This Is What Plagiarism Looks Like

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

Related Post Roulette

124 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    Doesn’t seem harsh at all. Misattributed sources is one thing. This is cheating, plain and simple.Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    This does not make it any less painful to award a failing grade, and report the student for plagiarism. What an administrative headache! Separate and apart from the inherent distaste of encountering it in the first place: a bit like having found that you have stepped on a dog turd.Report

  3. Tod Kelly says:

    I may have already told this here before, but my sister has failed a few kids for plagiarizing work and in each case the family of the guy (it’s always been guys) have sued the university.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Were they laughed out of court? I mean, (1) every student sees the honor code; (2) every professor knows to point out the honor code and the consequences of violating it in every class they teach; (3) plagiarism is a clear violation. Seriously, any case of real and obvious plagiarism sounds like a reason to have a meeting with an academic adviser, chair of the dept, someone, and have the conversation that starts, “Let’s discuss whether you’re bright enough to be in college…”Report

      • Shazbot3 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        If it is an adjunct lecturer, it is easier to not rehire them.

        When you are an adjunct, you know this, so you don’t make waves and never do anything that could get the school sued.

        This is one reason plagiarism is rampant. The adjuncts -who teach most of the classes- are afraid to crack down on cheaters because the university values its customer-students more than its expendable employees.Report

  4. Ben Domenech says:

    Plagiarism is rampant in American higher education, so many professors have their students upload their papers through an automatic plagiarism checker. And a good thing, too.Report

  5. zic says:

    I’m glad you failed the student; plagiarism sort galls.

    I’ve had my work plagiarized, it’s incredibly common in highly-local reporting; and it doesn’t make sense to me, since it’s a format where it’s incredibly easy to source the first reporting.Report

  6. Stillwater says:

    Back when I was a’teachin, one student who consistently demonstrated a lack of conceptual understanding and familiarity with the subject matter submitted a paper which was clearly written at the graduate/post graduate level. I mean, it was a paper I, as the instructor, would have been proud to write. So I knew it was plagiarized. (My suspicion was that she paid someone to write it rather than just trolled the internet for something close enough.) Back then we didn’t have any way to check on-line for plagiarism, so my recourse was to call her into the office and question her about the reasoning she employed when writing the damn thing. I never accused her of cheating but asked – rhetorically, as it were – that I had a hard time believing she wrote a paper which very clearly revealed an advanced familiarity of the topic, extending even beyond my own. After about 20 seconds it became painfully obvious that she knew I knew she cheated. I mentioned the honor code and the severity of the penalties imposed for cheating and stressed to her that all her future work should conform to that code and so on. Her subsequent work reverted to what I’d come to expect of her.

    I basically discounted the grade on the paper when determining her final grade but didn’t fail her for plagiarism/cheating (her final grade was based on her other work), and the primary reason was that the department higher-ups said that without concrete evidence that cheating had occurred the inevitable law suit would end up making the university look bad. I agreed. But with advanced tools open to profs nowadays, perhaps I would have gone a different route. Plagiarism, if demonstrated, can lead to expulsion from the school, and I’m not sure I’d’ve been OK with that outcome. It’s a tough call.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Stillwater says:

      the department higher-ups said that without concrete evidence that cheating had occurred the inevitable law suit would end up making the university look bad.

      Yeah, uh, no.

      You know that old (stupid) saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity?” At the university, the converse is regarded as truth, and it’s just as stupid.Report

      • Shazbot3 in reply to Patrick says:

        I was once told to pass a student because she would just cause problems with complaints.

        Not even worried about a law suit. Just complaints.

        No foolin.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

        I believe that.

        That’s the sort of conversation that I would have on tape.Report

      • zic in reply to Patrick says:

        That’s the sort of conversation that I would have on tape.

        That’s also something to be cautious of doing, for it’s regulated at the state level. In some states, it’s illegal unless you inform the other party that you’re taping. In others, it’s perfectly legal, as long as one person is aware that the conversation is being taped. All that stuff on TV plot-twisting on secretly-recorded conversations can, without a search warrant, land you in trouble, depending on where you are.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Patrick says:


        It’s a strange dynamic, isn’t it? I pin it on the power of parents. They can screw up just about any school at any level.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Patrick says:


        Yes, California’s laws on that score are… interesting.

        Personally, I think the idea that a conversation between your and your employer couldn’t be recorded by either party is utterly ludicrous, but your observation is valid.

        @stillwater and @shazbot3

        This is one of those things with which I really don’t have any sympathy. I know, it sucks to be adjunct faculty for this reason. That is unfortunately no excuse to not do your duty as an educator.

        Somebody cheats in my class, it’s an issue. They do it again, it’s going to be a serious, serious problem. If the administration doesn’t back me up, that’s going to be an even more serious problem. If they actually undercut or attempt to undercut me, I’m burning somebody down.

        There are a few battles where I’m not going to compromise, and that’s one of them. An administrator who was so utterly lacking in academic integrity as to suggest you pass a student just to prevent them from making waves does not belong in academia.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Stillwater says:

      I once got called into a prof’s office because my in-class essays were so much worse than the essays I worked on at home. Basically I can’t think out and then write out a decent essay from start to finish – it ends up totally fragmented and disjointed; at home my approach was to write a bunh of body paragraphs on separate sheets of paper, arrange and rearrange the pages on the floor exploring the points they built to in different orders, settle on a structure and discard whichever body sections didn’t belong, then figure out what my thesis was, write the introduction and conclusion, and edit the body parapgraphs so they’d fit in their new structure.

      I don’t know if the prof fully believed me, but at least he didn’t report me for plagiarism, and let me keep the good grades on my at-home work and poor grades on my in-class work.Report

  7. Tod Kelly says:

    While we’re on the subject of plagiarism, it seems worth it to mention this somewhat recent This American Life episode from last September, titled How I Got Into College.

    Most of the show is Michael Lewis’s amazing story of how a poor and immigrant young man’s plagiarism led to his becoming one of the top behavioral economists in the country.

    It is also, ultimately, a rather poignant story about the power of stories.

    I highly, highly recommend this to everyone.Report

    • Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I know several — several — non-native English speakers who’ve had their admission essays written entirely or nearly entirely by native speakers for money. I’ve even seen it done with journal publications. I never know exactly how to feel about it.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Chris says:

        I have a student who’s Russian. She’d like to go back to Russia for graduate school, to demonstrate she’s not too Americanized, so she can–she hopes–become important and influential in Russia (and I wouldn’t bet heavily against her). But she’s aware that it’s common knowledge that most, or at least a great many, dissertations in Eastern Europe in general are written by someone paid by the PhD candidate, so she’s afraid if she does she’ll foreclose any future opportunities in the U.S.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        She should compromise and go to grad school in France. Definitely not American, but not Eastern European. Plus the food is better than in either place.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Chris says:

        Oh, yeah, that reminds me that I actually suggested she look at Germany.Report

      • Kim in reply to Chris says:

        I don’t mind if someone’s done the research, they ought to get the first author position. That said, the translator also deserves a byline.

        And, given that, it’s a good idea to look at cross-cultural research and explore the same paradigm in different countries, I rather think that translation ought to be encouraged.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Kim, in most cases, the people who do the writing are heavily involved in the research, and I tend to think that the person who does the most writing should get first authorship (assuming that we’re talking journals that don’t just do it alphabetically, as some do). If the person who does the bulk of the writing isn’t involved in the research, this is a different situation. In all of the cases I know of involving wholly or largely ghost-written journal pubs, the actual writer wasn’t even credited (not even in the acknowledgements).Report

    • Maribou in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Thank you for the recommendation.Report

  8. ben says:

    I have had a number of students engage in varying degrees of plagiarism, and yeah…it’s a real problem (especially paper banks)…but am i correct in interpreting this post as a 100% match on a 2 word phrase? Hence, the joke?Report

  9. Mike Schilling says:

    That is a pretty high-quality matching algorithm. I wonder if it was copied from a CS1 textbook.Report

  10. Saul DeGraw says:

    My comments seems to have been eaten.

    1. How much of the statement was plagarized?

    2. Do you think there is an upsurge in plagarism from when you were in school? What do you think are the causes?

    3. Have you ever caught someone who hired someone else to research and write their paper?

    I’ve read about all sorts of essay writing services, often staffed by disgruntled and disillusioned PhDs. There was a guy who had a blog or series of articles a few years ago about his experiences as an academic-for-hire. He said his clients ranged from rich frat kids to people whose English was not great because they were students from abroad.Report

    • Chris in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

      Saul, the picture tells you how much was plagiarized.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

      2. No idea, really, despite the temptation to romanticize my generation and rant about kidstoday.

      3. Not exactly. I did catch a guy who had his girlfriend write a paper for him. I caught it because I caught her plagiarism, and when I confronted him he admitted he’d had her write it. I assume it’s happened, but if a student pay someone who does a good job it’d be impossible to catch unless someone informed on him/her.Report

      • Concerning #2, I’m sympathetic to the view that plagiarism is much easier today than, say, 20 years ago when I was an undergrad. It’s not that my generation was more virtuous. It’s that it was harder to plagiarize. I know people have challenged this argument, but they seem unconvincing. But then, I don’t have any hard data, either.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        That it’s easier today, rather than that students today are less virtuous, seems quite true to me. On the other hand, it’s so much easier to catch today. Students lazy enough to plagiarize aren’t going to plagiarize from books in the library, but are going to plagiarize from the internet. And as I tell them, it’s actually easier for me to find what they got than it was for them, because they give me search terms to use in Google. (Nonetheless, I’ve shown students complete complex sentences in their paper that are identical to what’s online, and they’ve still insisted it’s all purely coincidental…which is not what you say to a guy who thinks in probabilistic terms.)

        As to the virtue of kids today. I often hear criticisms of this generation. Overall, being in near daily contact with them, I find them to be pretty damn good people.Report

      • Patrick in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        As to the virtue of kids today. I often hear criticisms of this generation. Overall, being in near daily contact with them, I find them to be pretty damn good people.

        Eh, good people, bad people… they’re young people.

        University-level cheating isn’t about being good or bad. It’s about learning not to do it in the future.Report

      • Shazbot3 in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        In general I see cheating as a problem with the curriculum. Not always, but in general.Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        they do have software to recognize someone’s fist, though you’d need a decent sampling of your student’s real work before you could pretty conclusively say “this isn’t you.”Report

  11. First, I recognize the joke. Many of the most severe false positives are actually some glitch, or sometimes a student uploads his or her paper twice by accident, and so there’s a 100% match (at least on the software I was familiar with.)

    Second, I’ve TA’d for courses in which the instructor used some sort of turn-it-in software, and I have mixed feelings about it. It seems to work as a self-check function, to an extent that’s probably hard to measure. Some students might not plagiarize because they feel intimidated by the turn-it-in software, and they might turn in something original. But I think it *probably* works in some cases. (Also and as an aside, I personally find it easier to grade papers online, with a “track changes” feature. My handwritten comments on papers are almost illegible, while my typewritten/word-processed comments can be read. And I have more opportunity to edit. So I like the idea of electronic submissions for that reason.)

    That said, I have a problem the implication that an instructor’s goal is to assume the students are guilty and then have to demonstrate their innocence. I realize that catching plagiarizers is a good thing because it helps the honest students, but there’s something off about the default suspicion. There’s also the probability that students can find a way around it if they are resourceful enough. For example by hiring someone else to write it. But to answer @saul-degraw ‘s question above, I’ve never personally encountered such a situation, at least not such that I knew it happened (who knows what slid by without me knowing it?).

    Third, plagiarism is in my opinion a very difficult thing to deal with. I can see failing and referring to an university’s honesty board the student who downloads an entire paper or who hires someone. But what about the person who lifts a couple sentences from wikipedia? What about the student who uses several sentences from the assigned textbook without citing it? Those are both wrong and deserve sanction, but I’m not sure how much.

    Many of my colleagues confide that they see those cases as teachable moments and are more lenient (although I have known one TA who really went after a student who had lifted a few sentences from the textbook). But that seems unfair in another respect, because the stated plagiarism policies, either on the syllabus or on the university’s academic honesty statement, usually are much more categorical. So why preach punishment and brimstone if you don’t intend to follow it through? But why exact the ultimate academic punishment for something so (relatively) minor? Also, instructors I’ve known have said that they’re harsher on senior or junior level students because they ought to know better or because they supposedly “have been getting away with it all along.” If it’s wrong, isn’t it wrong regardless? And also again, some instructors say they show lenience if a student demonstrates “remorse.” So they can judge the sincerity of the student? What about the student who knows he or she did wrong and admits it but is too ethical or stoical or clueless to play the “remorse” card? Does that student fail?

    When I taught, I struggled with these questions. And because the problem in my experience was so rampant, that’s one of the reasons I really disliked teaching. I had a hard time finding a fair way to resolve these issues that didn’t somehow make me feel like I was doing the wrong thing.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

      If the plagiarism is minor, and plausibly accidental, I will point it out to them, and I may reduce the grade or request a rewrite. But the problem I have with claims of “it was an accident,” or “I didn’t know,” are that a student can repeatedly plagiarize, just out of laziness, and repeat that each time. The problem occurs primarily in my American Government class, because it’s a gen-ed/distributional course. So I created an on-line plagiarism/citation quiz, and I don’t allow students to submit their papers until they’ve scored a 5 out of 6 on it. The excuse becomes unviable then.

      I think that’s extremely important, because when I’m dealing with frosh, I truly don’t know if anyone else has ever bothered to teach them.

      If the plagiarism is substantial, I will generally give them a 0 on the assignment and report the incident, so if they do it, or have done it, in another class, there is a record of repeated incidents.

      But my syllabus says I may impose an F for the class. This semester I intend to do that for the first time, because the software caught a paper that was an exact copy–100% identical–of a paper that was turned into my class two years ago. And the first student’s name will be part of my report.

      In the long run, plagiarism can destroy their careers and reputations. I think it’s better they get a swift kick in the ass now, rather than have soft treatment inadvertently teach them it’s something they’ll always be able to wriggle out of.

      Some faculty take it as a personal affront. It’s tempting, but it’s a temptation best avoided. I try to see it in purely rational choice terms. If the student doesn’t really care much about the subject of my class, and is only attempting to get through it because it fulfills a necessary requirement, of course they’re going to attempt to do so at minimal cost to themselves. My job is to increase the disutility of cheating, and incentivize them to play the game honestly.Report

      • First, the idea of a plagiarism quiz that a student has to take and submit with each paper seems like a very good idea. If I ever teach again, I’ll steal that idea and claim all the credit for it.

        Second, I used to take it personally. I shouldn’t have, but I used to. It wasn’t just “how could they be dishonest!” but also “how dare they put me in this difficult position!”

        Third, I mostly agree with this:

        In the long run, plagiarism can destroy their careers and reputations. I think it’s better they get a swift kick in the ass now, rather than have soft treatment inadvertently teach them it’s something they’ll always be able to wriggle out of.

        Where I hesitate to agree 100% is less on this particular issue than the analogy I sometimes see made to, say, policies on absences and tardiness on papers. People sometimes advance, and with reason, the argument that “they’ll need to learn to turn in their work on time in the real world” or “they’ll be fired if they try that in the working world.” All true, but I just don’t think most students don’t really know that. I think they are just engaging in the risk assessment, based on some notion that, say, poli sci 100 is “different.” (Which you also pointed to in your comment.)

        I think if we–and I’m thinking of some people I know and not you necessarily–see plagiarism as “a crime,” then we ought to base punishments on a standard of what they did, not how they’ll be reformed or learn from it. I should say, though, that I resist the notion of plagiarism as crime precisely because that notion aises questions about punishment and due process that maybe cannot and should not be invoked with plagiarism.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        eople sometimes advance, and with reason, the argument that “they’ll need to learn to turn in their work on time in the real world” or “they’ll be fired if they try that in the working world.”

        I have a hard time with that, because it’s not necessarily true. And I look at my colleagues with a jaundiced eye when they say it because I know damn well how often we get away with not being timely. Just a couple weeks ago my department chair asked to extend the deadline for our program review from sometime-right-about-now to next fall, and it was granted as we darn well knew it would be. As the chair of a collegium (set of departments), I’m regularly frustrated that I’ll make a call for agenda items, set a deadline, send out a reminder call, then get someone come into the meeting and have an issue they want to raise that they never told me about. And I let them do it, because I’m not their boss and because I’d only make enemies if I didn’t. So, yep, we can often get away with blowing off deadlines, so where do we get off telling students the deadlines are absolute? (Now I do have a colleague who never blows off deadlines, and he’s firm with students–I’d say he’s earned the right to be.)

        I resist the notion of plagiarism as crime precisely because that notion aises questions about punishment and due process that maybe cannot and should not be invoked with plagiarism.

        I think due process should be a part of the process. In fact I have written a proposal for a revised academic integrity policy, part of which would be a revamped judicial process that would be more certain in its punitive measures, but would also provide more due process for the students. God knows if it will ever get passed, though. I’ve spent two years on a committee to review my proposal, and this past week we finally wrapped up our revisions of the definitions of academic integrity, and forwarded that to an academic policy committee to review. At this point we’re all a bit tired of working on it.Report

      • zic in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Quoting a pertinent text, with attribution, is legitimate. How are you handling that in your 5 out of 6 grading?Report

      • zic in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Scratch that, I think I get it — they’re taking a quiz on plagiarism, the 5 out of 6 grade isn’t from the software.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        Correct. The quiz gives them a quote, then examples of proper and improper uses of it, which they must accurately identify. It has 20 question, each worth 3/10s of a point, so they have to get 17 correct. It’s a high standard, but it ensures they can’t claim ignorance, and they can retake it as many times as they need to get the required score. It’s set up in the course management software, so they can take and retake it at their convenience. Plus it counts toward the course grade, so unless they just quit on it and decide they’re also not going to turn in a paper, it ensures that they get close to full credit on at least one thing in the class.Report

      • @jm3z-aitch

        I agree that timeliness, etc., are not necessarily deal breakers in “real world” jobs. That–along with the fact that many students already have jobs and are often late on assignments because they prioritize their jobs first and don’t shirk them–is another one of my problems with “they’ll need to know this when they’re working.” Even in at-will positions, I’ve seen people hold on to jobs quite a long time even with repeated absences, lateness, and out and out being a bad worker.

        I don’t really know why I wrote that students “maybe” shouldn’t have due process, because I think they should. I think part of what I was getting at was the “plagiarism = crime” advocates tend to deny due process to these “criminals.”

        I guess what process is due can be controversial. For example, I personally believe that an option discussed above by someone else, where a student is questioned on his or her reasoning before being told they are suspected of plagiarism is wrong. I think a student should be told upfront that the prof suspects them of plagiarism so the student knows why he/she is being asked questions. I imagine many (most?) instructors would disagree with me that that’s not right.Report

      • Shazbot3 in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        At the school I taught at, it was not allowable to give them an “F” for the whole course, only a zero for that assignment. And they very much knew it.Report

  12. Maribou says:

    James, first of all, as a student who has had to deal with submitting things to plagiarism software, THANK you for sharing this. I laughed so hard.

    Second, since everyone else is sharing their actual opinions, I thought I would chime in with mind.

    My problem with these types of software isn’t so much the “guilty until proven innocent” – though since most students don’t plagiarize it does irk me when rules are set up to assume that we don’t just because we can’t get away with it, and add to our anxieties along the way as an incidental harm that doesn’t matter. For me what really is upsetting is the copyright / license terms that make something like TurnItIn work. You HAVE to assign perpetual license to your own work to use the software as a student turning something in. SO basically the school has decided that it’s more important for me to give some creepers with a profitable business model *perpetual use of my copyrighted material* so they can make more money, than for me to maintain the autonomy of deciding who can use my work for what purposes. As much as people who rampantly plagiarize through a sense of entitlement drive me up a wall (many of my friends are profs who have to deal with them!), given a choice other than “drop out of this class,” I would NOT choose to agree to their license. (Particularly since they don’t extend me the same courtesy – their entire side of the license is all about what I cannot do – eg reverse engineer – with my experience of their software. Why should they profit from my labor, but I can’t profit from theirs? BULLHOCKEY.)

    Now, in my case, I usually release my papers online creative-commons-by at some point (not there yet with most of my stuff, but I’ll get around to it after school’s over), and if they want to take advantage of that, good for them. But my school shouldn’t make helping out TurnItIn a mandatory condition of taking classes there – ESPECIALLY a library school should be ashamed of that kind of not-even-an-opt-out requirement. Let TurnItIn convince students they WANT to keep their stuff in their databases, or let them pay them – but right now they’re monetizing students’ anxiety and professors’ frustration, and profiting from a bullshit clickwrap license. (I should note that I actually only had to do this as a group mandate for one class. But the school as a whole strongly encourages mandated use of such software at all levels.)

    What strikes me as particularly bad is that there are public high schools which use this software. Those students aren’t in those classes because they *chose* them in the first place. So their work is particularly vulnerable to this profit-driven capture.

    PS It wouldn’t bother me nearly so much if copyright laws were different than they are. But, yet again, an example of how the existing assumptions around “intellectual property” benefit profit-driven capture organizations, NOT individual creators.Report

    • zic in reply to Maribou says:

      +1 Maribou.

      Profit-driven capture (nice term for it, too) is a part of the whole internet privacy thing that doesn’t get much attention. There’s some frightening language in most cloud services. Clicking the ‘agree’ button does not bode well for any IP rights.Report

      • Maribou in reply to zic says:

        Yeah. But those don’t actually bother me nearly as much, because last time I checked, no one was MAKING me use them, and there are clear benefits to them that I’m electing to prioritize over the rights I know I am giving up. (Systematically, they bother me. But that’s a different thing.)

        Even schools requiring me to grant THEM perpetual use rights to my work – which most classes do – doesn’t really bother me, because they are so constrained by FERPA, and because profs invest so much in the intellectual work of their students; although I do think that only re-using student work within the bounds of fair use or when you’ve gotten permission to use is a more sensible path that doesn’t actually cost enough more to be burdensome.

        I just don’t think “getting a college degree” should be contingent on license agreements.

        Plus as I said, those high school kids aren’t freely electing anything. They’re stuck in school until they graduate, and stuck agreeing to the turnitin license if they want to graduate.

        Basically this particular part of this particular issue is the perfect tangle of several of my buttons around both education and copyright.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

        Since I have been fortunate enough with my timing in and out of higher ed to avoid experiencing any of this software, I have a question. What restrictions are there on file formats that can be submitted this way? Is there an implicit Microsoft tax in there somewhere?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to zic says:


        I’ve had students upload .pages docs (which is a pain for me) and .rtf docs. It’s probably geared more toward Microsoft docs–certainly I occasionally get something where the formatting gets a bit wonky–but students don’t have to use MSWord.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

        I was thinking in terms of a requirement to upload software through a plagiarism checker. I would expect such sites to have significant restrictions on what file formats would be allowed. The last time I was a student, I typically uploaded papers in PDF. Pretty much everything handles PDF, even if I’ve gone to the effort of making the file essentially unusable without a PDF renderer. For example, it’s easy enough to put together a file that puts all the a’s on the page in the correct location, then all the b’s, etc. That looks fine on the screen, and it’s going to print fine, but it’s going to be hard on an input system that’s looking for text that it can compare to a database.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to zic says:

        So I was sitting here thinking, I wouldn’t swear to it but I could swear I’ve had a student submit a pdf. So, like my students doing research, I turned to Google. Sure enough, SafeAssign handles pdfs, Word docs, rtfs, and html. It also handles plain text and ODT files, and supported file types can be zipped.

        Apparently not .pages, though. I’m probably remembering something that was uploaded to an assignment dropbox that was not SafeAssign.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to zic says:

        No odt files? Corporate fascist pigs.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to zic says:

        More seriously, there is actually a good chance that the system wouldn’t actually be able to read the sort of PDF that Cain is talking about (with no embedded text). It could have a convert-to-text option, but I wouldn’t expect it to. Especially with that relatively limited selection of accepted file-types.

        (Fun fact, I once had a job that involved taking no-embedded-text PDF files and converting them into text files.)Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

        Hmmm… Sounds like a challenge to me. If I were one of your students, I might be willing to make a modest wager that at least once during the semester I could submit a PDF file that rendered reasonably on the screen and contained obvious plagiarism, but SafeAssign couldn’t parse and recognize. At a minimum, I’m confident that I could force them into having to render a bitmap image of each page and apply OCR to extract meaningful information.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to zic says:

        @will-truman–It does accept odt. I suspect those are the ones where the formatting gets wonky, though.

        @michael-cain–Perhaps so, but students who are that clever about cheating really are the least of my worries.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

        Wonder what the legality is of a service that accepts papers in various formats and, for a fee, returns a PDF that SafeAssign can’t check? It would also make things somewhat more difficult for a university asserting copyright ownership if the papers turned in were in a format that requires rendering and OCR. Some of the easier obfuscation techniques are based on embedded fonts, a feature that Word already supports. All of this is just speculation, of course. Add the word “non-obfuscated” to the requirement for turning in papers and you defeat any such efforts.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to zic says:

        Damn, Michael. Just last Thursday my committee completed redrafting the definitions section of our academic integrity policy. Now I think I have to call them back together to discuss adding this.

        As to claiming copyright on class papers, I’m not aware of universities doing that. (As to software, BlackBoard at least is explicit that they do not.) I am familiar with conflicts over artwork by students. Not generally work done for their senior show, but stuff from their lower level courses is not infrequently used by a school for decoration, with no thought given to compensating the student, and resistance when the student wants to reclaim the work.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

        Glad to be of service :^) I’m a long-time — decades now — observer of the technology battles involved in concealing content for various purposes.

        Taken as a group, college students are a tough “opponent.” Broadly, they have access to computing (and other tech) resources out of proportion to their income. Some of them are very good with that tech and are not being kept sufficiently busy [1]. Some of them have perverse incentives [2]. It’s a close-knit community in the sense that information about something like a new way to cheat successfully spreads like wildfire. Many are of an age where it is not uncommon to be ethically… flexible, as well as being subject to “it seemed like a good idea at the time” syndrome.

        [1] It is unsurprising that countries like Bulgaria were/are the source of so many really good computer viruses. Lots of smart people with excellent training were grossly underemployed after they finished school. I’ve long claimed that one of the goals of national security ought to be to keep the engineers gainfully employed working long hours on challenging projects. Because some of them can be really dangerous if they have too much idle time.

        [2] Mary leaned forward into Mike’s personal space, batted her eyelashes, and cooed, “Surely there’s some way to get papers past the plagiarism check.”Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to zic says:

        I’ve long claimed that one of the goals of national security ought to be to keep the engineers gainfully employed working long hours on challenging projects.

        Breaking rocks in the hot sun ought to do it.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

        No problem. We’ll start with that Schilling fellow. Everyone knows that it’s just a small step from puns to more serious acts of terrorism.Report

      • Kim in reply to zic says:

        yeah. physicists make railguns.
        Funny thing about railguns: there’s not exactly a sign saying “this is the front.”
        Aim railgun at target. Send projectile out the other end… heading at a very rapid clip towards downtown.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to zic says:


        Yes, I know what a railgun is & how they work.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Maribou says:


      That’s an interesting perspective. A lot of food for thought there.

      Does it make a difference that I’m using a program that’s in BlackBoard? That’s a course management software, in which I can create quizzes, post lectures, videos, external links, record grades so students can track their progress, and have them submit assignments either with or without an automatic plagiarism check. We’re going to use BlackBoard and pay them money with or without their plagiarism checker, so that is not the basis of their business model.

      On the other hand, they will still keep a copy of your paper in their database and use it for comparisons.

      On the other other hand, they do not hold absolute rights to your paper or constrain your future use of it (for fun or profit).Report

      • Maribou in reply to James Hanley says:

        It helps a little but not a lot. There are alternatives to Blackboard and their use of SafeAssign is one of the selling points they use to compete with those alternatives.

        (I’m quite familiar with Blackboard, both as a student and as someone who helped select LMS software on a selection panel – we did NOT go with Blackboard, for a host of reasons, and SafeAssign didn’t come up in our discussions – but it did come up in their selling materials.)

        Furthermore, granting perpetual worldwide non-exclusive publishing rights *can* constrain one’s future use of the material. Trust me, as someone who often licenses things CC-BY, I’m quite aware of that. So far, “Well, it’s in 5 different plagiarism databases” is not something folks have to worry about, of course.

        Again, it’s not so much a matter of convenience to ME, personally, as a matter of principle. I could care less if NOTHING was copyrighted – but as long as things are, the right NOT to have your work re-used – or used at all beyond the specific purpose for which you created it – seems at least as important as any of the other rights.

        I actually think the entire academic discourse around plagiarism is a fucked-up symptom of many other things that are wrong with academica, generally, and I would *strongly* prefer not to be contributing to anyone profiting from it. Even a little bit. I almost dropped out over that one class, before Jaybird talked me out of cutting off my nose to spite my face.Report

      • Maribou in reply to James Hanley says:

        Huh. After digging around in their help info… Blackboard now appears to distinguish between “required to leave in your particular institution’s database” and “volunteer [IE not figure out how to opt out and then do it] to put things in our global database”. Which is a step in the right direction. Although I’d be willing to bet that precious few instructors spend any time pointing out to their students that they CAN opt out of the global database, or that it’s safe to do that without jeopardizing their papers generally. Not to mention that once you’ve failed to keep your papers out of their global database, you are never allowed to take them out again. But they’re not asserting ownership! *rolls eyes*

        Maybe you need a plagiarism quiz question about navigating SafeAssign’s options :D.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Hmm, thanks for that. I’ll have to dig into SafeAssign and see how to work with that. For reasons you specify I would be more comfortable keeping their papers only in my institution’s database.Report

      • Maribou in reply to James Hanley says:

        “as long as things are, the right NOT to have your work re-used – or used at all beyond the specific purpose for which you created it – seems at least as important as any of the other rights.” – I should footnote myself that this only works if fair use is strong. I actually wouldn’t care if “retaining papers for plagiarism purposes” was recognized as a fair use by the courts – I can see a case for it – I just don’t like people being bullied by large entities into giving up rights without reciprocity, or great need.*

        What is SafeAssign doing for me? Nothing that I want it to.

        *And making them sign off on it *as if they had a choice* is just adding insult to injury! I’m a hippie socialist, of course, who grew up being glad to pay taxes, but at least the government doesn’t ask me to pretend I have a choice about whether I want to pay them.Report

      • Maribou in reply to James Hanley says:

        er, “for CHECKING on plagiarism purposes” obviously. Can you tell I’m avoiding writing a paper by getting all het up about this? Sheesh.

        Anyway, I’m glad you’ll look into it. I’m glad to know it’s an option, actually. It’s either a new option, or purposefully obfuscated …Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Maribou says:

      Why should they profit from my labor, but I can’t profit from theirs?

      Cheer up! It’s the closest you’ll ever come to being a football player.Report

    • Shazbot3 in reply to Maribou says:

      Freshman papers as intellectual property that is stealing/exploiting? I’d say that is a non-concern. Or an exceedingly small concern.

      It would become more of a concern with dissertations, advanced class papers, and the like. But from my experience, these turnitin style sites are used most commonly in begginer classes with large class sizes.

      At the higher levels, where the students produce work they might value, you often don’t need a plagiarism checker. It is manifestly obviousa and you have the time (given the smaller class size) to deal with the student one-on-one, i.e. meet with them to see what they really know.

      But when you get seventy crappy Descartes “papers,” and 15 shown signs of plagiarism, you need turnitin. You also need to reconsider your assignment that caused so much plagiarism, but you also need turnitin to tell you about this problem and its exact size.

      That said, i get your concern. But the tradeoff is absolutely worth it in big freshman classes.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Shazbot3 says:


        I think I see the problem, right there, actually. People holding advanced English/Lit degrees can’t get jobs in academia, and yet we have class sizes where it’s manifestly impossible to give proper attention to the assignments due to the number of submissions.

        Our higher ed situation is effed.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Shazbot3 says:

        “But when you get seventy crappy Descartes “papers,” and 15 shown signs of plagiarism, you need turnitin. ”

        No, you need to redesign your educational system. Not prop it up with computer aids that are based on a profit model that teaches students that control of intellectual property is only for corporations like turn it in, not for rubes like them.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Shazbot3 says:

        You also need to reconsider your assignment that caused so much plagiarism,

        I did that. As you note, this is a problem primarily in introductory classes, and this is my intro Am. Gov. class. I make the assignment a comparison of the U.S. and some other country chosen by the student, which is fairly uncommon (compared to papers on abortion and gun control). That’s why the plagiarism now consists of failure to use quotation marks even though they’ve cited the source, and the first-time-for-me case of a student turning in a paper used previously turned in for the same class. No more papers just cadged off the internet.

        No, you need to redesign your educational system.

        Consider that I have an intro class of 18 students (sometimes it’s considerably larger, but firm max is 40, and I’ve only had that a couple of times for a class I’ve taught more than two dozen times). That’s pretty much what we’d really like, right?

        But if there’s a student who doesn’t care about the class, has never taken a class with me before and almost certainly never will again, how hard would it be for such a student to get a copy of some other paper and fool me with it? Even more, how hard would it be for a student to do that in a substantial number of classes, cheating his/her way through college? And when the college puts its stamp on that student’s diploma, it’s certifying to prospective employers that the student learned and performed with integrity. But that’s not true.

        We can redesign our educational system in ways that reduce the scope of the problem, but we cannot eliminate all the incentives and opportunities for some students to plagiarize. The automatic plagiarism checker is not–or should not be–the first and only line of defense. But it’s one of the tools that we need to employ.

        Now maybe this is easier at a private college. You sign away a shitload of rights when you enroll. I went to a college where dancing was grounds for expulsion, ferpete’ssake, and they had every legal right to do so. You want to pay good cash money to be our student? Good, we’ll cash the check, but by signing your name on the dotted line you’ve agreed to abide by our rules. You don’t want to submit your paper to an automatic plagiarism check in Hanley’s class? That’s fine, nobody’s going to make you take his class. You can take Psych or Soc or Econ for your SoSci credit, or you can withdraw and enroll at East Southwestern State University.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Shazbot3 says:

        I think the school you went to had every legal right to make you agree to not dance (although if they’d sprung it on you midcourse, as plagiarism-checking software was sprung on me, I would’ve felt differently – you’re not doing that to yours, of course – your methods mean it’s really easy to id and avoid your course if they feel strongly about it).

        I also think it was wrong of them to do that to you.

        You sign away all kinds of things to come to my workplace as a student, but when those things *shouldn’t* be signed away, we express our dissent and work to get them changed. For example, after many years of effort by concerned people, our school finally pays for hormones, therapy, surgery, etc. without discriminating against trans people. Before that, the attitude generally was, “well, if you wanted that kind of insurance, there are plenty of other places you could have worked / attended school.” Which, you know, yes, that’s true, but it didn’t make us any less in the wrong for doing it.

        I would be deeply surprised – and probably need to reassess my opinions – if schools like Evergreen or Reed or even St. Johns’ (the Great Books ones, not those other ones) have NEARLY the plagiarism issues that other schools have. The system, not YOU Hanley – so I probably shouldn’t have said that Shazbot should change it, but rather that *we* should – but the whole system (with the exception of places like those I mentioned), is, as Patrick put it, effed. Education should be a tool, not a stamp of approval.

        There’s a quote – purportedly by Junot Diaz during a Q&A period after he spoke at Yale, though there’s no official transcript so who knows – floating around the intertubes that sums up my objections fairly succinctly:

        “Life is going to present to you a series of transformations. And the point of education should be to transform you. To teach you how to be transformed so you can ride the waves as they come. But today, the point of education is not education. It’s accreditation. The more accreditation you have, the more money you make. That’s the instrumental logic of neoliberalism. And this instrumental logic comes wrapped in an envelope of fear. And my Ivy League, my MIT students are the same. All I feel coming off of my students is fear. That if you slip up in school, if you get one bad grade, if you make one fucking mistake, the great train of wealth will leave you behind. And that’s the logic of accreditation. If you’re at Yale, you’re in the smartest 1% in the world. […] And the brightest students in the world are learning in fear. I feel it rolling off of you in waves. But you can’t learn when you’re afraid. You cannot be transformed when you are afraid.”

        So I would much rather we were teaching students to think critically about their agreements and the laws they’re subjecting themselves to, than teaching them that if you want the piece of paper, you gotta give up your right to dance.

        It’s not the plagiarizing students I’m worried about, it’s what we’re teaching the ones who would never have plagiarized in the first place – and I care about them more than about the trust of their employers.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Maribou says:

      There was a minor kerfuffle in one of my comp sci classes (I was a student, not the instructor). The instructor was in the practice of showing student code that was a particularly elegant or clear solution to the problems when he went over solutions to assignments. He didn’t identify the student when he did this.

      One student had a standard license text he pasted at the top of ever source file that ruled out doing this – I forget if it disallowed sharing altogether, or just unattributed sharing. I suspect it was the latter, as ISTR he was a contributor to some open source projects. In any case, the prof followed his standard practice, the student objected, and the rest of the class that day was basically spent arguing about the appropriateness of the prof’s actions. I don’t think either’s mind was changed that day – the prof was obviously caught off guard and defensive at the time; he may have changed his later when he had the chance to think more calmly about it.

      Personally, I felt the prof was way out of line – given that code plagiarism is a major issue in the IT world, something that has been the centre of untold billions of dollars’ worth of lawsuits, caused commercial vendors all kinds of grief when their developers throw GPL code into closed source products, etc., it seemed a professor should be setting a good example of careful consideration around software licenses and copyright issues.Report

      • Kim in reply to dragonfrog says:

        I knew a guy who got flunked when the professor finally figured out that he was raiding the CPU cache for the answers… (he had actually bothered to write the solution, of course, it was just “only to be executed” if it wasn’t in the cache already). This is what professors get when they grade on “how efficient the algorithm is”.

        [I maintain that if the prof didn’t catch this the first time (and yes, it was far harder than the intro to programming assignment)… he didn’t have much grounds to bitch about all the assignments afterwards]Report

  13. There’s something very weird about plagiarism in academia, and I can’t really put my finger on it. Anti-plagiarism czars seem to evince something like a paranoia that deep down, they’re guilty of it too and are just going after the offenders to demonstrate their own non-guilt. “Seem to” does a lot of work here, and I don’t really believe that they are deep down concerned they are guilty. But their crusading anti-plagiarism seems to work in a manner very similar to the way a hypocrite who secretly doubts his/her own innocence acts. I think there’s some family resemblance there, but it’s hard to tease out.

    There are also the people in positions of authority who seem to gainsay plagiarism, or make comments like, “it’s always the female instructors who are eager to hold people accountable for plagiarism.”

    And there’s a certain notion that plagiarism is the worst thing ever, except when it’s not. And there’s also the notion that all you need to do with plagiarism is “give them an F,” although even the most strident ones don’t do that all the time.

    Maybe this is different in some ways at a small, teaching-centered school like [the one Aitch is at] than at the huge public universities I’ve been a TA at. I agree plagiarism is a problem, but it’s very hard (for me at least) to find a fair way to deal with it. [Edited by J@m3z Aitch]Report

    • In my experience most (not all) of the professors at small teaching-centered schools went to large research institutions for their PhDs. Which may explain why I find the weirdness to be rather pervasive.

      I think there is so much anxiety around accidental plagiarism and influence and etc … and then it gets conflated with the straightforward “instead of writing my paper, I bought one” cases.

      And then the whole system is so fucked up that it actually makes sense for many people to cheat. Imagine an educational system where cheating didn’t make any sense because the people who were in it were really interested in doing their assignments and learning things….Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Maribou says:

        is so much anxiety around accidental plagiarism

        So I have a couple of students who provide citations for everything, but are using direct quotations and repeatedly fail to indicate that they’re using direct quotations.

        I find this infuriating, because that’s explicitly covered in my lecture and in the quiz they take, so they have no excuse for not knowing better. Were it one instance, I might just note it in my comments and move on. But this is multiple instances in one 5 page paper, and includes paragraph length quotes.

        It’s not the same as not attributing to their sources; imo not even close. But it’s still technically plagiarism. And perhaps more importantly, it’s sloppy and careless work, and demonstrates poor work habits that very likely will come back to haunt them, if not in my class then sometime in the future. But after over a decade in the business, I still haven’t figured out just how I ought to deal with it. In small amounts I often insist on a rewrite before I will assign a grade. But in these two cases it’s not small amounts, so I’m just not sure how I want to handle it.Report

      • zic in reply to Maribou says:

        Is there a required length? That’s makes it simple; unattributed direct quotation do not count at all for assigned length, since it equates to plagiarized work and is your own work.Report

      • zic in reply to Maribou says:

        edit — is NOT your own work.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Maribou says:

        There’s a lot of judgmentalism going on here, and I’d like to offer this bit of advice: Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Maribou says:


        I’m not sure what you’re getting at.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Maribou says:

        We were discussing direct quotations that weren’t marked as such.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Maribou says:

        I’m not sure if I’m responding to what you’re actually saying, but I’ve explicitly gone over this with my students in a dedicated lecture, and then they have to pass (with the standard being 83% correct) a quiz that addresses this.

        Nobody ever went to that much effort to make it clear to me. So I’m inclined to say they have greater advantages than I had at their age.

        But I’m not quite sure that’s what you’re getting at in your reference to judgmentalism and advantages.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Maribou says:

        I think the sentence after the colon in Mike’s comment is a famous, well-known phrase that he’s using without quotation marks. Or something.Report

      • zic in reply to Maribou says:

        @james-hanley try copying the bit after the colon into your search bar.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Maribou says:

        Yeah, sorry, that was apparently more obscure than I had thought it would be.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Maribou says:

        Harumph. It’s funny when other people miss my jokes on my posts, but it’s not funny at all when other people make jokes on my posts that I miss.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Maribou says:

        Mike, you’re revealing your own privilege here by assuming others have both read and remember in precise detail everything ever written. 🙂Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Maribou says:

        I’m very well read, it’s well-known.

        (And yes, that’s another one.)Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

      There’s something very weird about plagiarism in academia, and I can’t really put my finger on it.

      Well, on the one hand it might just be an instance of the disputes being vicious because the stakes are so low. On the other, tho, the stakes aren’t low because academics are measured almost exclusively by the quality and originality of their research/writing. I remember one such squabble where probably the most influential philosopher/logician of his era was accused of basically stealing his entire revolutionary approach from another person without attribution even tho he explicitly referenced her in his expositions. What the criticism amounted to was that if you looked at things in just the right way, under just the right light, nothing he said was original. Looked at another way, the criticism amounted to slander. But for some reason the accuser felt like playing the plagiarism police role was useful and worthwhile. I mean, he wrote papers on this. THe rest of us just wondered what bug crawled up his ass.Report

  14. Shazbot3 says:

    Lucas plagiarized the whole Star Wars franchise off of some stories I used to scream about downtown in the Bay Area. I had Ewoks and Wookies and James Earl Jones and a wird little green dude and everything. To be fair, my story was about Ewoks stealing my mind and how Kennedy was a Wookie who could read my thoughts, but close enoughReport