Not just honesty

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I am loathe to accuse anyone of plagiarism, especially a fellow-professional, but sometimes it is a close call.

In the case of the two sites I am looking at in this post, it is a very close call. In one case, it’s not a call, it’s a shriek.

I have mentioned my alert before, my Google alert for the phrase “every written assignment they complete” (see Thirty percent).

My alert came up with two hits today. One was a Prezi with the title “Effective Research and Avoiding Plagiarism” and the other is a blog, “How to avoid plagiarism…“.   If my suspicions are correct, then there’s something a little ironic here. And there.

Let’s look at the prezi first.

The author helpfully provides a transcript of the slides, so you don’t have to sit through the actual prezi presentation, dizzying animations and transitions and all.

The last slide is a list of Works Cited.

Actually, it isn’t a list of works cited. One or two of the citations in the text match the references in the list of Works Cited, but not helpfully. The Rutgers University survey mentioned in one of the slides, for instance, refers (I think), to the work by Donald McCabe. Moreover, if this is anything at all, it is a (partial?) list of works used.

Meanwhile, the statement attributed to,  that good ol’ “According to Recent studies indicate that 30% of all students may be plagiarizing on every written assignment they complete” is not a helpful citation, since it leads to a website and not to the actual source of the quotation.  Just as worrying, perhaps even more worrying, there is not a quotation mark in sight.

[This statement just won’t die. It lives on. But: not only are the studies not recent – the notion was voiced as early as 2001 – they do not exist. The statement is based, probably, on a misinterpretation of a misunderstanding – but it grabs the attention, even now.] [If you didn’t look at my earlier post, Thirty percent, do.]

More irony: the transcript has one reference not included on the Prezi Works Cited slide, a reference to “The Owl at Purdue: MLA Formatting and Style Guide.”  And why, one might wonder, isn’t this list of Works Cited formatted consistently, and why isn’t it formatted consistently according to MLA style?


A study by the Josephson Institute, mentioned early on in the Prezi presentation, is not referenced at all.  Several other items of information in the presentation are not referenced. Linkages (citations) are not always clear.

What is more, what got me looking more closely, both the McCabe study and the Josephson study are OLD studies; later studies by McCabe and by Josephson both suggest that rates of cheating and of plagiarism are falling (see Go figure).

Indeed, all the statistics used in this Prezi are a little dated, oft-repeated in the literature. They may well be re-hashes of earlier work, earlier and hackneyed presentations on plagiarism. My investigation was not because I intended to “prove” plagiarism. I think the compiler has intended to cite her sources – or at least to show the origins of her data. I don’t think she quite made it. I think she has cited the sources which were given by the people whose work she is using. She is not citing the sources she has used, she is citing (?) the sources they have used, and she hasn’t checked them and she hasn’t tried to verify them either. This is NOT plagiarism, but it is (I think) poor scholarship. Poor practice, poor example, poor role-modelling, poor writing, poor research, poor scholarship.

And totally unhelpful.

The other piece

What can I say about the second piece “How to avoid plagiarism…“?

The third paragraph starts

According to a report by, “Studies indicate that approximately 30 percent of all students may be plagiarizing on every written assignment they complete.” Kids plagiarize for a variety of reasons. Some kids are lazy, some are unmotivated, some are disorganized, and some just don’t understand what plagiarism really is.


This paragraph is, alas, a word-for-word copy of the opening paragraph of a piece in Education World, Put an End to Plagiarism in Your Classroom. This is undated, but it has been around a long time.  Internet Archive has a copy dated 6 March 2002.

The blog post (dated 26 October 2014) has no quotation marks, no attribution.  Once again, gets the credit for those mythical recent studies and their meaningless findings – but the second half of the paragraph is just word-for-word copying.

No agonising for me here, no double-guessing.  This is poor practice at best, pure plagiarism at worst.

Irony, again

When I started this piece, my main concern was a discussion of re-hashed and out-of-date data.  An investigation into plagiarism was not on my mind at all.

What I wanted to say is that we cite and reference our sources to help the reader, and to demonstrate our credibility as writers and as researchers.   We cite to validate our evidence. The date of our evidence is an important part of that, especially when we are dealing with surveys and statistics. It was that undated “Recent studies…” that got me looking more deeply into the prezi. The unstated date…?

I stand by my title here, Not just honesty, because that is – was – where I wanted to go (and I shall, in my next post, promise). Helping our readers, supporting our claims to be writers and researchers, supporting what we write and enabling us to be part of the discussion – these are the reasons we cite and we reference our sources. Academic honesty is just a small part of citation and referencing.

But oh, isn’t it a big small part?

Three times – but still not true!

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Three times just recently I have been told that mathematicians do not need to know about citation and referencing because they do not cite other people’s work.

Three times is more than coincidence.  But, for mathematicians as for any other academic discipline, this is just not true! Mathematicians do cite. A look at any mathematics journal shows that mathematicians cite their sources. Papers with 50 and more references are common, and they all cite the sources in the text.

But these looks at mathematics journals do reveal something curious. Mathematicians do not always cite their sources, by name, in the text.  Is this where the myth originates?  What mathematicians commonly use is a (non-superscript) numbered referencing system.  And it often results in nearly unreadable prose.

…  Recently a “leaky waveguide” with a small parameter breaking the symmetry was considered in [31]. For the similar problems in the one-dimensional case see [10,29,36,41]. The analogous results for quantum graphs were obtained in [16,17,35].  See also recent developments for Pauli operators [25]. …
(Kondej & Lotoreichik 1418)

The reference list, and the citations which derive from them, cannot be easy to compile – at least, I suspect, not without software.

The list is alphabetical by surname, initials first. Once the list is complete, a reference number is assigned to each of the entries. This is why I suspect software is involved – if a new reference is introduced, then the numbering is thrown out!  Memories of essays and dissertations written on a manual typewriter, carbon paper copies and all.  Software would solve that problem.

The number forms the in-text citation, signalling that this is not the present author’s original idea, it derives from elsewhere; the number links to a full reference at the end of the paper.

It is not a style which is helpful to the writer, and it is not helpful to the reader either.  It’s a style which lends itself to practical difficulties, for when the print journal runs to several hundred pages, one can run out of fingers and thumbs, trying to keep one’s place in the paper while searching out a reference or five somewhere further on in the journal.

The text does not read well. It can be ironic too.

….  Its theory has subsequently been developed and used by many authors working in various areas of mathematics and physics (see [13,18] for applications to quantum mechanics); a non-exhaustive list of contributions is (in alphabetical order) [4,6,11,17,22], and the references therein.
(de Gosson & Lueff 948)

if the reference list is in alphabetical order and numbered in the order in which entries appear in the list, then numerical order is the same as alphabetical order; that parenthetical note, “in alphabetical order,” is, perhaps, both unneeded and redundant?  But wouldn’t it read better if those 5 references were actually named?

Referencing systems have evolved from the needs of the subject or discipline and the styles of writing commonly used in those subjects.  Could it be that, because mathematics deals with constants and truths, it does not matter who first voiced an idea; it is always true; it is “fact”?  And thus, perhaps, there is no need to name sources in the text, in turn, leading to the notion – mistaken –  that mathematicians do not cite sources in the text.

It must be pointed out that unreadability of text is not a requirement of this citation style. It is just as possible to name sources (and to improve readability and to stress authority) in a math paper as it is in other styles.

Koblitz [9] suggested a NAF τ-and-add algorithm for a family of supersingular curves in characteristic 3; this method was later improved by Blake, Murty and Xu [4]. Avanzi, Heuberger and Prodinger [2] exploited the existence of the 6-th roots of unity in Z[τ ] = {a + bτ | a, b ∈ Z} to create a sixpartite digit set that decreased memory consumption by a factor three; Avanzi and Heuberger [1] also provided a precomputationless factored digit set. A similar study was undertaken by Kleinrahm [7], examining a curve in characteristic 5 where the 4-th roots of unity belong to Z[τ].
(Heuberger & Mazzoli 19).

But, readablity or otherwise, I think the lie is laid to rest: for mathematicians as for academics in other subjects, sources count.

(To be continued)


de Gosson, M. & Luef, F. (2014). Metaplectic group, symplectic Cayley transform, and fractional Fourier transforms. Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications 416 (2), 947–968. DOI: 10.1016/j.jmaa.2014.03.013 (Open access article used here under CC BY-NC-ND license).

Heuberger, C. & Mazzoli, M. (2014) Symmetric digit sets for elliptic curve scalar multiplication without precomputationTheoretical Computer Science 547, 18–33.  (Open access article used here under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 license).

Kondej, S. & Lotoreichik, V. (2014).  Weakly coupled bound state of 2-D Schrödinger operator with potential-measure. Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications 420 (2), 1416–1438. DOI: 10.1016/j.jmaa.2014.06.053 (Open access article used here under CC BY-3.0 license).

Seriously, though…

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One of the most telling moments during my recent “tour” came in a Q&A session with year 11 students.

I had already had one 50-minute session with this group.  The session had gone well, although I sensed that not every student had been giving me their full attention. was attentive. There had been some restlessness, some murmuring, some clearly not looking at the screen unless provoked by direct question.

The telling moment came right at the start of a 30 minute follow-up session.  When I asked the group if anyone had any questions, one hand went up. When given the nod to go ahead, this particular 11th grader asked, “Do they take plagiarism as seriously at university as they do at high school?”

Normally, I don’t dwell too much on the consequences of plagiarism and other forms of cheating at university level or in the world outside academia. I prefer a more positive approach.

Given this opening, however, I opened up. I explained how some universities give some instruction and help, sometimes very limited, while others assume that students already know the conventions of citation and referencing. I explained how universities are very different to schools, how there are no detentions or letters to parents, but instead penalties and consequences far more serious, including failure on the assignment, failing the course, expulsion. I explained how knowledge is built on trust, and if you prove untrustworthy then there is no place for you in academia.

There was no restlessness in this second session with this group. Suddenly, it was very real, very close to home, and very important. Everyone was attentive.

But I do wonder. I wonder about the messages we give – and the messages we get.  Do we give the impression that citation and referencing are hurdles and hoops that we make the students jump over or through to get through secondary school, but not really important, just something else to learn, and then forget?

(Do we – or our fellow-teachers – show this in our own behaviour, as, for instance, in our own work and presentations – my last posting very much in mind?)

Do we fail to get across the importance of WHY we cite and reference our sources, fail to show how they help make us better writers and more worthy of joining the academic conversation?

Do we concentrate too much on the correctness of formatting rather than on the heart of the matter, which is honesty as a matter of course, and the use of evidence in support of the points we wish to make?  Incorrectly formatted citations and references are NOT plagiarism, but is this what students believe?  Do we stifle them?

Not everyone falls short. Many – perhaps most – do understand and appreciate.

But the rest? What message do they get? Is it the right one? Is there more we could be doing? Seriously?

Not to be copied

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I’ve been busy with workshops during these last few months, and I haven’t kept my blog up to date. I have, however, been making notes. The workshops have given me plenty to think about, and now, at last, to write about.  Stand by!

Let’s start with a conference presentation – not one I presented, but one I attended. Two presentations, in fact.

The first presentation was on search tools and information sources, and there were three co-presenters. The first tool shown was WolframAlpha which, amongst other things, provides quick factual information about many subjects. I asked where Wolfram Alpha obtained its information; the presenters did not know, but agreed that one couldn’t really cite Wolfram Alpha as a source, any more than we can cite Google Images as a source.

The presentation next day was given by one of the three Wolfram Alpha presenters. Our presenter started off by giving us a TinyURL shortcut to her presentation. “Feel free to use it,” she said. “It’s there to share. You can even add your own name on each slide, if you want, I don’t mind.”

I went “Pftussss” – a sharp intake of breath, which was louder than I intended. Loud enough to get the presenter’s attention. “All except our plagiarism expert here,” she said.

That put me in my place.

The session was on one particular website. A few slides in, and she showed some multiple-choice questions asked in an international survey, and (1) charts illustrating the correct answers and (2) bar charts representing the percentage of respondents opting for each of the possible answers to each of the questions. As she spoke, the presenter made it clear that the questions were from the original survey, not her own work, and the data resulting from the survey were not hers either. However, she gave the impression, at least to me, that the charts and other illustrations were her own design, based on the data generated.

That is problematic. It is problematic on several counts.

For one, those charts and other illustrations were not hers. They had been copied, screen-grabbed and copied, directly from an authored pdf-format document to be found on the website she was demonstrating. There was, however, no attribution on the slides, just that verbal attribution to the site itself.

I hesitate to accuse anyone of plagiarism, including this presenter. However, her practice is less than helpful to anyone viewing the slides. They won’t necessarily be able to, or even feel the need to, go find the original on the original website. Bad practice, and bad role-modelling.

If I give you the TinyURL here, you’d be able to go to find her document yourself. You wouldn’t know who posted it, the presenter’s name does not appear. If you were to use her material, you wouldn’t know to whom you should give the credit. Never mind, she has given permission for viewers to take the material and use their own names. It’s theirs! It’s yours!

Only it isn’t.

What there is, for anyone who does add their own name, is a clear case of plagiarism. It wouldn’t be yours, would it?

What there is is a case for the original site to launch a breach of copyright suit.

What there is is your own integrity – and an awareness that you cannot take anonymous data and present it with any authority, even with second-hand permission; you would need to find an author and/or a source. The real author and the real source.

Which takes me to a final irony. Towards the end of the conference presentation, and possibly with a hat-tip to me and my question the day before, there is a slide which lists some of the sources from which the website gets its information, the data which informed the survey, and the data which inform the site as a whole. Not good enough, I feel.

Practice, not to be copied.


Still wrong to be forgotten

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Google (Europe) continues to give people the “right” to be forgotten.  Those whose requests are upheld become more difficult to find; Google’s European search engines no longer link to web page/s which offend or upset a complainant.

There are ways around this, some of which are detailed in my earlier post, Wrong to be forgotten.  One way is to make the complaint public.  The “Streisand effect” comes into play, by which a complainant gets more publicity for having made a complaint than was achieved by the original report, drawing attention to oneself.

Debora Weber-Wulff today announces that she too has had links removed from one of her web pages, in a post entitled Notice of removal from Google Search. Google gives no right of appeal, nor indication of who made the complaint, so Dr Weber-Wulff has kindly furnished the names of the 36 plagiarists and possible plagiarists (some of whom were cleared by their universities despite strong evidence against) who were named on the offending web page.  These 36 are amongst “50 cases of plagiarism in dissertations or habilitations” as Weber-Wulff puts it.   (The names of the remaining 14 plagiarists and possible plagiarists appear in a later post.)  It might have been any of the 36 who made the request to Google.

Her post today reminds me of a recent item in BBC News, Google removes 12 BBC News links in ‘right to be forgotten.’  The BBC’s report helpfully lists the 12 removed sites.  Ah, the oxygen of publicity (as Mrs T. might have put it).

Not a million miles from the right to be forgotten may be the “right” never to be made known.  It probably doesn’t apply to everyone, only to those with power. I am thinking in particular of a recent UK government report, Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts, By Redacted, Rural Community Policy Unit. Although dated March 2014, it appears to have been released only recently.   Shale gas drilling, otherwise known as fracking, is a matter of debate in UK right now.  Many are against the practice, it seems highly controversial for any number of reasons; the present government is in favour, and wants to “sell” it to the public.  Thus this discussion paper.

The paper is notable for the amount of information not made public. Much of the report has been redacted – removed from the record.

Here, for instance, is the paper (pages 10-11) telling us of “three major social impacts associated with shale gas drilling activities:



And here, on page 12, the last piece of discussion which leads to the paper’s concluding statements.


In an article on the release of the report, Fracking campaigners criticise ‘censored’ report on house prices, the Guardian noted that the heavily censored report was accompanied by a letter which said:

“There is a strong public interest in withholding the information because it is important that officials can consider implications of potential impacts and scenarios around the development of the shale gas industry and to develop options without the risk that disclosure of early thinking could close down discussion.”

Doublespeak? Unspeak?  In plain English, this seems to mean “We did not want to prejudice the discussions by giving you facts, so we have withheld some of the evidence which might help you make or reach an informed decision.”

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear (as they say)?


Not as I do, but…

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Cory Turner has posted a piece on nprED (How learning happens) : Turnitin And The Debate Over Anti-Plagiarism Software. It hasn’t exactly gone viral, but there are at least 60 tweets and blogs which link to it, all within two days.

It is a report on a radio broadcast (a news item fronted by Turner) which is linked to from this page; also linked is a transcript of the broadcast.

First off in the broadcast, Chris Harrick, a vice-president in Turnitin’s marketing division, is explains what Turnitin is and how it works. A number of educationists then speak, some for Turnitin and some against Turnitin.

It is made clear that Turnitin does not detect plagiarism, but that it does detect matches, similarities of text. One of the problems mentioned is that Turnitin often throws up false positives, matches which would not be considered plagiarism by anyone taking the trouble to compare the student’s work against the source which allegedly matches. (No mention is made of false negatives, whereby the software fails to match material which has been copied, but that’s my aside.)

One of Turner’s interviewees, Tom Dee, said that Turnitin can be used as a hammer or as a scalpel. Some teachers hammer students, punishing them for high percentages of matches. Others use the software as a scalpel, gently helping students understand where their writing is wrong so that they learn from their mistakes.

The point is made that many students come a cropper because they do not know how to use other people’s work; their plagiarism is unintended and accidental. Tom Dee, incidentally, is co-author of a study which showed a large drop in the rate of plagiarism when students were given instruction on how to integrate other people’s work into their own and how to acknowledge that they had done this; the control group were not given this help, and their plagiarism rates were much higher.  The paper states:

The results of an ex-post survey and quiz completed by participating students suggest that the treatment was effective in large part because it increased student awareness about what constitutes plagiarism and knowledge of effective writing strategies (Dee and Jacob 2010, 3).

Yes. Isn’t that called education?  Teaching, preferably before the test…?

What is really interesting about Turner’s post is the two pie-charts which accompany the article.

One of them shows “Sources of Internet Content: Secondary Students 2011-2012.” Most of the “Internet content” comes from Homework and Academic sites (33%) and from Social Networking and Content Sharing sites (28%). Content taken from Paper Mills and Cheat Sites accounts for 18% of Internet sources used. The graphic (see bottom left) is attributed to LA Johnson/NPR.

“Attributed to” is probably the wrong term. LA Johnson is almost certainly a designer for NPR, His name (or hers) appears under graphics on many of the articles posted on this site. But LA Johnson did not come up with the data which inform the chart. The data, the percentage rates, surely come from a Turnitin White Paper, The Sources in Student Writing – Secondary Education: Sources of Matched Content and Plagiarism in Student Writing (obtainable on application to Turnitin).

LA Johnson has changed the colours and turned the pie around, but the source is the Turnitin paper?  The NPR article, however? No source given.  (There is a word for this, isn’t there?  It’s on the tip of my tongue…)

Even more puzzling is the second graphic.

This purports to show “Turnitin’s Content Matches, 2013.” It seems that 6% of matches were from publications – whatever that means (if you, reader, know, please tell me); 32% of all matches came from “The Web” (is this different to the Internet? it is in my book); and 62% came from Student Papers.

Once again, LA Johnson/NPR gets the credit for the data, the statistics. I’m not sure how or where. I cannot find these data in any document or page on the Turnitin site (but again, if you, reader, know, please tell me).  Maybe they really did originate with LA Johnson?

If these data are accurate, and who am I to say they are not, then it would seem that 38% of Turnitin’s content matches come from published sources (32% web + 6% publications), and all the rest, 62% of all content matches in 2013, was copied from papers already submitted to Turnitin and stored in the company’s collection of papers submitted by or on behalf of students.

Again, just to be clear: 62% of content matches are copied from fellow students’ papers.

It would seem – if this graph and my interpretation are accurate – that there is a huge secret network responsible for supplying student work, students copying students, collusion on a grand scale. Wow!

Actually, I find that difficult to believe. But it must be true, I found it on the Internet.

I’d feel happier though, wouldn’t you, if LA Johnson shared the source of the data?

(I have written to ask. I’ll let you know.)


Dee, T.S. and Jacob, B.A. (2010). Rational ignorance in education: A field experiment in student plagiarism. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

Copycat plagiarism

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I think that history – or at least a politician’s web-site – is being rewritten even as I write. Oh dear.

The politician is an Australian senator, Glenn Lazarus. A page on the Courier-Mail website (21 August 2014) carries the headline Clive Palmer party senator Glenn Lazarus caught plagiarising Wikipedia.

Lazarus is, of course, not the first Australian politician to be caught out using Wikipedia as a source:  Greg Hunt uses Wikipedia research to dismiss links between climate change and bushfires, though in Mr Hunt’s case, there was no suggestion of plagiarism.

Just as an aside, still Greg Hunt, another news report stated

He said he had “looked up what Wikipedia” said on the subject and found it agreed with him. (Environment Minister Greg Hunt ‘looked up Wikipedia’ for climate change facts)  – perhaps a case of policy-driven evidence, as against evidence-driven policy.

Nor is Lazarus the first politician to be called out, not just for using Wikipedia, but for plagiarising from it, word for word (Senator Rand Paul Is Accused of Plagiarizing His Lines From Wikipedia).

You would think they’d learn, wouldn’t you?

(1) don’t use Wikipedia as your source and
(2) don’t plagiarise.

It is very possible that it was a staffer (or maybe a team of staffers) responsible for the page, not Lazarus himself, but

(3) that excuse doesn’t hold much water either, it’s not original:

Within the last 12 months, there’s been Tom Wolf (Wolf fires campaign staffer over plagiarism), Greg Ball, (Senator Ball Terminates Staffer Responsible for Orca Plagiarism), and not for the first time, Rand Paul: Rand Paul and Wikipedia: Plagiarism or lazy staff?

And maybe more.

Back to Australia: the Courier-Mail story includes an illustration of Lazarus’s page About Queensland, with passages identical to those in Wikipedia highlighted.

Lazarus’s site was easy enough to find, and so was the page in question, About Queensland.

And, just as the Courier-Mail story reports, Wikipedia is not mentioned, no sources are mentioned at all.

Also interesting, possibly suspicious, is that several of the tabs on this page seem not to work. The links have disappeared, nothing comes up when various of the tabs are clicked. Is the whole site coming down and being rewritten? Possibly. One page which did open for me was the page The Senate. It includes a diagram of the Australian Senate Chamber Seating Plan, for which a source is given, along with 4 paragraphs detailing the Senate and explaining where senators sit; no source is given for the text.

Curiously, Lazarus’s wording is almost identical to that on another senator’s web page on the Senate, that of Nick Xenophon, who sits as an Independent senator. Xenophon does state the source of his information. Interesting, not least because the text seems not to be a boilerplate entry on the websites of lots of other Australian senators. A Google search suggests that phrases and sentences on the sites of these two senators seem to be used just by these two – and by the Parliamentary Education Office, the source which is noted by Xenophon (but not by Lazarus).

When will they ever learn?

Update / Postscript

I started writing this a week ago, but did not post it. Another politician, even another Australian politician…. It just seemed all too trivial to post, all too commonplace

But the Courier-Mail posted an update to the Lazarus story on 25 August 2014, Clive Palmer party senator Glenn Lazarus addresses Wikipedia plagiarism.

This latest piece quotes Lazarus, and reports:

“We don’t have the big party Liberal and Labor do to organise things and set things up for us,” he said.
“I just thought that Wikipedia was a very good resource … if that’s a real crime, then I’m guilty.”
He said he believed it was a “non-issue” as he had credited the site …

It’s that “I couldn’t put it any better myself (so I just took it)” excuse, isn’t it?

But the suggestion that he “had credited the site” set me taking a second look…  Nope, no credit to Wikipedia, no acknowledgement, certainly not on the About Queensland page. Perhaps somewhere else, like, in his dreams?

But that first reported statement, “We don’t have the big party Liberal and Labor do to organise things and set things up for us.”  I may have done Senator Lazarus an injustice. If the party is that small, perhaps it wasn’t a staffer who is/was to blame. Perhaps it was Lazarus himself. I didn’t credit the right person with the plagiarism. My apologies, Senator.

And a second apology is needed. I don’t think the site is coming down at all. Sorry, I was unduly suspicious. The site remains as it was a week ago, with links which don’t go anywhere, links to the wrong page, missing links. This isn’t an attempt to rewrite the record, it’s just a poorly-designed website. Oh dear, I’ve just taken a look in Safari, banners but no text on the pages (except in Reader view). (Where there is still no mention of Wikipedia.) I think I’ll stick to Firefox. What a sorry mess.

So, a third apology, Senator. I got you wrong. Maybe you are blogworthy after all?

How much plagiarism? (revisited)

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The Bangalore Mirror today publishes a report:  Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V, but only up to 25%, VTU tells its PhD students, with the sub-heading

After installing new anti-plagiarism software to sniff out borrowed material, the technology varsity has realistically left some room for ‘permissible lifting’.”

It seems that students have been turning in their PhD theses with more than 50% “borrowed” material.

A VTU official said the new plagiarism software aims to inculcate in students respect for academic integrity and discipline, even as it identifies acts of dishonesty.

To restore credibility to the University’s degrees, and (as stated in the article) “to inculcate in students respect for academic integrity and discipline, even as it identifies acts of dishonesty,” the amount of allowable plagiarism is to be capped at 25%:

VTU has now fixed the acceptable level of plagiarism at 25 per cent. But this comes with a caveat — even a 0.5 per cent variation from the ‘permissible level’, will lead to rejection of the thesis.

Be warned, students.

Some may think that 25% is generous (or is “disingenuous’ the word I am looking for?), but the University Vice-Chancellor is reported as suggesting that this is in fact very strict:

(VTU vice-chancellor ) Maheshappa said, “It is a known fact that most new theses being submitted are coming up short on uniqueness. In fact, worldwide, universities are reconciled to accepting up to 30 per cent of similarity with published material. We, however, have taken a tough view by putting a cap of 25 per cent,” he said.

It’s a pity that Dr Maheshappa did not name his sources for this pronouncement. There may be a … misunderstanding somewhere?

There is a complicated procedure for submission and for resubmission of theses. In the first stage, students submit their theses to the software, and are are permitted to edit their work to get below 25%.  Once the student signs off on the work, theses are subject to two more checks, and decision made as to the work’s authenticity acceptability.

A little investigation at the university’s website soon found what is surely confirmation of the new procedures: a document with the heading “Objectives of Anti-Plagiarism” states on the very first page

Permitted Similarity index <= 25%

Can’t argue with that.

This document also suggests that the software being used is Turnitin; there is an illustration of a Turnitin originality report.

One wonders – or at least I wonder – what education and training students and faculty are being given in the use of the software and the reports.


Not so new news

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There’s an interesting article by Denny Carter in eCampus News, July 14, 2014.

Headed The top 10 ways college students plagiarize, it reports on a Turnitin study which reveals, that’s right, the top 10 ways college students plagiarize.



According to the article, Turnitin’s study was released “this month,” and there is a link to the Turnitin White Paper The Plagiarism Spectrum: Instructor Insights into the 10 Types of Plagiarism.

Carter also mentions (on page 2 of the article) “research conducted at Continue reading

’tis the season of the year…

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It seems that every year, there’s at least one high school principal who at best can’t be bothered to check that s/he is using the latest draft of the graduation speech, and at worst can’t be bothered to write an original speech and thinks nobody will notice if s/he recycles an old speech, even if somebody else’s.

Either way, such attitudes might be thought to show great contempt for the graduating class.  It might be your great day, they seem to say.  I’ve got other things to think about…

This year seems to have set new records.  There have been at least three Continue reading

Wrong to be forgotten?

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The ECJ ruling that individuals be allowed to request that search engines remove links to web pages which mention them, the so-called “right to be forgotten,” has come in for a lot of support and a lot of criticism. It raises a lot of questions as to whether the law is enforceable.

Some of the biggest criticisms raise notions of censorship and attempts to change history and the historical record. One of my biggest concerns is that the search engine company is judge and jury, and the “defendant” – the person or organisation behind the “offending” page – is not informed of the request unless and until the request to remove Continue reading

Aware – but of what?

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The online Times of India (30 June 2014) carries an item by Somdatta Basu, IIM cuts out copy-paste, which describes how the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C) seems successfully to be reducing the number of plagiarised papers submitted for assessment.

The Institute has been using Turnitin for more than a year. In the article, one IIM-C professor is quoted as saying:

“It has had the desired effect. If a professor finds that a work is not an original one, then there are penal provisions in accordance with the institute’s policy on plagiarism.”

“Penal” might not be Continue reading

Small drastic increase

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Cheating on the rise at Massey shouted the Manawatu Standard on 18 June 2014, in a story written by Lucy Townend and featured on

‘Support cheating students’ shouted the Manawatu Standard on 20 June 2014, in a story written by Lucy Townend and featured on  This story is much the same as her earlier piece, with the addition of an interview with the President of the Massey University Students’ Association.

Cheating students ‘need more support’ shouted The Dominion Post on 21 June 2014, in an unsigned story based on and possibly written by Lucy Townend, featured on  [If this is not Townend’s story, there may be problems here. It is basically an edited and shorter version of her second story, mostly using the exact-same words of that story.]

The story itself: despite those headlines, it is not all bad news. Continue reading

Not plagiarism – again

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In my last post, I wondered “how do you plagiarize on a standardized test?

The answer to that question depends on your definition of plagiarism. Or, in that particular case, on how the Louisiana Department of Education defines “plagiarism.” It seems that, to that august body, plagiarism includes taking unauthorised materials into an examination, or the teacher giving unauthorisded direction to the students. Not plagiarism as we know it (Jim).

Now I have another answer. In Oklahoma, one of the CTB/McGraw-Hill state-wide Grade 5 writing tests asks students to read a passage and respond to open-ended questions using evidence in the passage.

When the results were published, the children’s teachers were concerned on at least two counts. The first was Continue reading

Its ugly head

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Once again the specter of plagiarism is sighted, broadcast in shock-horror headlines:

Plagiarism on standardized tests three times higher in New Orleans schools than rest of Louisiana (The Lens, May 21, 2014).

As you read the story, you will find some good news, it’s not all bad. The number of tests voided for suspicious erasures fell between 2012 and 2013 across the State. In New Orleans, the number of tests voided for suspicious erasures was zero in 2013, according to The Lens’ report. Cause for celebration.

But the percentage of plagiarized standardized tests in New Orleans 2013 was three times higher than the rest of the State.  That is worrying.

It is worrying for two reasons. Continue reading

Growing problems

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(mis-) Use of statistical data is growing problem

The headline actually reads Plagiarism is growing problem, teachers believe.

And it’s the first line of the story which really grabs the attention:

NINE out of 10 teachers believe their pupils copy, a survey has found.

Isn’t that depressing, masses of suspicion? Nine teachers out of ten mistrust their students?

A few lines on, the claim is repeated, with a further alarming note:

More than 92% of teachers said they think their students plagiarise, and almost a third believe it is on the increase. Continue reading


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Last night I sat through two webcasts promoted as part of Plagiarism Education Week, promoted and hosted by Turnitin. One of the two webcasts was, I thought, spot-on, encouraging, helpful. The other was … disappointing.

In Tweets from the French Revolution? Using What Students Know to Promote Original Work and Critical Thinking, one of the speakers described a research study he had conducted.  For the first part of the study, 20 adult English learners were given an assignment : write an essay on a historical event or figure. After they had written their essays, the adults were asked two questions: (1) had they found the assignment difficult? and (2) had the assignment helped develop their critical thinking skills?

Most declared they had found the assignment easy, and most said that it had not required critical thinking.  Meanwhile, a check revealed that every single student had plagiarized. Let’s make that Continue reading

A Matter of Definition

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In my last post, I admitted to uncertainty with regard to Jane Goodall’s unattributed use of other people’s words and thoughts: is it fair to call this plagiarism, when the faulty passages were discovered and corrections made before the book was actually published?

The situation is more complicated in that Goodall’s poor note-making and attribution practices were uncovered by a reviewer for a national newspaper, not by Goodall, not by her co-author, not by her publishers. It is the fact of pre-publication that gives me pause. It doesn’t help, though it might, if we were told if the reviewer was reading a galley proof or a pre-publication copy, or if it was the final printed hardback that he was reading. The revelation was made 4 months before the expected publication date, so it may well have been a review/proof copy.

I am inclined to think that would make a difference.  I think of schools in which Continue reading

Thinking thoughts

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Today’s GuardianOnline includes a possibly misleading article.  Today is 1 April*, and the article is headed :


Jane Goodall blames ‘chaotic note taking’ for plagiarism controversy
Scientist revises her book Seeds of Hope after allegations 12 sections were lifted from other websites


My first thought was of the date, April Fools’ Day.

My second thought was, “Not again?” – for I recalled that Goodall had been involved in a plagiarism controversy last year.

My third thought was the date again…

It was not an April Fools’ joke. But Continue reading

By any other name…

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An interesting way of putting it : “extensive text overlap.”

The full Retraction reads,

This article [1] has been retracted by the author due to extensive text overlap with a previous publication by Roberts et al. [2]. The author apologises for any inconvenience caused.

The offending paper, now retracted, is “Infantile colic, facts and fiction” by Abdelmoneim E.M. Kheir. It was published in the Italian Journal of Pediatrics (IPJ) in 2012. There is a note on the page that this paper is “Highly accessed.”

The text overlap which has been identified is with Continue reading


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The general rules are clear: “if it’s not yours, you cite it” and “if you’re not sure whether or not to cite it, cite it.”

Most, but not all, documentation style guides include the rule, “if you cite it in the text, then you must reference it (usually at the end of the article, paper, chapter, book), and if you have a reference (at the end), then you need a citation in the text.” Put simply:

citation <> reference <> citation

There are exceptions to every rule, and documentation is no exception Continue reading

More misleading headlines

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It’s a good-news-bad-news situation. Taking the same government statement, the UK tabloids Daily Express and the Daily Mirror have two very different takes on the same story:

(Screengrabs taken from BBC News : The Papers, 3 February 2014)



The Daily Express story concentrates on government plans to raise the basic rate of pensions year on year over the next six years.  The Daily Mirror story features the current benefits and perks that pensioners enjoy which they will lose in order to pay for the promised increase in basic pensions.   Whether pensioners will be better off or not over time is not clear, and may depend on how long they live, on whether pensions continue to rise in line with inflation or the cost of living after the six years of guaranteed rises, and many other factors. On these bare stories alone, it pays to keep an open mind, and to seek further, dig deeper. Continue reading

Studies in Statistics 2

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(This post leads on from the last blog post, Studies in Statistics.)

Headlines can be so misleading.

Hundreds cheating on University of Wolverhampton courses, shouts the Express & Star. The subhead tells us more: Hundreds of students have been caught passing off other people’s work as their own.

It’s a shock-horror headline for sure.

The story, as so often, may be a little less dramatic than the headline suggests Continue reading

Studies in statistics

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Following last year’s publication of Turnitin Effectiveness: Plagiarism Prevention in U.S. High Schools, Turnitin has recently published a follow-up research study, Turnitin Effectiveness in U.S. Colleges and Universities.

Similar to the earlier study, the college and university study purports to demonstrate that, although schools and colleges which qualified for the study often experience an increase in the rate of “unoriginal content” in the first year of Turnitin use, most schools and colleges experience a decrease in the rate of unoriginal content in the second year of use, and, on average, all schools experience decreases in the third and subsequent years.

Unlike the earlier study, Turnitin does not use unfounded assumptions of increase in rates of use of unoriginal content in schools which do not use Turnitin in an attempt to demonstrate how effective use of Turnitin can be (see Imagine… (another flawed study)).

However, just as in the earlier study, Turnitin only considers papers Continue reading

Remember the coffee study?

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(Spoiler alert: I succumbed!)

You surely remember the coffee study? I posted it only last week, Memories are made of this…

Okay, the study was actually on the effects of caffeine on the memory; Michael Yassa and associates were looking at how a dose of caffeine taken after a learning experience affected memory (even if the volunteer participants were not aware that they would be tested the following day on what they had remembered seeing during the “learning” experience).

My post was not about Yassa’s study itself; it was about the number of differences in press reports of the study: reports disagreed as to the number of volunteers Continue reading