By Jim Shimabukuro
Michelle Fabio, in “Has the Internet Increased Plagiarism in Schools?” (Legal Zoom, May 2012), presents a useful distinction between plagiarism and copyright infringement. She also asks if plagiarism is illegal and answers yes, that is, “When the act of plagiarism is also copyright infringement.” The question of whether plagiarizing should be considered illegal is interesting. Most colleges and schools have policies on failure to credit sources, and these provide varying degrees of sanction. However, these regulations don’t have the weight of state and federal laws, and ethics rather than legality is the primary issue. An interesting topic, but perhaps for a later time.
For now, my interest is not in whether the internet increases plagiarism but, rather, how we can use technology to eliminate it. Fabio mentions online services such as The Plagiarism Checker and Turnitin. Teachers and students copy and paste suspected text in the site checker and receive reports on portions that may have been plagiarized. However, a far simpler and cost effective method is to do as Lynn Zimmerman, ETCJ associate editor, suggests: paste a suspected text string, in quotes, in a search engine such as Google. If there are hits in the works of other authors, then the text may have been plagiarized.
Teachers read literally hundreds of student papers a year, and after a few years, they develop a sixth sense for deviations from typical student prose. I’ve been teaching college composition for decades, and for me it’s like stepping into a suddenly cold spot in a shallow stream or a suddenly dark section of a forest. The change is abrupt, startling. It’s often a change in style, from the colloquial of students to the formality of professionals. It’s the use of vocabulary that sticks out like an island in an endless sea. It’s the appearance of complex sentence patterns in a field of simple and compound sentences. It’s the ray of logic in an otherwise cloudy sky. It’s a lack of transition from one thought to another, like missing planks in a dilapidated rope bridge. It’s a gut feeling based on the expected and unexpected. In short, a teacher can sense whether text has been plagiarized.
When bells go off or red flags pop up, all we need to do is select the suspected text, paste it into a search engine, add quotes around it, click on search, and wait for the results. If hits are from the works of other authors, we then select other text to determine the extent of plagiarism.
In the vast majority of cases, teachers develop a sense of a student’s abilities. Writing is a performing art. A student with poor balance won’t suddenly be able to pirouette, just as a recreational jogger won’t be able to suddenly run a sub-four-minute mile. In the online learning environment, teachers have an opportunity to observe student performances in email exchanges, discussion posts and comments, in chat forums, and in preliminary and final drafts. As a result, they develop a style image or profile of each student. Thus, a deviation from this image will raise an alarm. It simply doesn’t fit the teacher’s impression of a student’s writing style.
But this search engine approach, although simple, does take precious time from other pressing tasks. Fabio’s article makes me wonder if we can’t use word processing and web technology to more efficiently address the problem of plagiarism. I think we can, and I believe we can do it easily — with a few innovations.
I’d like to see a writing program such as MS Word include a smart plagiarism meter, or splam, as a new feature. When turned on, it would silently monitor writers as they’re composing, checking emerging text against all the text strings in the web. It would rely on search engine technology and work behind the scenes. When a string meets the built-in criteria for plagiarism, the writer is warned. The writer will also know that these passages, if not properly documented, will be automatically marked as plagiarized when the paper is loaded into the teacher’s word processor.
I’d imagine that smart plagiarism meters, or splams, will become smarter as time passes. They will eventually be able to detect plagiarized strings that have been altered by writers. These same mechanisms could also be used to facilitate writing, detect repetition and redundancy in text strings and even suggest alternatives.
With the latest technology, writing is entering a brave new world where traditional problems such as plagiarism will be significantly reduced or even eliminated and writing performance will be enhanced and facilitated.
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