Technology and Plagiarism

“All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Technology and computers have become central components of modern life.  Using word processors has become such a common practice that if asked, most people know what Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V mean.   On the positive side, technology has made writing and research faster. Modern word processors make writing and editing more quickly than typewriters or handwriting.  Modern computers make changing words, correcting spelling, and moving large blocks of text easy and fast.

The internet makes information available in ways that historically would have been unbelievable.  Libraries, museums, and research journals are accessible all over the world through the internet.  The internet allows access to news in real time from all around the world. The internet has become such an essential source of information that there are individuals that say it is necessary for education.

Like most things with benefits come drawbacks.  One of the most significant disadvantages of technology on writing is how easy it is to plagiarize.  It is just as easy to grab text from someone else’s document as it is to move text around your document. Fortunately, like many things’ technology evolves along two fronts. People start reading your documents we developed encryption. Hackers create viruses, spyware, and trojans companies develop anti-virus software.

To counteract the increasing ease of plagiarism tools have been developed to identify it. Many schools are integrating Plagiarism checkers directly into their Learning Management Systems (LMS).  Additionally, using the schools LMS to accept assignment digitally allows for automatic plagiarism detection. In addition to commercial tools today, there are also free tools. The availability of free tools means even if your school does not have a plagiarism checker, you can still make use of one to test your students’ assignments.  However, what does it mean to “check” the material?

Several years ago, the school I was working at had a contract with Turnitin.com.  When faculty sent an assignment to Turnitin.com, the program generated a similarity report.  Turnitin.com uses a 0-100% scale where the percentage is the amount of the paper that is similar to other sources. Faculty would always ask what number means plagiarism. The faculty wanted an exact number, at X% the student committed plagiarism.

Unfortunately, it is not always that clear. Technically a single sentence can be plagiarism.  The previous sentence is seven words long 0.6% of this document, and if I had stolen that sentence, it would be plagiarism.  The definition of Plagiarizing “: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: use (another’s production) without crediting the source” (Merriam-Webster) does not include a word length.  If a writer takes another person’s text and attempts to pass it off as their own, no matter how short or long, it is plagiarism.

However, using the rule that any similarity score is plagiarism can also cause problems.  Most plagiarism checkers will recognize quotes and references.  Beyond that, maybe the writer forgot to add a reference or quotation marks.  Alternatively, there is a limit to how many ways a writer can write something.  Suppose a student is writing a review of a Sherlock Holmes book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  How many ways are there to write a sentence stating where Sherlock lives?

  • Sherlock Holmes lives at 221b Baker Street.
  • Sherlock Holmes lived at 221b Baker Street, London, England.
  • Sherlock Holmes lived in apartment b at 221 Baker street.
  • Sherlock Holmes lived in apartment b at 221 Baker Street, London, England.
  • Sherlock Holmes made his residence at 221b Baker Street.
  • Sherlock Holmes made his residence at 221b Baker Street, London, England.
  • The story began at the residence of Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street.
  • The story began at the residence of Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street, London, England.
  • Sherlock Holmes shared an apartment with Dr. Watson at 221b Baker Street.
  • Sherlock Holmes shared an apartment with Dr. Watson at 221b Baker Street, London, England.

I can quickly come up with ten sentences; I am sure I could come up with more without a lot of work.  I would also be utterly shocked if someone has not written these sentences before.  A Google search using the sentence “Sherlock Holmes lived at 221b Baker Street, London England.” produced 324,000 hits.  The sentence “Sherlock Holmes made his residence at 221b Baker Street.” Produced 443,000 hits. Does this mean I plagiarized them?  Well, I didn’t look them up, I didn’t copy and paste them, I created them from my memory of Sherlock Holmes address. I would say no, this is not plagiarism others might say yes, it is plagiarism.

Perhaps this is a situation in which a direct quote would be better.  With very little research I found that 221b Baker Street first appears in the book A Study in Scarlet,

“We met next day as he had arranged, and inspected the rooms at No. 221B, Baker Street, of which he had spoken at our meeting.  They consisted of a couple of comfortable bed-rooms and a single large airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows.  So desirable in every way were the apartments, and so moderate did the terms seem when divided between us, that the bargain was concluded upon the spot, and we at once entered into possession.”

The truth of the matter is that just about any plagiarism score below 100% (maybe 90%) you are probably going to have to review yourself.  However, I have found that the schools and faculty that use plagiarism checks the best don’t only use the tools to watch for plagiarism but also as a means of teaching.

Make the plagiarism tools available to your students let them self-check.  The plagiarism tools will help students identify simple mistakes like a forgotten reference or quote.  Additionally, if they find that sections of their text are showing a lot of similarities, perhaps it is time to find an actual quote or reference.  Plagiarism checkers can also enhance research skills, for instance, is that paper, book, or website the primary source for a quote. If your source is not the primary source, what is the primary source? The student might even find that the secondary source misused or quoted the primary source.  Additionally, if the checker marks something on a student’s paper and they are confused by it, they can talk to their instructor generating a teachable moment.

It is easier than ever for students (or really anyone) to plagiarize someone else’s work.  Fortunately, tools that help us uncover plagiarism are also getting better and better.  However, we should remember that the best way to use these tools is not exclusively as punishment but also as teaching tools.  We can use these plagiarism checkers to reinforce research and using references, quotes, and citations.  Remember any tool that can be used to check, and grade can also be used to teach.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

One thought on “Technology and Plagiarism

  1. Pingback: Does Technology Change What It Means to Cheat? – The Teaching Cyborg

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