Guilty: how do you plead?

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WriteCheck has introduced a new feature, Ask WriteCheck, in which students are invited to ask questions about “plagiarism, citation, grammar/writing, and many other tricky situations that may occur at school.”

The very first question posed to Ask WriteCheck gets a very strange answer, one of those “yer-what” moments:

Hi WriteCheck,

I had homework in which I had to present to the class. When I presented my report to my instructor, he said I plagiarized because someone from the other class already presented the same report to him. I didn’t know about it. We coincidentally presented almost exactly the same report. Was that plagiarism?

Thank you, Dio

The four-paragraph response starts:

Sounds like a tough situation to be in. The short answer to your question is “yes”– unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.

What takes me aback is that, from the very first, there is an assumption of guilt: “unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.”

Now we don’t know the circumstances, we haven’t seen the two reports, we are told only that they are “almost exactly the same.” Yes, there is cause for investigating whether there has been collusion, copying from each other, or perhaps both students copying from the same source.  If this last is indeed the case, we are still not told whether either or both students used quotation marks and an acknowledgment of the source. We are not told if the other student was likewise accused of plagiarism by the teacher.

Without knowing the circumstances, we get straight condemnation: “unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.”

To be fair, the WriteCheck writer does give a number of possible ways in which plagiarism could have occurred, albeit unintentionally.  It is a very real possibility that both students used the same source, which often happens when students are asked simple questions requiring simple answers, rather than finding possible answers and having to think and use and transform what they find out to create something new and relevant or personal.

The WriteCheck writer also wonders if one student made it possible for the other to see his work:

Another thing to consider is whether you sent your homework to anyone or completed your assignment on a public computer. There is a chance that they may have copied and taken ideas from your paper with your consent or knowledge.

While sending one’s homework to someone else, or writing it on a public-access computer might be considered foolish and maybe even reprehensible, unless that someone else was the person who copied, unless the work was left open on a public-computer with the awareness that someone else could come and copy it, then I would question whether that equates with allowing someone else to copy “with your consent and knowledge.”

If you do want to condemn without knowing the facts, then a further possibility not considered by the WriteCheck writer, and more in keeping with the facts as presented by Dio (if you want to assume that he has told us the truth but not necessarily the whole truth),  is that both students might have bought what they believed were totally original guaranteed-plagiarism-free custom-written work from the same unethical paper mill (or from seemingly different paper-mills which are in fact one and the same).

But it is the assumption of guilt that really bothers me. The two reports match, therefore (says WriteCheck) plagiarism has occurred, “unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.”

It is the same mind-set which equates all (so-called) “unoriginal content” with “plagiarism.” In 2010, Turnitin published a White Paper Plagiarism and the Web: a comparison of Internet Sources for Secondary and Higher Education Students. This report looked at the sources of matched content as found in 33 million papers submitted to Turnitin in the course of one year.  The analysis showed (among other “findings”) that social networking and content sharing sites were apparently the most “popular” sites on which matches were found, and that Wikipedia was the most popular single site.  Therefore, in a leap of illogic, plagiarism, and thus Plagiarism and the Web.

The 2010 report failed to point out that Turnitin does not detect plagiarism, despite the title of the paper. The report failed to suggest that, even if Turnitin found matching content on the sites as listed, this might not have been where the student actually found the material. We do not know (and nor does Turnitin) if the social site or the Wikipedia entry credited the original source –  and it does not matter if this is not where the student found the material, as long as it was quoted and cited.  And while a quote from a blog or from FaceBook may not be information taken from the most authoritative of sources, if it is properly atributed and with quotation marks, then it is not plagiarism.

Except in Turnitin’s eyes: “unoriginal content” is “plagiarism,” basta!

In an earlier post How Much Plagiarism?, my take on a similar study conducted by Turnitin a year later, I noted that they now included a note to confirm this:

Turnitin determines if text in a paper matches text in any of the Turnitin databases. The service does not detect nor determine plagiarism – it detects patterns of matching text to help instructors determine if plagiarism has occurred” (Plagiarism and the Web: Myths and Realities: an Analytical Study of Where Students Find Unoriginal Content on the Internet,  2011, p. 5).”

But the notion apparently remains, if it’s not a student’s original words and work, then it’s plagiarism, never mind the conventions regarding use of other people’s work in the academic context.

Even the term “unoriginal content” carries unwelcome connotations. “Unoriginal content” was surely original once?  It strikes me as insulting the original author/s to use the term “unoriginal.”  And if a later writer uses an original author’s original words or ideas, and makes the right signals and attributions, then the original author’s original content still remains original.

So, to go back to Dio’s original question: yes, it is a tough situation to be in. Plagiarism is plagiarism, and that is what is suspected here. There are grounds for further investigation, but we don’t have enough information to determine if plagiarism has occurred, and if it has, who plagiarised what, or from whom…

One thought on “Guilty: how do you plead?

  1. Pingback: Self-serving survey? | Honesty, honestly…

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