From the Boidem -
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday
December 22, 1996: Plagiarism and the Web
On a list that was forwarded to me recently I found the following
query. (I've corrected the spelling, but since the writer is faculty, I've
left the sometimes dense, perhaps simply awkward, sentence structure intact.):
Date: Fri, 6 Dec 1996 10:39:40 -0500 From: kr-UTC <email@example.com>
On the surface of it, that post is a logical request. Certainly
the internet offers students a vast supply of materials from which they
can steal in order to prepare papers that they have to hand in. And yes,
the (web) inexperienced college professor might find it threatening that
students have access to all this material. But actually, the problem really
isnt that difficult to solve. In reaction to the statement that: "I can
almost hear them saying They'll NEVER know which website I got this from....",
one responder noted:
Subject: Query: Online research accountability.
----------------- From: firstname.lastname@example.org Date: Fri, 6 Dec
1996 07:21:28 -0700 To: h-mac@H-NET.MSU.EDU, email@example.com Subject: Query:
Online research accountability.
I have a problem that I hope those of you out there at institutions
with more experience at research using the new technologies than we have
here. There is a great degree of interest among members of the administration,
and the History department, in beginning to tap the research potential
of the Internet. But this raises a problem.
The genesis of the problem was when, last week, one of our professors
had students prepare research projects using Internet resources. All was
well and good, with some genuinely good work, until it became clear that
at least two of the students copied, verbatim, large sections of an electronic
document. Therein lies the crux of our problem. Clearly, these students
were counting on our ignorance--I can almost hear them saying "They'll
NEVER know which website I got this from...." That's our problem. How do
we open up the etherworld to our students and still maintain some ability
to hold students accountable for doing their own work? I mean, we can't
hope to know everything that's out there on any given subject. And not
that we'd want to. One of the great potentialities of these technologies
for students is the chance to mine a nugget of gold that no one in class
has ever seen before.
Specifically, we are interested in hearing from people who have
developed some mechanism for using Internet resources for research but
at the same time for maintaining that accountability. I know we could download
particular resources onto the course website located in our departmental
site, but I am interested in severing the tethers--letting the students'
own imaginations guide their search for a topic.
We are on the ground floor with these issues--our faculty combines
people who use the web regularly in class as well as those for whom an
IBM Selectric is a new tool. (click here for a giveaway
for that fact in the guise of some fancy detective work) So, we would
be most interested in any suggestions you might have to offer.
Thank you for your help, Matthew Redinger Department of History
Montana State University-Billings Come visit our website at http://www.msubillings.edu/history/
I'm a bit surprised by this statement. Thanks to AltaVista and
other search engines, it is far easier to detect plagiarism than with conventional
And of course that's very true. If a student is bright enough
to find an article on a subject on the web and then turn it in for an assignment
as his/her work, one would think that a professor could think of a couple
of key words that would find the same article. Another responder noted
that if a sentence seemed suspect, copying that sentence into a search
engine and conducting a search on it would almost definitely find the source.
Yes, students have a way of being more creative than their professors,
but even a professor with limited web experience should be able to figure
out how to do these things.
One of the more creative student-initiated projects is
an online paper-mill. Paper-mills are nothing new. They were around long
before the web, and will probably survive it as well, but there is something
original in a paper-mill that's located on the web. Industrious plagiarizers
will probably still surf the web for material they can copy, but lazier
students can simply look for re-cycled term papers.
Put rather simply, a paper-mill is an off-campus situated
filing cabinet that stores student papers. Usually for a price students
can retrieve a paper from the mill and hand it in for their own assignments.
A bit of editing or doctoring doesnt hurt, though on the whole when a student
uses a paper-mill, meaning that s/he isnt able to devote the effort to
write his/her own paper, s/he's not particularly inclined to devote much
time to editing and revising any paper s/he can get his/her hands on. One
respondant to the query raised a very simple point:
I'm surprised to see electronic plagiarism considered a more serious
threat than other forms. For how many years have filing cabinets full of
old essays existed in various housing arrangements on your campus? How
far back does the process of hiring someone to write essays for you go?
Another also didn't seem particularly distrubed:
I think this misidentifies the problem. The internet is a source,
like many others, from which information may be copied. What do you do
about students who copy out of print sources? From frat/sorority files?
From the roomates' essays?
Still, probably because the internet itself remains such
a hot topic, on-line paper mills have generated their fair share of excitement.
Perhaps the best known of these sites (a few exist) is School
Sucks (http://www.schoolsucks.com). School Sucks offers its database
of papers free of charge, though a similar site requires leaving a paper
of your own (how do they know it's yours?) in exchange. And part of the
site is an interesting article entitled: Plagiarism
Sucks, with the significant subtitle: How to use the resources on
SCHOOL SUCKS (and elsewhere) to write papers and not get into trouble.
The article is either an honest attempt to explain the
dangers and problems of plagiarism, or it's a sort of legalistic cover
needed to keep the site out of trouble. Either way, it raises some good,
if far from original, points about plagiarism. According to the article,
plagiarism "sucks" because it:
Perhaps it was to be expected that the SCHOOL SUCKS site would create
quite a stir in the academic community. In June and July of this year a debate
raged on an academic listserv discussion group that totalled 226 letters (from
perhaps fifty participants). The correspondance is archived at http://dewey.lc.missouri.edu/rhetnet/schoolsucks/index.html.
The academicians writing to the list represented the entire spectrum of opinions,
ranging from the incensed to the amused. A couple of correspondants wrote that
their job should be to give assignments that make plagiarism irrelevent. One participant
cheats the person who plagiarizes because that person does not learn to
put ideas into his/her own words which improves thinking and writing skills
cheats other students who took the time and effort to do their own work
cheats the person who did the original work by not giving that person credit
is not worth the risk of getting caught and getting a zero on the paper,
or failing the class, or other disciplinary action. Professors and TA's
can find SCHOOL SUCKS as easy as you
What to me is most exciting about the internet is that it is forcing
us to reconsider old clunkers like "be original."
and that really is perhaps the most important aspect of the
entire debate, because the issue of student plagiarism is really only the
tip of an iceberg. The bigger issue is how the internet is forcing us to
change our perspectives on the "ownership" of intellectual property.
Carolyn Dowling, from Australian Catholic University,
in a fascinating essay Whose
words are they? Some aspects of the ownership of textual material in electronic
environments quotes an E. Theisin, author of "Writing in Context":
Other features of computer based writing environments such as the capacity
to support a radically new level of collaborative writing encourage a re-thinking
of the whole issue of ownership of text. As Theisen puts it,
Another well thought out treatise on the changing nature
of copyright is What
Matters Who Writes? What Matters Who Responds? Issues of Ownership in the
Writing Classroom by Andrea A. Lunsford (and associates) from the Ohio
State University. In addition to being an attempt at a hyper-textual presentation
(of what was originally a keynote lecture), this article examines many
of the ways in which internet access and postmodernism coincide, forcing
a reexamination of how we relate to authorship and ownership of texts.
Lunsford examines the issue of plagiarism, noting that one broad study
conducted at her university found that undergraduates quite comfortably
"used" the materials of others in ways that traditionally would be considered
plagiarism, but was done quite "innocently" on the students' part. She
notes that "This dissertation study suggests that the re in
research is highly operative for many students and that they are in some
ways perhaps more comfortable with this sort of collective production than
we (faculty) are."
The tools and materials of writing have always shaped the process itself.
The cave wall, papyrus, quill, the printing press and the ballpoint each
in its own way defined new parameters and enabled writers to break out
of old limitations. Today's electronic networking technologies inspire
powerful new ways of composing, communicating, and publishing. The ease
and speed of sharing texts, whether on LANs, bulletin boards, or in real
time, inspire new methods of collaboration and even new forms of writing.
(Theisen 1992, p. 33)
Among Lunsford's conclusions is the need to relate differently
to the entire manner in which student achievement is measured:
Rather than finding knowledge in texts, in the products associated
wth earlier systems of intellectual property, I believe we are going to
identify knowledge in the ways people work with information, in the ways
that information is put to use. To give one specific example: in our classes,
knowledge becomes what students do rather than what they study.
Dowling and Lunsford are at perhaps the academic vanguard
of a rethinking of the question of ownership of intellectual property.
Though they express a bit of discomfort with their position, they seem
to realize that an academic rethinking of the attitude toward plagiarism
is called for. But the academic vanguard looks more like a rearguard when
compared to some of the ideas floating around the internet. Utopian
Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production is
the title of a chapter of a book The Electronic Disturbance written
by the Critical Art Ensemble which defines itself as "a collective
of five artists of various specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections
between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory". Their
text reads like a manifesto:
At present, new conditions have emerged that once again make plagiarism
an acceptable, even crucial strategy for textual production. This is the
age of the recombinant: recombinant bodies, recombinant gender, recombinant
texts, recombinant culture. Looking back through the privileged frame of
hindsight, one can argue that the recombinant has always been key in the
development of meaning and invention; recent extraordinary advances in
electronic technology have called attention to the recombinant both in
theory and in practice (for example, the use of morphing in video and film).
And they add:
Today one can argue that plagiarism is acceptable, even inevitable
given the nature of postmodern existence with its techno-infrastructure.
In a recombinant culture, plagiarism is productive, although we need not
abandon the romantic model of cultural production which privileges a model
of ex nihilo creation.
The last part of that sentence seems a contradiction to the
gist of the argument. Sensing this, our authors add:
Certainly in a general sense the latter model is somewhat anachronistic.
And as though to prove that even the "Utopian Plagiarism"
arguments are a reactionary conspiracy against the true revolution, to
show that such an anachronism isn't acceptable, here's a short (though
much too long) segment of the Neoism Manifesto that deals with Plagiarism.
(I admit, I have no idea, before or after reading these pages what Neoism
It would be better to say that no one owns anything, not even a physical
body much less a mind or a soul. The monadic personality fragments, dissolves
under the negative impact of totalized ownership of the world. Thus courts
of law, writs, record books and ledgers, the unfolding and endlessly self-generating
quantization that spins through the brains of the population burst into
flames. Alter the inevitable violence in the streets, this is the only
form of class upheaval with any possibility of success. Afterwards, there
is nothing left "knowable" or ownable; and any so-called implications would
then merely be those of the enemy's Newtonian/Victorian machine mind which
continues to crank and grind regardless of the fact that the people have
stood up and walked away, at last.
That being rather difficult to decipher (to say the least),
the author has given us a link to an additional page that among other things
contains the following, more concise, statement:
In the 'post-industrial' condition of information overload, the raw
surplus of images, ideas and texts is so great that the selective process
of choosing what material to plagerize is as much a 'creative' act as the
construction of the images, ideas and texts in the first place.
If a professor ever accuses you of plagiarism, just read
him that to let him know what you think.
At least one professor, in the Department of Software
Engineering at the Johannes Kepler University of Linz, Austria, has a web
page with his policy on plagiarism. He's against it, but he's collected
nice quotes on the subject along the way to stating his policy. It's
worth a look.
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