The plagiarism arms race

O, to be a shareholder of iParadigms, the company that makes the plagiarism-detection software Turnitin!

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports this week, iParadigms now allows students to check (for a fee) their papers against the company’s massive database of papers, journals, and Web pages–the same database used to generate the “originality reports” faculty rely upon to deter and catch plagiarism. From the article:

As a police officer in Missouri in the 1980s, [Clemson academic integrity official Teresa] Fishman would watch her agency buy the latest speed gun. Then a new radar detector would come out to help drivers evade it. Sometimes the same company made both—just as iParadigms makes both WriteCheck and Turnitin.”In that case, it turns out to work pretty well, because what the police want is for the people to slow down anyway,” she says. “But in our case, we’re trying to teach people something, and we don’t want them to be able to avoid learning the lesson.”

So there goes the faculty’s one advantage over students in the plagiarism war: access to information. Not too long ago, the jurist Richard Posner decreed that plagiarism was on its way out–detection methods were just too sophisticated to be reliably beaten. People would soon give up the attempt.

Now, it is clear that students can run as many checks on their papers as they like, changing just enough of a paper to get their similarity score safely in the green range.

This development need not induce despair, though. Philosophers might raise the question of whether a paper that has been modified significantly enough not to be detected by Turnitin really is still a plagiarized paper.

But as Ms. Fishman reminds us, it’s ultimately about teaching. And in the article, Ryan Cordell, a frequent contributor to the ProfHacker blog, offers a way to convey to digital-age students the need to cite sources properly. Yours truly, who used to get pretty worked up about plagiarism, now designs paper assignments to build upon exam answers and relies on a good book, Gordon Harvey’s Writing with Sources, to explain to students why and how to use sources effectively. Stamping out the scourge of plagiarism needn’t rely solely on having better technology than students have. (I still catch the odd plagiarist, but I sometimes fear that many more are slipping past my attention.)

What might cause despair are the findings mentioned at the end of the article, concerning how students use sources. In short: superficially. Use of secondary sources may simply be pro forma: “I need to cite three outside sources. OK, here’s one quote; here’s another; here’s one more; done!”

Maybe this is because students are time-pressured, or lazy, or both. But it also may have to do with how they are (not) taught to use sources. Do we take time to explain how to incorporate articles and others’ scholarship? Do we model it sufficiently? Plagiarism can be tamed by good teaching. The broader matter of using sources effectively has to be addressed the same way. But it is surely the harder battle.

Photo by stock.xchng user biewoef / Creative Commons licensed

How much is it worth it to worry about plagiarism? What’s the right balance among prevention and punishment when it comes to plagiarism? How do you teach students about using sources effectively?


One response to “The plagiarism arms race

  1. Noreen O'Connor

    I’d rather they pay to check out their own plagiarism than pay for a paper, but really if they know how to cite properly then it’s a waste of money to pay to check. I always let my students use Turn it In to upload their papers in advance and reupload if they see troubles. I also explain over and over how to use sources, provide models, hold office hour tutorials, and probably teach some of my students how to use sources well. They need lots of help becoming sophisticated at this. I often say some version of what a college friend told me once: “You have to say things three times. First you say what you are going to say, then you quote someone else saying it, then you follow that up with your own words explaining what both you and the quote just said.” Pretty good actually.