Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Cheeky Plagiarist

"Cut out that plagiarizing!"
(Image from Giannis Stamatellos)

I have yet another batch of essays to mark up with my red ink pen, so this will be a short entry, merely a progress report on my quest to reform the world, one correction at a time.

I aim for utopia, but my steps are incremental.

Yesterday evening, one student was encouraged to take a big step toward that ultimate goal . . . albeit not entirely successfully. Perhaps only a grudging half-step.

This student had written an essay on "Vivisection" and had copied material from a website titled "Vivisection: An Ancient History," a section from Volume 6 (Vivisection - An Ancient History, Battle Lines Are Drawn, The Debate Today) of something called Science Encyclopedia. The section from which the student drew material is very short, merely four paragraphs:
The practice of true vivisection dates back to ancient times. Around 500 B.C., one of the earliest known vivisectionists, Akmaeon of Croton [sic. "Alcmaeon of Croton"!], discovered that the optic nerve is necessary for vision by cutting it in living animals. One of the most well known -- and controversial -- early vivisectionists was Galen of Pergamon, physician to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen, who lived in the second century A.D., is remembered today for his pioneering use of vivisection of animals to understand health and disease in the human body. But Galen was also a poor scientist, failing to identify such major bodily functions as the circulation of the blood. An unquestioning adherence to Galen's false beliefs in succeeding generations of physicians was undoubtedly a major hindrance to medical progress in Europe.

Real progress in medical knowledge began again with the experiments of the Italian physicians Andreas Vesalius and his student, Realdo Colombo, in the sixteenth century. They pioneered the use of vivisection to correct and expand, rather than merely to confirm, Galen's science. In the early seventeenth century, English physician William Harvey used vivisection to discover the circulation of the blood and to debunk many of Galen's other beliefs.

But this century also saw the beginnings of an anti-vivisectionist movement. Physician Jean Riolan Jr. in France and Irish physician Edmund O'Meara both argued that the painful and violent deaths suffered by vivisected animals -- remember, there was no anesthesia yet -- were putting the animals into an unnatural state that could lead to faulty assumptions about the functioning of a healthy animal.

Also in this century, vivisection received an important philosophical boost from the French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes believed that the mind and the body are separate entities, and that animals differ from humans in that they have bodies but no true minds. As such, animals were morally no different from machines, and so vivisection was not morally wrong. Descartes even went so far as to say that animals did not feel real pain (a belief that is sometimes still repeated today, although few believe it to be true), although he stressed that vivisection was primarily defensible because it helped humans, not because hurting animals was right. Unfortunately, some of Descartes's later followers lost this fine distinction, and were known for their gratuitous cruelty to animals.
With its criticism of Galen as a poor scientist for "failing to identify such major bodily functions as the circulation of the blood," this is pretty shoddy history of science and ought to be avoided as a source, but the student had hidden the source in a rather clever fashion, for the copied material was not an entire, continuous passage but terms, phrases, and clauses spliced with the student's own words.

Further to hide the plagiarism, this student had then cited a different source on vivisection, a website identified by its sole article, a somewhat lengthy one titled "The History of Medical Progress (by Dr. Ray Greek, Director of the Medical Research Modernization Committee)," from which no material had been drawn by the student, who had perhaps assumed that because of the article's length (about 150 paragraphs), it would contain everything included on the other, far shorter, encyclopedia entry at the other website (merely 4 paragraphs).

Unfortunately, this was not a clever assumption, for the long article not only lacks, for example, the heterographic expression "Akmaeon of Croton," which happens to appear in the encyclopedia entry's first paragraph, but even any mention of 'Akmaeon' at all (as well as of the orthographic "Alcmaeon"), whereas this expression does appear in the student's essay, along with other terms, phrases, and clauses that collectively trace only to the encyclopedia's short entry.

The student attempted to deny the obvious plagiarism. I called "bullsh*t" on that.

Seeing that I wouldn't accept denials of what could easily be proven, the student then turned truly cheeky, pointed to the grade of "F" and informed me: "I can't accept this."

Profoundly annoyed now, I retorted, "You have to accept it. Listen carefully. You are being held to global standards now. If this were an American university, you might be expelled from school. You would certainly get an 'F' for the course. Now, you stop complaining and go work on cleaning up this essay for the final draft. Get rid of the plagiarism, do the work yourself, and turn in a better essay."

The student then protested that this still wasn't fair because some students hadn't written a first draft at all and that a plagiarized paper should at least receive a grade higher than "F."

"If you plagiarize, you get an 'F,'" I stated. "That's automatic for egregious plagiarism. But only the final essay counts toward your grade."

When the student finally understood that plagiarism on the first draft would not actually affect the final grade, all protests stopped leaving only the student's irritation at having gotten caught.

As I said, a cheeky plagiarist.



At 6:53 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

wasn't life less complicated when all we had were World Book and Compton's? Or card catalogs that had the potential to be dropped and spilled?

At 7:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, catching these plagiarists is rather easy if one knows how to use Google, but the process gets tedious when dealing with a hundred students.

But life did use to be less complicated. Hell, I used to be less complicated...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uhm, er, ah Professor?

That specific students' choice of subjects?

I admit to a certain bit of admiration in your stand on integrity but I worry that somehow I might soon be missing one of my dailies.

You could have (well since some did not as you say do a first draft) given the student a D-.

Now admittedly, I simply look for those things which seem out of place, the errant details, so I might be a bit off the mark here.


At 11:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I always give intentional plagiarism an "F."

However, this was a first draft, and it does not count against the final grade, so the yoke imposed is light . . . more light, a veritable illumination.

Jeffery Hodges

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