ignorance or relatively minor
carelessness--a lost quotation mark during the editing phase, etc. Given
the way these students seem to work, moreover, I'm surprised it doesn't
happen more often: both the students who turnitin flagged and the others
I spoke to worked in a way that is almost designed to encourage
unrecognised borrowing: they copy large verbatim quotations from
internet sources into their wordprocessor, and then reorganise and edit
the quotations until they have a 'narrative' of sorts; then they add
their own introduction and bits of text between the quoted material. 

My question then is whether I should treat it the same way I do blatant,
old-fashioned, copy-big-chunks-from-a-journal-article plagiarism: with a
0 on the course. Any ideas?

Any ideas or suggestions?

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