Copyright's (Not So) Little Cousin, Plagiarism. (Techman's Techpage)

By Brandt, D. Scott | Computers in Libraries, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Copyright's (Not So) Little Cousin, Plagiarism. (Techman's Techpage)


Brandt, D. Scott, Computers in Libraries


This is nothing new: Technology makes it easy to subvert legal and proper use of information in its various forms. Issues related to copyright apply in a similar vein to plagiarism. In fact, copyright abuse and plagiarism are like two sides of a permission coin--on the one side, people take without asking, and on the other side, people take without telling. We know that librarians work hard to support copyright protection, but what are they doing about plagiarism?

Plagiarism is theft and lying--using information that doesn't belong to you and passing it off as your own. It is mostly thought of as a problem in education, usually pertaining to student abuses. But there are times when experts use material without giving credit to the source--most recently in cases regarding historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Putting too much of someone else's words, or even their ideas, into your own work without giving the owner credit is ethically and legally wrong.

Fighting Plagiarism: One Teacher's Battle

This column is dedicated to my new hero, Christine Pelton, a high school teacher in rural Piper, Kansas. Several months ago, Pelton failed 28 students for plagiarizing and then resigned when the school board insisted she reverse her decision. The board had not only ordered her to give students partial credit, but they had even gone so far as to interfere with her duties by demanding she decrease the course's final project from 50 percent to 30 percent of the students' grades (evidently in a move to justify their actions). She quit not only because the board usurped her authority, but also because the students no longer showed her respect afterward.

Students were given a warning at the beginning of the semester that cheating, including plagiarism, would not be tolerated. When papers were turned in, Pelton noticed similarities in many of them. No doubt at that point the teacher wondered how she could prove such a serious charge--a question that probably plagues any teacher who has suspicions. In this case, Pelton turned to technology to help her, using an Internet-based site that helps teachers prove plagiarism.

Using Technology for Good

The anti-plagiarism site turnitin.com offers "document source analysis" applications to test student papers. Basically, a paper is submitted to the site, its text is compared to other texts, and a report is given. A paper can be compared to documents found anywhere on the Web, including some sites that offer term papers written by someone else, such as schoolsucks.com. In addition, papers that are submitted are tracked, so that a teacher can check papers from her students over the years.

Document source analysis is simple in concept--it compares the text of documents for matches. The genius in it is that since students are most likely to cut and paste text off the Internet, it checks those sources for matches. And it does so much more quickly and efficiently than any human could. As noted in one of its reports, turnitin.com even supplies the URLs of documents used in the process of plagiarism.

The thing that struck me most about the Kansas case is that of the three parents who originally complained to the board, one exclaimed that her daughter had worked on the project the same way she worked on all her other assignments. This begs the question: Had the student been cheating all along? Is cutting and pasting so easy, so pervasive, that students have been doing it all their educational lives without thinking? Is it possible that everyone is doing it?

Who Hasn't Done It? (My True Confession)

Most of us think that plagiarism is knowingly and willingly taking others' words without giving the author credit. We have no doubt heard about students practically creating entire assignments by cutting and pasting from Web pages. But there are other aspects of plagiarism. It is often defined as taking inappropriate credit, whether knowingly or unknowingly (see, for instance, Purdue University's treatment of dishonesty at http://www. …

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