End-of-Term Conundrums, Part 1: Plagiarism

As professors and students approach the end of the academic term, I thought it appropriate to post about two items that never fail to factor in the early winter and late spring. The first is plagiarism. I can’t help feeling that, in recent years, academia has not kept pace with what I see as a rapidly changing and increasingly hard-to-define concept. Two important factors to consider: 1) plagiarism has gotten much easier to commit in the age of the Internet; and 2) students currently in the undergraduate pipeline either understand intellectual property imperfectly or they simply don’t care about it.

1) Google and Wikipedia simultaneously constitute a gold mine and a potential minefield for wannabe plagiarists. As a random illustration, I looked up “Scarlet Letter essays” and “Scarlet Letter term papers” on Google, and looked up The Scarlet Letter on Wikipedia. The Google searches yielded page after page of complete essays, “study guides” which could easily be transformed into papers with little effort, and advertisements for paper-writing services. These last were, I must admit, refreshing and funny. When I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s, I knew students who bought term papers, but, to hear them talk about it, the process sounded much like a drug deal, with everything on the QT. Now paper-writing services are out in the open, and have clearly adopted the advertising model used by online dating services: that is, they bill themselves as “free,” and there is a (very) minimal amount of free material on their sites, but if you want something you can actually turn in for a grade (the equivalent of “show profile” and “chat” options I guess), you have to pay. You can even order a customized essay, so that specific, assigned paper topics pose no problem. But with so many free papers available—and with so much thematic overlap among them that cut and paste opportunities are everywhere—why pay money?

The Wikipedia article on The Scarlet Letter also demonstrated that a paper on the novel was one mouse click away. After a very detailed plot summary, the author of the article offered an analysis of what he or she considered its two major themes: sin and the clash between past and present.

It’s hard to imagine weak students, students working 50 hours a week, or desperate students getting to their assignments at the eleventh hour, not availing themselves of these resources, particularly since they’re universal in all our daily lives. Smartphones have made bar bets a thing of the past; my students regularly use “Google” and “Wikipedia” as verbs; and even the new Kindle Touch has a feature that links key terms in the books one downloads to Wikipedia.

2) Plagiarism aside, these are not bad developments. Wikipedia in particular is a unique phenomenon, in the sense that it is slowly but surely transforming itself from a catch-all bin of information into a legitimate scholarly reference. It can do so in part because the Internet allows it to be infinitely more agile than, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica (and when, by the way, was the last time you saw a citation in a student paper to that once august reference work?). Wikipedia also adopts a collaborative conception of writing, blurring the notion of writing as personal, intellectual property. Chris Anderson’s popular and provocative recent book Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing (2010), simultaneously released as a traditional book and as a free downloadable text, blurs that notion even farther, giving the reader the choice either to acknowledge the book as Anderson’s intellectual property or to decide that it doesn’t belong to anyone.

Traditionalists would argue that we need to do a better job of policing student work and punishing plagiarists. I counted myself among them and have often pointed out that, unlike my university, Ohio State, many colleges and universities require students to submit their papers to the plagiarism-detection service I thought that was a good idea until I began researching this post, only to discover that (intellectual property concerns aside—Turnitin claims ownership of the papers fed into it, as those papers make up part of its database), Turnitin just doesn’t work. I found several articles and even, amazingly, a YouTube video on the topic of “how to beat Turnitin.”

So if we instructors are losing the battle against plagiarism, what are we to do? I think all colleges would do well to devote considerable time, as much as a week, to a freshman orientation that would address plagiarism in the larger contexts not only of intellectual property, but of reading practices in an age of rapidly accelerating technology. There’s a great deal at stake here, and only part of it involves ethics. Just as important, I believe, is discernment. Students bombarded with information, as they are today, need to learn how to sort and assess it as well as how to use it responsibly. Plagiarism is, in other words, as much a pedagogical issue as it is a disciplinary one. Next up, student evaluations.

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