Friday, December 02, 2005

The Cleverest Plagiarists...

. . . salt what they've stolen with liberal scatterings of their own words.

This does increase the difficulty of catching their plagiarism, but it also heightens the challenge.

In my neverending quest for ways of catching plagiarists, I have attempted to master the best investigative scholarship that one can find . . . such as what one discovers among scriptural scholars.

For instance, the New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre has formulated a principle of textual analysis that he calls "editorial fatigue" and explains as follows:
"Editorial fatigue is a phenomenon that will inevitably occur when a writer is heavily dependent on another's work. In telling the same story as his predecessor, a writer makes changes in the early stages which he is unable to sustain throughout. Like continuity errors in film and television, examples of fatigue will be unconscious mistakes, small errors of detail which naturally arise in the course of constructing a narrative. They are interesting because they can betray an author's hand, most particularly in revealing to us the identity of his sources." ("Fatigue in the Synoptics," New Testament Studies 44 (1998), pp. 45-58)
Goodacre applies this principle to argue for the priority of Mark's Gospel over those two 'plagiarists' Matthew and Luke.

But it can also be applied to the works of clever, modern-day plagiarists. Or to the papers of plagiarizing students who imagine that they're being clever. Suppose that I read the following sentence in a student's paper:
"Such process could not lead to large scale duplication and therefore, access to book was confined to chiefly clergies."
My first thought focuses upon the mistakes, and I'd want to correct them:
"Such a process could not lead to large-scale duplication, and therefore, access to books was chiefly confined to the clergy."
But I have a sense -- honed by years of teaching and countering dishonest students -- that something else lurks here. So, I return to the badly written sentence and perform Google searches upon phrases within it, testing for the student's own editorial fatigue. The phrase "could not lead to large scale duplication" hits the jackpot, and I find the original:
"Such a labor intensive task could not lead to large scale duplication and hence, access to manuscripts was confined to chiefly the clerics who became custodians of the book culture."
My student has stolen from Jaishree Kak Odin's "Technologies of Writing" (1997), an article posted on the Asynchronous Learning Networks website hosted by the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

By altering some words and deleting others, my student hoped to obscure the stolen material. This trick might have worked -- if I didn't have Google to track down phrases. Even with Google as an anti-plagiarist tool, the student might have gotten away with the plagiarism by altering more words.

Inevitably, though, Goodacre's principle proves its value, for somewhere in the paper of even a clever plagiarist, editorial fatigue sets in, and the plagiarist slips, allowing a telling phrase from the original to remain. In this particular case, the phrase, as noted above, was: "could not lead to large scale duplication."

Most students simply do not realize the uniqueness of nearly every sentence -- nor of the uniqueness of relatively short phrases like "could not lead to large scale duplication," which currently occurs only once online.

Our practically endless creativity with language ensures the uniqueness of most sentences and even of many phrases, Goodacre's principle of editorial fatigue, modified for my aim of catching plagiarists, confers intellectual heft, and Google's search engine does the legwork of tracking down the obscured, rifled sources.


At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess this is a silly question; why didn't your student just use a quote and list the source?

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I ask them the same question and get blank stares.

I suspect that the plagiarists here in Korea often have no clue about how to think for themselves because they're totally shaped by an educational system that focuses largely upon rote memorization.

As a result, they can't imagine writing ANY ideas of their own, so they try to disguise the ideas of others since they know that I'm looking for their own analysis.

At 6:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just love this one! Contemporary editorial fatigue and all that. It's a shame the cleverest plagiarists aren't so clever at English ... but I suppose if they were, they might not need to plagiarise.

At 6:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't thinking - I suppose English isn't necessarily your students' first language.

At 6:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Right, it's not their first language, but I've seen similar writing problems among native speakers.

At 4:12 AM, Blogger Derek the ├ćnglican said...

Speaking as an NT scholar and one familiar with the fatigue principle, a neat way to check/test Goodacre's hypothesis is the practical payout. If he's right, fatigue should occur more at the end of a document than the beginning. Thus--try it out on the last paragraph before the conclusion...if the hypothesis holds, I would expect you to make more catches there than from any other location.

At 5:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Derek, that would work if they modify a downloaded text starting at the beginning and continuing on to the end. But those who download entire texts rarely go to any trouble to alter them. These folk are thus the easiest to catch.

The clever plagiarists are the hardest to catch because they borrow from various sources and modify these as they borrow and enter the source into their paper. I'm not sure that they do this all in one setting, working from the beginning of a paper to its end, though they might do so.

But your suggestion is probably worth a test.

At 7:27 AM, Blogger Brian said...

And the cleverest of the plagiarists . . . well, come to think of it we never catch them. I'd like to think there can't be that many, but since it is a biased sample, how do we know?

At 7:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the stupidest-plagiarism ever context, I enter the following:
1. Two students gave me the same paper, one of them a carbon copy of the other. I divided the grade between them.

2. A sample essay was placed on reserve, to give the students a notion of what was expected. One student submitted a copy of the sample.

What interests me about these attempts is what they imply about the students' image of the teacher. Apparently they consider grading entirely random and the instructor utterly dim-witted. A plagiarist should at least not insult the teacher's intelligence in the process.

At 1:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Brian, it's true that we don't know about the ultra-clever plagiarists, those who never get caught, but if they don't get caught, then they're probably not relying on the best sources since they're having to remain obscure about their stolen material.

If they wanted to turn in better work, then they'd have to turn to well-known authors, and they'd then be obvious plagiarists.

I sometimes ask the clever ones why they don't just list their sources and footnote them since they've gone to so much trouble anyway. This doesn't seem to have occurred to them.

Mike, those are pretty funny cases, and I'd say that they qualify for the figurative Darwin Awards since these people have killed themselves, academically.

At 5:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what if your example was footnoted but not in quotes?

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gretchen, that's what I call "naive plagiarism." The student who does that simply doesn't understand how to use sources properly. It's still plagiarism, but it's not dishonest.

Such a student certainly deserves a second chance.

At 4:44 PM, Blogger Wizard King said...

I think why you "get blank stares" when you "ask them the same question" is because most of Korean students have been asked to submit assignments, which have to include just 'some pieces of information,' not opinions of them.

When I was an elementary school student, I also had to submit such so-called 'papers' to my teachers. But no one in my classes has ever been taught to list bibilographies. Of course we didn't know what the footnotes or quotation marks were for. What we had to have in mind was just "not to write a paper too long." (This was because there were lots of students who just submitted the printed pages of the entire websites.)

Though I have never been accused of having plagiarized sth, it is very regrettable that no one among the teachers did let me know how important writing a paper with my own opinion and indicating quotations from others' articles are...

At 8:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, WK, for the insight. I've noticed, by the way, that my students are getting better these days . . . or maybe I'm just encountering superior students now that I'm at Ewha.

Jeffery Hodges

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