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 students are invited to submit their work to text-matching software and to edit their work as they feel necessary when the reports come back. Software is available to enable professional researchers, writers and publishers to do the same. I think of academic publishing: one of the reasons suggested for using  iThenticate services is to “Ensure due diligence and prevent academic misconduct before it occurs,” runs (my bolding).

It already has occurred, methinks. What is suggested is to double-check before submission, before publication.

In which case, is it misconduct?

Is it plagiarism or is it “due diligence” if attribution mistakes are caught and corrected before publication? That’s the issue here, the dilemma. I’m just not sure that Goodall should be condemned, not in these circumstances.

I’m not sure about this one either, the piece that got me rethinking the Goodall post.  It is an opinion piece in Medicine Hat News, 6 April 2014. The headline is Just how ‘deeply concerned’ are MPs when they’re distributing a scripted message?

I have to admit that Medicine Hat News is not the first online newspaper I turn to when I switch on in the morning. In fact, I have to confess that I would never have come across it if my plagiarism news alert had not brought it to my attention.  It was the first paragraph of the op-ed which had caught the eye of the news alert bot, that’s what brought it to my attention:

Plagiarism can be defined simply as a person attributing a written work as their own despite it being composed by another individual.

Two things struck me as I read the article. Let’s deal with the easy one first, before looking at the more difficult section, the quandary.

The opening paragraphs repeat a fairly common misconception:

While the Internet has given access to multiple sources of information to students at the grade school and post secondary level, it has also made it easier for educators to uncover when they cross a line into plagiarism.

All an educator has to do is type in a sentence into a search engine and see if it comes up with a match.

It is an extremely effective way to expose plagiarism.

These are suggestions often made.  (I’ve listed some examples at the end of this post – I don’t want to interrupt the flow!)  Often made, they may be. But they are wrong. Let’s look at each sentence/paragraph in turn.

To be accurate, the first of these sentences needs, at the least, a qualifier:

While the Internet has given access to multiple sources of information to students at the grade school and post secondary level, it has also made it relatively easy for educators to uncover when they cross a line into plagiarism.

A nice, weasely word, “relatively.” It’s anywhere between slightly and not quite totally, you choose. (If your experience is similar to mine and perhaps depending on the age of the children you teach, you will probably choose somewhere towards the slightly end of the spectrum.)

The second sentence could do with a qualifier too.  How about “sometimes”?

Sometimes, all an educator has to do is type in a sentence into a search engine and see if it comes up with a match.

Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Yep! Can’t argue with that.

And the third sentence?

It is an extremely effective way to expose plagiarism.

Let’s try some reductionism this time:

It is an extremely effective way to expose plagiarism.

As already suggested, sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it works, yes, it might be considered effective, although we still need human input to make the judgement: are there quotation marks, is there attribution, is it coincidence, is it common knowledge, is it simply juxtaposition of terms and phrases commonly used in the subject?

But “effective”?  Surely not.

Template plagiarism : the quandary

The Medicine Hat writer goes on to question the level of concern of a number of Canadian MPs who have sent virtually the same letter to various newspapers. There are some differences between the letters (for example, the names of constituencies are included in some of the letters and not in others) but the letters are, substantially, the same.

Each letter begins:

I write to you today as I am deeply concerned by the issue of misinformation that has been presented to our Veterans surrounding the closure of Veterans Affairs offices in various locations in Canada.

Guy Lauzon MP sent it to The Morrisburg News.

Rick Dyckstra MP posted the letter on his own website.

Laurence Toet MP also posted the letter on his own website.

Rick Norlock MP sent it to Northumberland View.

Two broadcasting channel websites (The Beach and Bayshore Newscasting Corporation) report on and reproduce Larry Miller MP’s letter.

Is there plagiarism here?

Each MP has signed his letter as if it is unique. It looks more like a campaign. Someone in a lobbying group, or perhaps party office, has given MPs the letter template and asked them to amend as they wish and send it to their local newspapers.  Does that make it plagiarism?

It is a common tactic. Pressure groups and local campaigns often provide or publish templates for concerned citizens. Here are just a few:

Help Save the Future of Creativity in our Schools

Save Doncaster Libraries

Disabled People Against Cuts

Science is Vital

Template letter to MPs re Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, 10 February 2012

There are many, many, many more. A Google search for [“write to your mp” template] produces nearly 50,000 hits.

Whether the use of such letters is effective, that is moot.

Is it plagiarism?  Technically, yes, if you put your name to a piece that has been written by someone else.

Is it to be deplored? That is another matter.

Possibly the only certain suggestion is that plagiarism, it might be. Academic plagiarism it isn’t.

Examples as promised, just a few!

Vigilante Justice on Plagiarism : Scott Jaschik

Young said that the plagiarism in his course was easy to detect. He said that the essays he found to be copied didn’t read like student writing and seemed to be an odd combination of sources. He said he just put some of the essays into Google to find the sources, on Wikipedia, in the archives of term paper companies, and so forth.

Newcastle poet in plagiarism scandal : Susan Wyndham

His daring deception is the tip of a worldwide epidemic of poetic plagiarism, partly driven by the increasing use of “sampling” in the arts, and by the ease of cutting and pasting poems on the internet, which also makes plagiarism easy to detect.

Technology Will Keep B-School Applicants Honest : Carrie Marcinkevage

Technology makes plagiarism easy. The modern environment of online access and community has diminished ownership of ideas and information. This global network has also expanded our world views: Students may view the concept of intellectual property as very Western and far removed from cultures that perceive knowledge as a collective resource for social evolution. With those influences, it’s easy to rationalize the quick online search for “personal statement” and the two keystrokes that create most modern plagiarism: Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V.

The same technology that makes plagiarism easy to commit makes it easy to detect. In the past we relied on recollection and incongruities to recognize plagiarism. Today we simply search for a familiar-sounding phrase. We submit essays to software that scours thousands of sources for matching content. This puts the commission and detection of plagiarism on a level playing field.

 Finding Information On-line : CORC 1312, Lab #5

The same technology that makes it easy to plagiarize also makes it easy to detect. Entering a phrase into Google can bring up the original source.

21st Century Information Fluency : Lora K. Kaisler & Dennis O’Connor

Easy to do? Easy to Detect!

The Internet makes it easy to steal. Just copy and paste and you’re done right? Unfortunately some students take this attitude. The Internet also makes it easy to detect plagiarism. Try copying a suspicious phrase into a search engine.


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